Watchdogs on furlough

Readers called and emailed the Florida Times-Union over the past year with appreciation for the newspaper’s commitment to uncovering apparent secret deals behind the now-canceled attempt to sell the city of Jacksonville’s municipally-owned utility to a private entity.

Reporting by the Jacksonville paper’s staff was key to the decision to halt the sale of the electric, water and sewer utility known as JEA, according to council member Matt Carlucci. Times-Union stories also led to the firing of the JEA chief executive officer who oversaw the utility when it launched a sales process that occurred largely out of the public eye and could have resulted in millions of dollars in bonuses for top JEA officials.

It was an intensely local story, one that likely wouldn’t have been undertaken by The New York Times, Washington Post or “60 Minutes.” But details behind the potential multibillion-dollar sale mattered a lot to the taxpayers of Jacksonville, a city of 800,000 people, and the more than 400,000 ratepayers of JEA, the nation’s eighth-largest municipally owned utility.

Carlucci, a Republican and longtime State Farm Insurance agent, called the Times-Union “a watchdog for good government. We’ve got a great newspaper here in Jacksonville. It would be dangerous if we ever lost the newspaper.”

Carlucci is aware that the Times-Union and other newspapers around the country are struggling, and that the COVID-19 pandemic is making the situation worse. Staffers and publishers at many small and mid-sized papers say they strive to do good work but fear they are missing many potential stories that never get covered because of layoffs and furloughs.

From 2008 to 2019, a steep decline in revenues from print advertising amid the rise of Google, Facebook and other online services fueled a 51% drop in newspaper newsroom employment across the United States. The number of workers dropped from 71,000 workers to 35,000, according to the Pew Research Center.

So far this year, with the economic toll of COVID-19 taking hold, newsrooms at U.S. media outlets have announced 11,027 job cuts, up almost 170% from the 4,087 announced in the first half of 2019, according to the job-coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

“Newsrooms have had a rough few years, as revenues declined and consolidation in the industry decimated news teams,” Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the company, said in a news release. “Coupled with a hostile environment for many journalists, news has become an increasingly difficult career path.

“That said, the importance of reporters and newsrooms that hold themselves to a high journalistic standard cannot be understated, especially during a global pandemic and a divisive election year.”

In Jacksonville, part of the Gannett chain, the Times-Union’s coverage sparked an ongoing federal investigation into the JEA sale fiasco. A letter to the editor from leaders of five unions that would have been affected by the sale thanked the Times-Union, its reporters and management, “and an engaged public that understood what we lose if we sell JEA.”

Because of the Times-Union’s coverage of the utility, “Our relationship with the community has never been as good,” said reporter Andrew Pantazi, chairman of the newspaper’s Guild unit. “This has really shown the value of having a newspaper.”

Added David Bauerlein, a Guild member and one of the reporters regularly reporting on the utility deal: “There’s no doubt that people have appreciated us pulling back the curtain.”

At the same time, though, readers have noticed thinner papers and less overall local news, Bauerlein said. “It would be a great thing to have some financial assistance to bridge the transition from print to digital, if Gannett would take advantage of the money.”

Pantazi said staffing in the Times-Union newsroom has been cut by more than half, through layoffs and attrition, since GateHouse Media purchased the paper just three years ago. GateHouse later merged with the current owner, Gannett, which has recently completed a round of furloughs that has cut the newsroom staff by one-fourth on any given day.

With a downsized staff in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, the paper has been hampered when it comes to in-depth coverage of issues such as the local impact of COVID-19, concerns about policing and the Republican National Committee’s canceled attempt to offer some GOP national convention activities in Jacksonville, Pantazi said.

A lifeline for ‘the only source of local information’

In Helena, Arkansas, population 10,300 people, money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program was a “godsend” for the weekly Helena World newspaper, publisher Andrew Bagley said. The paper’s staff consists of Bagley, a bookkeeper and two freelance writers. 

GateHouse was planning to close the 149-year-old paper when Bagley and his business partner, Chuck Davis, bought the paper in September 2018, Bagley said. The paper, slammed by a loss of event-related advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic in eastern Arkansas, received between $10,000 and $20,000 in forgivable loan funds, he said.

“The money helped us get through the worst of the pandemic,” Bagley said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”

Readers have appreciated the World’s coverage of everything from COVID-19 to Phillips County municipal governments and schools in print and on the paper’s website, Bagley said.

“We are the only source of local information,” he said.