Gannett policies change the face of journalism in South Dakota

July 5, 2023 5:24 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

On June 5, journalists at two dozen newspapers across seven states went on strike for the day to show their disapproval of Gannett board chairman and chief executive officer Mike Reed.

Journalists were protesting the state of their trade at the Gannett newspapers where they work. Their ability to do that work has gone downhill since the company’s purchase by GateHouse Media in 2019. The purchase created a publishing behemoth, still known as Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 200 daily newspapers in the United States. Unfortunately, the purchase also created a debt behemoth resulting in cutting newsroom staffs by 50% in four years, drastic decreases in local news coverage and, perhaps not coincidentally, a 70% drop in the company’s share price.

The protest was to no avail as Reed was easily reelected chairman. While the protest fizzled, Gannett’s draconian policies are helping to reshape the journalism landscape in South Dakota.

There are three Gannett newspapers in this state: the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Aberdeen American News and the Watertown Public Opinion. The staffs have been cut so drastically at those newspapers that it would not cause much of a crowd if their news staff started picketing. Interestingly, it’s their readers who are up in arms and calling for a change in the way newspapers do business in South Dakota.

The support for that change was evident in the last legislative session when lobbyists for the South Dakota Newspaper Association had to fight off two attempts to make online start-up news sites in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen eligible to publish legal notices. Currently, newspapers with second-class mailing permits may print paid legal notices from their city and school district. County governments must publish their notices in up to three newspapers in that county.

Legislators from Sioux Falls and Aberdeen, who spoke in favor of the bills to change legal notice eligibility, testified about drastic cutbacks in local news coverage by their local papers. A look at those three newspapers during the week of the strike by their Gannett colleagues shows that readers in those communities have a genuine gripe.

That week, June 5-11, showed exactly no local news stories in the Aberdeen American News. None. There were a few front-page stories written by the Argus Leader, and all the “local” sports coverage came from stories written by the Watertown Public Opinion’s lone sports reporter, who, by the looks of his many contributions, may be the hardest working reporter in South Dakota journalism.

The Public Opinion was hardly better, with one local front-page story that week that looked to have been written by a freelancer. At least it has robust sports coverage.

Part of the reaction to smaller newspaper staffs has been the growth of nonprofit newsrooms. The week in question, all three Gannett newspapers made use of multiple stories by South Dakota News Watch and South Dakota Searchlight, both of which allow free republication of their stories.

The Argus Leader’s newsroom has been reduced in size, but it’s still active, with local stories on the front page every day that week. It had local sports coverage, but often stories appeared in the paper days after the event had taken place.

It’s hard to figure out Gannett’s business plan for these newspapers. With advertising down and subscriptions dwindling nationwide, their inattention to their own communities will likely cause them to lose access to the steady stream of income provided by public notices.

The effort to make changes to the laws governing who is eligible to publish public notices is proceeding. The South Dakota Newspaper Association’s members recently voted to change the organization’s bylaws to allow online-first publications to become eligible for membership. Count on work going on this summer and fall to get legislation ready for the 2024 session that expands the pool of publications eligible to publish legal notices.

If the law concerning the eligibility for publishing legal notices is changed, it will be one way of assuring three communities that they may be able to invest their public notice budgets in publications that work to satisfy their hunger for local news.



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.