Gannett urges hundreds of newspapers to pare back opinion pages

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The nation’s largest newspaper chain is of the opinion that its opinion pages are alienating readers and becoming obsolete.

So newspapers owned by Gannett Co. — publisher of USA Today and more than 250 dailies — have begun to radically shrink and reimagine their editorial sections, publishing them on fewer days each week and dropping traditional features such as syndicated columns and editorial cartoons. Even political endorsements and letters to the editor are being scaled back.

The company has been pushing for the cutbacks for years, and they have become increasingly visible to readers since a committee of editors formally recommended them at a meeting in April. “Readers don’t want us to tell them what to think,” the editors, who come from Gannett newsrooms across the country, declared in an internal presentation. “They don’t believe we have the expertise to tell anyone what to think on most issues. They perceive us as having a biased agenda.”

Not only are editorials and opinion columns “among our least read content,” the committee said, but they are “frequently cited” by readers as a reason for canceling their subscriptions.

While Gannett says the recommendations are not mandatory and most of its papers still have editorial and commentary pages, at least four of its newspapers have slashed their daily opinion offerings in recent days. More are expected to follow suit.

The Arizona Republic announced last week that it would publish an opinion section in its print edition only three days per week so it could “refocus our time and efforts on facilitating a deeper dialogue on key issues affecting Arizonans.”

Similarly, Gannett’s Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts and Treasure Coast Palm in Florida said last week they will publish editorial pages only two days a week. The New Bern Sun Journal in North Carolina will go to one day a week.

Opinion pages began to appear widely in U.S. newspapers in the 19th century, and most papers have since built a code of ethics around them, including firewalls to prevent opinion columnists and editorial writers from influencing news reporters and news editors who often work in the same building. While news-side journalists are generally discouraged from sharing their opinions on topics they cover, their opinion-side counterparts can supplement their reports with analysis, commentary, political endorsements and sometimes-regrettable hot takes on social media.

The Gannett committee, however, argued that the traditional model is confusing and repelling readers.

They wanted to hear their readers’ opinions. Then the proslavery guy wrote a letter to the editor.

Its recommendations include cutting back on “unsigned” editorials that don’t state who wrote them, limiting political endorsements to local races and eliminating syndicated national columns. Gannett has also urged its newspapers to stop publishing letters to the editor online, restricting them to print editions except in rare cases.

The recommendations and cutbacks are likely to be closely watched by other newspaper owners. Gannett, based in McLean, Va., owns about 1 of every 5 daily newspapers in the country and is often a bellwether for other chains, said Rick Edmonds, an industry analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism foundation.

American newspapers long ago eliminated once-common features such as stock-price tables and TV program listings. Faced with fewer subscribers, less advertising revenue and crippling layoffs in the digital era, some have scrapped entire print editions to save money. Some smaller papers have dropped opinion pages altogether.

Gannett, in particular, has plenty of incentives to look for any savings it can find. Its merger with GateHouse Media in 2019 formed a newspaper behemoth, but saddled the enlarged company with debt just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. The company lost $670 million on sales of $3.41 billion in 2020; it lost $135 million on $3.2 billion in revenue last year.

Gannett says its internal research — primarily reader surveys — suggests editorials, guest commentary columns, op-eds and letters to the editor have lost relevance in an age when opinions overflow on social media. Younger readers, according to the company, often can’t tell the difference between news reporting and opinion, especially online, where stories appear outside traditional sections. Worse, readers often mistakenly believe that news stories are dictated by the paper’s editorial side.

“Today’s contemporary audiences frequently are unable to distinguish between objective news reporting and Opinion content,” the editorial committee wrote in an earlier iteration of its recommendations in 2018. “In the old days, content appearing on print pages that were clearly labeled helped alleviate those concerns, along with a society that possessed a higher news literacy. But in today’s digital/social environment, we as an industry have been challenged to make these differences clear.”

The company now recommends that its papers steer clear of making endorsements in presidential, House and Senate races, given their waning influence and potential to turn away some readers.

“Endorse less, if at all,” reads a 2018 planning document obtained by The Washington Post. “Reserve endorsement for local issues and races that are important and under-covered. … Each property will find its own way, but the view here is that it is time to get out of presidential endorsements.”

The Republic, based in Phoenix, has already taken up the suggestion. It stopped making endorsements in 2020, four years after it drew worldwide headlines for endorsing a Democratic presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton) for the first time in its 126-year history.

The recommended changes reflect Gannett’s desire to focus on local issues and to serve as “a modern public square” for readers, said Michael Anastasi, the editor of the Tennessean, the Gannett-owned paper in Nashville and a principal author of the company’s recommendations. He suggests newspapers can play a more constructive role by “convening” local experts to opine in guest columns, rather than routinely emphasizing the newspaper’s institutional voice.

How to write an op-ed for The Washington Post

Others think getting rid of editorials would be a mistake. Randy Bergmann, who was laid off in 2020 after 18 years at the helm of the editorial page for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, said in an interview that he tried to convince Gannett not to do so through an unsolicited memo.

“I argued that opinion leadership was one of the most important functions of the newspaper,” he said, citing politicians who would call him and other writers to discuss his paper’s editorials. “I saw the impact of the editorials that I wrote at a local level.”

But changing the mix, and in some cases getting rid of traditional opinion features, may be a way of keeping up with contemporary readers, said Kristen DelGuzzi, the opinion editor at USA Today. “This is part of the overall evolution of our industry,” she said. “The opinion pages feel like the last part of the newsroom to evolve.”