So Goes the Statesman

Daily paper awaits GateHouse revamp

A daily paper has been the heart of most American cities for the last century. So when GateHouse Media announced in March that it was buying the Austin American-Statesman, the news elicited concerned emotions. Yes, there would still be a daily here in Austin, but what would it look like? Certainly a little different. Publisher Susie Biehle announced her departure in late August – to be replaced by longtime GateHouse employee and Florida-based executive Patrick Dorsey – alongside the paper's editor of the last seven years, Debbie Hiott. And last week news also broke that a couple handful's worth of senior staffers and reporters had also accepted buyouts, leaving a raft of questions about where the Statesman's future lies.

The GateHouse model: Find a privately-held legacy paper where the current owners have little interest, buy that paper for a song, then slash staff levels.

The GateHouse model for business is by now known and controversial: Find a privately-held legacy paper where the current owners have little interest (in the States­man's case, Cox Media Group), buy that paper for a song, then slash staff levels, especially senior and tenured employees who are pulling down the biggest salaries. So even when GateHouse declared Austin a flagship market, there were great concerns that job losses would follow.

Those concerns were confirmed last month, when GateHouse announced that it would offer buyouts to the Statesman's staff, and also cease publication of its sister paper, ¡Ahora Sí! In a rare moment of seeming protest at that choice, the paper ran an opinion piece by one of ¡Ahora Sí!'s freelance writers, Anjanette Gautier, in which she wrote, "As a community, we all suffer from this great loss."

Joining Biehle and Hiott on their way out are longtime editorial writer Alberta Phil­lips, transportation expert Ben Wear, tech writer and "digital savant" Omar L. Gallaga, sports writer Kevin Lyttle, photographer Ralph Barrera, and PolitiFact purveyor Gardner Selby. That fact-checking feature will continue with a new author, however. Both GateHouse and the national PolitiFact office said that they plan to continue the working relationship. Said PolitiFact Exec­utive Editor Aaron Sharockman, "Texas is one of our most important states, and I don't want to see it going away, and I genuinely hope it continues with the Statesman." Sharockman did voice some displeasure over Selby's departure on the eve of one of the most important elections in Texas in years, but stressed that PolitiFact and the Statesman were working to get through these months while the paper looked for "a Gardner Jr."

Those departures affect more than just the daily, as both Gallaga and Selby have been regular guests on local NPR affiliate KUT, and the future of that relationship is now unclear. The station's general manager and director Stewart Vanderwilt left Austin for Colorado back in April; acting Executive Director Patti C. Smith said any decision will likely be left to Vanderwilt's permanent replacement.

The fear is that all these changes will just accelerate the Statesman's decadelong trend of downsizing. While Cox was often seen as a benevolent absentee landlord, the Atlanta corporation has also overseen its own share of devastating cuts: relocating much of the design and copyediting process out of state to a centralized facility; closing the print works in the basement, killing 100 jobs in the process; and finally, in 2015, having the Statesman sell the actual South Congress property to Cox Enterprises (a separate company owned by the Cox family), which is currently working with Endeavor Real Estate Group to redevelop the 18.9 acres of prime riverside land as a mixed-use development. The lack of that asset on the Statesman's books could explain why GateHouse picked up the paper for the bargain basement price of $47.5 million.

So far, Endeavor has issued no word about whether there will be any room for Statesman operations at the redeveloped location. As for the design and copyediting side, it seems likely that GateHouse will move that to its Center for News and Design, a centralized facility – conveniently in North Austin – that offers production services to publishers both inside and outside of the company.

But what about the paper's editorial future? Again, that's something that's extremely unclear. Senior staff at both the Statesman and GateHouse have stayed quiet, preferring to let their press releases do the talking. However, there have been promises of a clearer vision of priorities, both in hiring and coverage, by the middle of October.

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More Austin American-Statesman
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Austin American-Statesman, GateHouse Media, Patrick Dorsey

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