What Happens When Austin’s Daily Paper Dies

Since 2018, the corporation that owns the Statesman lost half its staff

A new Neiman Lab report describes the severe staff cuts made by Gannett, the Austin American-Statesman's corporate owner (Image by Creative Commons / Maggie Q. Thompson)

What happens when a daily paper dies? What happens when that paper has, for generations, been a watchdog over the capital of one of the most populated states in the union?

Dysfunctional systems stay dysfunctional. Unwatched healthcare systems cause injury and death, under-covered schools fail to adequately educate, mostly-empty courtrooms lead to wrongful convictions, and unwatched incarceration systems commit constitutional and human rights violations. Journalists are the nerves in a democratic body, feeling around for threats in the major organs of our society, alerting everybody else before those threats advance into crises. So when a paper can no longer afford enough reporters to cover healthcare, education, transportation, housing, courts, the Legislature, even city and county government – at a deep and sustained level – we lose nerve endings in entire organ systems.

Austin American-Statesman reporters and editors are clearly hardworking, if frayed, nerves. Editor-in-Chief Manny Garcia in February won the Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Foundation for the newsroom’s coverage of Uvalde. They’re doing things we wish we could – like reaching Spanish-speaking readers by publishing stories in Spanish, for one. “At this point, we are doing everything we can to cover as much as we can. We all care about this city and so we are willing to work those long days,” said Luz Moreno-Lozano, a Statesman reporter and chair of the Austin News Guild, the union formed in 2021 to support the paper’s rank-and-file reporters. “But that does come with a price. We’re tired.”

Enter, burnout. Statesman staff has been leaving in droves (for better pay and better staffed newsrooms), while their corporate overlords fail to fill those vacancies. As a result, the capital of Texas is increasingly covered by what you might call a ghost daily – a newspaper that isn’t sufficiently staffed to watchdog the various systems of power in a community. Such papers are often owned by Gannett.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, found itself under the microscope Friday after the publication of a report by the Nieman Journalism Lab (Harvard’s nonprofit news org) laid out how the corporate behemoth has gutted the papers it owns, cutting half of its jobs in four years. Those cuts aren’t proportional to the rate of newspaper revenue decline, but they do make sense when you account for the giant, high-interest loan Gannett took out in 2019 to finance a merger with Gatehouse Media, per the Nieman Lab.

So the cuts deepened. Between 2019 and 2022, Gannett shut down roughly one in three of its 563 daily and weekly newspapers across the country, and it went from 25,000 U.S. employees to 11,200 in 2022.

The Statesman is no exception. One Statesman reporter tells us that since November, 13 employees have left, and the paper has only made one full-time hire in that period.

The staffing impact on the community can be quantified, to a degree. Alliance for Audited Media statements obtained by Joshua Benton (founder of the Nieman Lab and writer of the report in question) show that in 2018, the Statesman’s average circulation on Sunday (the highest circulation day) was about 93,000. In 2022, Sunday circulation was down to 34,000 – a 63% decrease in total circulation.

Gannett takes issue with that. In a statement provided to the Chronicle, a Gannett spokesperson said, the Nieman Lab “utilizes Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) data to inaccurately depict Gannett’s circulation and subscriber figures. We have requested a correction. AAM data is used to help advertisers understand publisher reach in specific markets, not to infer readership or paid circulation. Further, the story narrative contradicts our mission.”

Gannett spokespeople did not dispute the vacant positions or the stress that puts on a newsroom, nor did they answer questions about the news coverage gaps that those vacancies create. But Statesman reporters are acutely aware of both deficiencies.

After Garcia’s National Press Foundation win in February, the guild tweeted “Gannett, the award-winning journalists at the Statesman could use some help. Fill the vacancies left by 22 colleagues leaving in a year. Give us honest and open communication. Provide meaningful cost of living raises for all. Hold healthcare premiums. A fair contract now.”

That fair contract hasn’t happened. The guild met with attorneys last week and are still working on it. Moreno-Lozano says they’re still working to improve pay and benefits in an increasingly unlivable city. “It’s been a long process.”

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