Dallas Morning News turns focus to digital, arouses questions about GateHouse-owned Hutchinson News

By the middle of the year, The Dallas Morning News will have eliminated at least 20 positions as it outsources its design and print layout work in order for the organization to focus on digital, according to Morning News economy reporter Jill Cowan. The print page design and layout work will be taken over by GateHouse Media LLC‘s Center for News and Design in Austin.

Poynter‘s Kristen Hare also reported on the move, and she pointed out this type of refocusing can help news outlets keep reporters on the streets in the face of declining revenues that would call for newsroom cuts.

Morning News editor Mike Wilson said the following in Hare’s report:

We think that for the long term, we need our journalists to be able to produce for digital publications. This is a first step toward a day some years off where that will be our main or maybe even our only publication platform.

Hare followed this with:

Wilson doesn’t envision ending the print newspaper entirely, he said. The Sunday edition is deeply ingrained in the community and connects readers with advertisers, he said. But he can imagine a much smaller print operation and a much bigger paying digital audience.

It’s an interesting concept, and it might just work as long as the staff of the Morning News fully buys into the idea and embraces digital for all it can be. However, the real concern for me is the involvement of GateHouse.

As of Dec. 1, 2016, GateHouse owns The Hutchinson News and other properties owned by Harris Enterprises, Inc., which cover a large swath of Kansas. When I first read about this, I was saddened. The sale of the properties to GateHouse marked the end of a more than 80 year tradition of The Hutchinson News being owned by the Harris family, whose newspaper ownership in Kansas dates back to 1907 and the Ottawa Herald.

More importantly, though, I was concerned. Concerned for journalism in my state. I haven’t seen a lot of good come out of a newspaper owned by GateHouse. I event went through a time where I chronicled my lack of respect for the company on my personal blog. I used to work for the GateHouse-owned McPherson Sentinel. That publication gave me a real start in professional newspapering, but even as a novice, I could see the reductions in staff and resources were hurting the publication.

Then I watched as the Newton Kansan‘s quality degrade so much a weekly newspaper was launched to fill the void being created by the lack of journalism happening in the community. It is called Newton Now, and based upon discussions I’ve had with the publisher, it is going over well with the public and providing a service the Kansan doesn’t anymore because GateHouse has stripped it for parts and is only worried about how it can turn a profit, regardless of what it means for the community or the newspaper itself.

That’s why the company buys newspapers like a baseball card collector buys cards. They are a commodity to the company. Nothing more. Nothing less. After all, didn’t the company make a big profit, and scandal, when it sold the Las Vegas Review-Journal?

It’s all about money and evolving economics of news in the digital age. And speaking of which, a Japanese company has purchased GateHouse. Backed by more money due to this deal, the company reportedly plans on buying more newspapers.

It’s a complex cycle, which others have done a far better job of trying to break down. For me, it just equals the erosion of local journalism in favor of profits. I understand journalism needs money to survive, but making money shouldn’t destroy the aim of journalism to inform the public. I think that’s what GateHouse does, though.

I’ve buried the lead quite a bit, but the point here is GateHouse has owned The Hutchinson News for about 6 months now. Every day my coworkers and I at Sterling High School read the The News thanks to complimentary copies we get as part of the Newspapers in Education initiative. I told them the quality would probably dip noticeably with GateHouse running the show, despite what then-publisher John Montgomery said. Regrettably, I have been correct, such as a mistake in the headline following the Super Bowl win of the New England Patriots this year where they tried to play off the “Brady Bunch” theme song lyrics and screwed it up.

It isn’t getting much better, and I don’t see a lot of improvement in the near future.

Ideally, I think GateHouse ownership could be beneficial for The News because of the online capabilities being part of such a large chain inherently provides. Digital is the future of journalism, after all. However, I worry it won’t work out that way.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope The Hutchinson News fully adjusts to the new ownership and bounces back to continue its tradition of journalism in the area. Only time will tell, and I will be watching closely.