From Asheville Watchdog: Why I really left the Asheville Citizen-Times

John Boyle

When it comes to why I really left the Asheville Citizen-Times after 27 years — “the dirt,” as I know some of you good readers want to know — I wish I had something super sexy for you.

Maybe a gigantic liquor-bottle-throwing blowup with my boss. Or a diabolical battle over ethics in which an evil Gannett overlord asked me to compromise my very soul on a big story.

Sorry, I got nothing that juicy. But I will get pretty angry here in a sec.

Here’s why I left the Citizen-Times, a Gannett Co. property: The corporation has just one approach to the news business these days — relentless, soul-crushing cost cutting.

So instead of the sexy blowup, I give you the proverbial 1,000 cuts … as in, Gannett has made 1,000 cuts to the paper in my time there, and I’ve had enough.

Apologies. I exaggerate for literary effect. But suffice it to say that over the past two decades, the paper devolved from a thriving enterprise with 75 journalists in the newsroom to about 10.

In the past two years we’ve seen 15 people leave. Now counting me.

An empty newsroom

And consider this: The newsroom staff is still not back in the downtown newsroom. The paper leases about one-fifth of the second floor in the iconic downtown building the Citizen-Times used to own, but it’s empty most days.

“Why?” you ask. Parking. And cheapness.

We were going to go back this spring, as the pandemic eased. But pre-pandemic, Gannett had paid for our parking downtown, a concession to journalists who don’t make a lot of money.

But the company would not pay for employee parking downtown when we came back. I know that might sound petty on our part, but why should the employees have to pay $1,000 a year to park downtown, especially when it had been a paid benefit?

Call it what you want, but that’s a $1,000-a-year pay cut.

And I’m not joking about journalists not making great money. I considered myself fortunate, because I made a pretty good living at the paper.

But a few months ago, when two Gannett regional editors were in town, one of our photographers asked about pay increases, because, as she put it, “I make $17.89 an hour. I could go to Chick-fil-A and make more money, but I love what I do.”

One of the editors said Gannett was looking at boosting pay, especially for entry-level workers. But then he offered an old chestnut of a platitude about the service aspect of what journalists do, and how that requires fiscal sacrifice.

I wanted to holler out, “Bullhockey,” or, ahem, words to that effect.

We all believe that what we do is a calling, but you’ve got to pay people enough to live in what has become the most expensive place in North Carolina, especially when you require a college degree, and a lot of younger folks have student loans.

Even when the Citizen-Times was making money hand over fist, Gannett was cheaper than a polyester suit. A former publisher told me that in the early 2000s the paper had a 36% profit margin, which put us in the middle third, profit-wise, of Gannett’s roughly 90-plus papers at the time.

Even then Gannett still peddled this canard about sacrificing for the greater good.

The publisher was telling me the profit margin because I had pushed back with my editor about cuts to our parking, home subscription prices and health insurance increases. It came to about $1,000 a year, and I told him it was just a pay cut.

Sound familiar?

Reduced services, increased prices

Once the layoffs began, you were supposed to be happy that you had a job. And Gannett has done layoffs every way possible, including layoffs with almost no notice. You come to work, and people start getting called upstairs to Human Resources, then return in tears to box up their stuff.

And when Gannett isn’t cutting people, it’s cutting service.

When I started in 1995, the paper had bureaus in Hendersonville, Brevard, Sylva, Waynesville, and Raleigh. We truly were the “Voice of the Mountains,” covering the region’s biggest news of the day.

Now, the paper covers only Buncombe County, and in early September it stopped offering home delivery outside the county. It does offer “same-day” postal service delivery, to which my reply, honest to God, was, “You mean the U.S. Postal Service?”

An arterial cut for me came in the late summer when a reader called me, apologetically, to complain about his delivery service (hey, when your phone number is in the paper every day, you get a lot of calls about poor delivery service). He noted that his family had taken the paper for decades, and they kept subscribing even though the price had risen to $932 a year.

My mouth was agape. Nine-hundred, thirty-two dollars a year and you can’t get the paper delivered most days?

Yep.

I recommended he do what I do with streaming services, internet and cell phone companies when they jack the price up: threaten to cancel. “They’ll magically drop the price,” I told him.

He said he’d already done that, and the price came way down, but they still couldn’t get regular delivery. I’ll say this, too: The paper’s delivery manager is a literal Angel (that’s her last name), and truly cares about delivery, but they’ve cut her staff to the bone.

And now, when you want to complain about non-delivery, you will not get a re-delivery of the missing paper. Rather, you have to call the service center. In the Philippines.

Trust me, customer service was atrocious once Gannett moved it out of the Citizen-Times to Greenville, S.C. The company’s answer to complaints? Let’s move it across the world!

Print circulation falls 90%

Now, keep in mind, the subscription prices have skyrocketed even as the Citizen Times, at Gannett’s behest, cut the editorial pages to one day a week, and eliminated Saturday’s publication. The paper reinstated Wednesday’s editorial pages and letters to the editor after a reader revolt that I might have spurred with a hotly worded column chastising the parent company for yet again taking something away from readers.

Whether it’s regional coverage, timely sports news or comprehensive stock market reports, Gannett only knows one method: cutting.

Clearly, Gannett is pushing readers to the digital platform, and I can tell you all the company cares about is getting digital subscriptions.

Print subscriptions at the Citizen Times are down to 8,000 on Sundays, and 6,000 during the week, according to a company marketing report from last summer.

When I started in 1995, it was pushing 80,000 on Sundays, and 65,000 during the week.

As an editor once said in a news meeting, “We don’t care about print anymore.”

Swear on my mother’s grave.

Now, they essentially give the digital subscriptions away as an inducement so they can tell advertisers, “Look, we’ll get your ad in front of X number of readers every day.”

But news flash! If you cut the number of journalists providing content for those sites and print editions to the bone, who’s going to spend much time with said publication?

And let me leave no doubt here: Gannett has cut its papers to the bone.

Journalism first, journalists last

If ever I came close to experiencing a “Paul and the burning bush” epiphany, it was about six years ago when a Gannett-ordered layoff resulted in a half-dozen of our most respected and talented reporters getting laid off. This massacre included stalwart talents whom readers really loved.

A day or two later, two high-ranking Gannett news executives came to talk to the newsroom, including one who had been the top editor of the Arizona Republic, a top-flight newspaper by any standard. They were somber and respectful in talking to us, recognizing how wounded we were.

But then they talked about how when Gannett’s newspaper side split from the broadcast side of the company, which later became Tegna, in 2015, Gannett had to decide just what kind of company it wanted to be.

Would it be a marketing platform primarily for ad sales? A click-baity infotainment site?

“We decided we wanted to be a journalism company,” the former editor said.

I almost threw up in my mouth. I wondered how a man clearly dedicated to journalism could make such a profoundly ironic and hypocritical comment. For once in my life, I bit my tongue (I’d been chastised for some impertinent remarks to our publisher a few days before. Long story … but I swear I did not throw a newspaper at him).

But I wanted to say — no, I wanted to scream — “How in the hell can you claim to be a journalism company first and foremost when you just cut six of our best journalists?”

That kind of corporate encounter, my friends, removes a sizable chunk of your soul.

I knew right then Gannett was in deep, deep trouble. It’s only gotten worse since the company merged with GateHouse Media Inc., another newspaper chain heavily fastened to legacy newspapers, in 2019.

As reported in Poynter and carried on the Asheville Watchdog site, Gannett now is beholden to a hedge fund for $1.34 billion in loans. Gannett lost $54 million in the second quarter and another $54 million in the third, as it announced Thursday.

I commend them for consistency.

As a publicly traded company, Gannett must first and foremost make a profit to distribute among shareholders. That’s the way corporations work.

Okay, honestly, Gannett probably first and foremost has to make its loan payments. What do you think will happen if the company continues to lose money and misses payments on a hedge fund loan?

You know the answer already: more cuts.

I might sound a little angry, and I am. Gannett has devastated local news coverage in just about every city it operates.

Talk to people in those cities, and ours, and you hear a similar refrain: “Our paper is just a shell of what it used to be. There’s just not much in it anymore. If it weren’t for the obituaries and comics, I wouldn’t subscribe.”

I will say this: The Citizen-Times has continued to put out a solid newspaper, despite all the cuts. I respect my former coworkers, and I will not be one of the chorus members publicly berating them. They do some great work.

But they’re hamstrung. The corporate overlords set the parameters of how they can operate, and that’s translated to giving readers less and less every year.

More cuts are coming at Gannett

Gannett’s CEO expects more cuts next year before the company miraculously turns the corner in 2024 (hard to believe, at best). And did I mention the CEO, Mike Reed, made $7.7 million in 2021?

Folks, that little news nugget ripped the remaining shard of my soul right out of my chest and stomped it flat right in front of my vacating life force.

Here’s my philosophy on local news: You have to give readers the absolute best product you possibly can.

Gannett’s first and foremost goal is making money. Enough to pay its albatross of a loan back. Enough to give investors a dividend.

See how the two don’t jibe?

I know some in the community may think I’m leaving because I got a buyout. I did not. I was deemed “essential” and turned down for one.

Fortunately, I had this job in the works, and it’s the kind of place I want to work at: a nonprofit committed to giving readers the best product it can, for free, with a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff.

As I said, the goal should be giving the community the absolute best news coverage possible, as long as that news is vetted, ethically produced, and accurate.

The Watchdog’s staff has done that over and over, whether it’s Sally Kestin’s riveting stories about home equity being stolen from low-income residents, Pete Lewis’ and Barbara Durr’s deep dives into Mission and HCA, or Tom Fiedler’s investigations into the web of lies known as Madison Cawthorn’s life.

The Citizen-Times has declined to run Watchdog content since February. Hey, I know Gannett needs to be able to make stories “subscriber only,” and Asheville Watchdog insists its stories cannot be placed behind a paywall.

But again, who loses in this scenario? Readers, first and foremost, as the Watchdog stories aren’t as widely disseminated, and Citizen-Times readers may miss out on vital information.

I still have hope that the two parties can find some common ground here, as I’d love to see my Answer Man columns run in the paper on occasion, and I think the paper’s readers would appreciate that.

But for me, as far as leaving, I got worn out before I could keep fighting from inside the paper. Gannett’s latest announcement — that it would be requiring all employees to take five unpaid furlough days in December, and that it was cutting its 401(k) match — just solidified my decision.

I found it humorous that Gannett also offered employees “sabbaticals” of one to six months. Unpaid.

By definition, a sabbatical is almost always a paid leave, folks. Gannett was offering unpaid furloughs.

In short, I want to work for a place that puts readers, and the community at large, first and foremost in its journalism mission. I believe Asheville Watchdog will afford me that ability.

Gannett is so hobbled by its responsibilities to its hedge fund lender and the stock market that I believe it has lost the focus of what the company should be about, just as those editors who came to speak to us did.

It’s got to be about the journalism, folks. That’s what really matters, and that’s what Asheville Watchdog is all about.

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9 thoughts on “From Asheville Watchdog: Why I really left the Asheville Citizen-Times

  1. Richard Nilsen

    John, everything you write here feels so familiar. I worked for The Arizona Republic for 25 years and I loved my job. Not “liked” my job — loved it. But as soon as Gannett took over we ceased hearing about “our responsibilities to our readers” and began being lectured about “our responsibilities to our shareholders.” Layoffs became a regular event, and for weeks before announced layoffs, staffers sweated and worried, because the layoffs seemed so random. Award winning writers– gone. Some not. But then, they decided they didn’t need copy editors anymore (everyone needs a copy editor), then the photo staff was let go. The library was reduced. And so, when they offered a buyout, I felt I had no choice but to take it. I did not want to be reduced to writing “listicles” for the remainder of my career. I always felt that if Gannett felt it could make more money by turning us into a parking garage, they would have done it. Now, I’m retired and blogging in Asheville. I will look for you in Mountain Xpress.

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  2. R.G.

    What the City of Asheville can learn from watching the Citizen-Times spiral downward into irrelevance…

  3. Pierce

    Citizen is an opinion piece, it has been for years. Sugar coating anything the city needs.

  4. Michael Hopping

    News I can use! Asheville has been without a provider of dependable, reputable, and truly informative journalism for far too long. This was the first I’d heard of Asheville Watchdog. I’ve just visited the website and am overjoyed by what I find there. Big thanks to the Watchdog crew for doing what you can to foster an informed citizenry. This is a cause I’ll support with eyes and dollars, as I do Carolina Public Press for statewide issues. Now, if only I could find a decent local source for TV news . . .

  5. Shultz!

    Congratulations on you new gig and so glad you’ll still be writing. As for Gannett, hopefully they’ll implode sooner rather than later so we can all get our local papers back.

  6. indy499

    It isn’t like there is anything unique about the decline (and impending demise) of the ACT. All newspapers are under pressure and small/medium size city newspapers are goners.

  7. Meredith Hunt

    Dear John,

    It’s “Moses and the Burning Bush” and “Paul on the Damascus Road.” Pick one or the other, unless you’re trying to funny, in which case you are wildly successful.

    -Your Copy Editor

    • Meredith Hunt

      Actually, as a person who once made the AC-T every week or so, once upon a time, I was fascinated with the inside de-evolution story of the paper. Also, happy to learn about the Watchdog. It seems to fill the vacuum on in-depth local news. On the other hand, I’m not happy about the frequency switcheroo of WCQS’ classical music and news programing. I can’t seem to catch their classical music from the air anywhere. I’d miss “The Score with Edmund Stone” except for it being online. And NPR and BPR news is laden with conscious or unconscious liberal/progressive bias.

  8. G Man

    I really wish I could believe that true journalism still exists. I’m sure there are still a handful of actual journalists out there, but sadly, very few people really care who writes what anymore nor do they even consider any ethics or truth behind the story. Hell, it seems like nobody even cares if the writer knows anything about grammar or writing structure or spelling. Maybe most readers just don’t know the difference.

    People don’t want to “know” or “learn” today. That takes too much time and effort. They want to “believe” and feel rewarded for believing what they’ve been told to believe.

    It’s like we had a marble chess board with beautifully carved ebony and ivory game pieces and decided to play checkers instead.

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