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VOL. 132 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 17, 2017

Commercial Appeal Changes Reflect News Industry Realities

By Andy Meek

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In a special staff meeting this week at The Commercial Appeal, USA Today Network executive and president of The Tennessean newspaper Laura Hollingsworth was asked whether The CA’s corporate parent might sell its longtime home at 495 Union Ave.

The Commercial Appeal’s move away from printing the daily newspaper here in Memphis is one more in a series of major changes to the paper and its operation since Gannett Co., owner of USA Today, acquired its previous parent company.

(Daily News File)

The meeting, and that question, came the morning after the newspaper announced yet another major change to its operation in Memphis – namely, that the printing of the daily is shifting to Jackson, Tenn., where The CA’s sister paper, The Jackson Sun, is printed.

That was the reason for the question to Hollingsworth during the meeting Tuesday, Feb. 14: If The CA’s 43-year-old, three-story-high presses aren’t used to print the paper anymore, will The CA’s parent, Gannett Co., be looking at the building that houses that infrastructure next?

Not yet, Hollingsworth said in response – though she added that selling the property could happen down the road.

That possibility represents another in a series of changes – both obvious and behind-the-scenes – for the city’s major daily that have unfolded since Gannett Co. acquired The CA’s previous corporate parent, Journal Media Group, about a year ago. They’re changes that impact the production of The CA while also reflecting business realities across Gannett’s footprint and the journalism industry at large.

The changes in recent months have included dramatically scaling back the usage of freelance contributors, shifting design and copy editing work to centralized hubs, consolidating print operations and laying off employees, among other things. The CA’s publisher and president, George Cogswell III, also stepped down Jan. 31.

Much of that is part and parcel of the way Gannett sets about reshaping a newsroom and other operations at newspaper properties it acquires. That’s according to Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, a journalism education and strategy organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Looking for economies of scale, consolidating – that’s part of it,” Edmonds said. “Not all of it, but a key part. And if (Gannett) gets a property that seems to be way overstaffed, they may make deeper cuts and bigger changes.”

Indeed, Gannett is a media conglomerate known for chasing scale through an aggressive strategy of mergers and acquisitions. The completion of its acquisition of Journal Media Group last April extended Gannett’s Tennessee presence to ownership of six daily newspapers in the state and a presence in each of the state’s major markets.

Gannett was able to shore up its fourth-quarter revenue picture in part through that strategy of aggressively chasing acquisitions to compensate for things like sagging advertising and circulation numbers.

With the acquisitions comes an effort to right-size and consolidate, as seen in The CA’s announcement that its printing will move to Jackson with the April 18 edition.

The move means the elimination of 19 full-time jobs at The CA plant at 495 Union, a building originally built as the home to two newspapers before the afternoon daily, The Memphis Press-Scimitar, went out of business in the early 1980s. The Memphis plant will keep a packaging facility where advertising supplements are inserted into the paper as well as a small shop that does custom commercial print work.

According to a statement from the union that covers newsroom employees at The CA, eight new jobs will be available in Jackson as a result of the move to print there.

Edmonds, meanwhile, stresses what’s happening at The CA can also be seen at other chains’ newspaper properties, where eliminating redundancies and promoting efficiency are top business imperatives.

The question about The CA’s building, for example, is not unique to the paper here. Newspapers from Detroit to Washington have for years been abandoning older headquarters facilities. Closer to home, the Memphis Business Journal shifted from its longtime Downtown presence to a smaller East Memphis office property in 2015.

“I think they clearly want more scale,” Edmonds said of Gannett. “I also think it’s fair to say there’s a gamble in that – that they’ll be able to generate enough to sort of outrace the declines in print. But at this point, they’re still making a profit.”

MORTGAGES 70 240 986
BUILDING PERMITS 180 470 2,128