Gannett, the corporate owner of the Burlington Free Press, is reportedly close to agreement on a merger with GateHouse Media. The Wall Street Journalreported Thursday that GateHouse, the smaller of the two firms, would be the buyer and its CEO would retain his title in the combined enterprise. The New York Post quoted an unnamed source as saying the deal had a 75 percent chance of happening.
News of merger talks between the two companies first broke in late May, not long after Gannett's board rejected a takeover bid from hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
Gannett and GateHouse are the two largest newspaper chains (by circulation) in the country. As industry analyst Ken Doctor of the Nieman Journalism Lab wrote in May, "Totaled up, 267 dailies would fall under a single ownership and management. That's an unprecedented concentration of control in the history of the American press." (The combined firm would also own more than 1,000 weekly papers. None of GateHouse's properties are in Vermont.)
Doctor wrote of a "megaclustering" trend in the journalism industry, as newspapers suffer continuing declines in advertising and circulation and seek ways to streamline operations through regional sales and reporting efforts.
That's "regional" as in "not local."
Gannett has been a notorious cost-cutter for years; if anything, GateHouse is even more so. In May, GateHouse cut nearly 200 journalism positions nationwide. At the same time, according to Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University's journalism college, the company planned to consolidate its 50 Greater Boston weeklies down to 18.
How would a merger affect the Burlington Free Press? Impossible to say, except that it wouldn't be good. The impetus for these megadeals isn't to improve journalism, it's to cut costs.
As Ken Doctor observed, these corporations don't have a grand plan to make daily publishing a viable business once again. "But they hope consolidation can buy them time — maybe two years or so," Doctor wrote, "to survive and keep pushing 'transformation.'"