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U.S.' largest newspaper owner cuts Iowa staff, leaving small papers' futures in question

Gannett headquarters in McLean, Va.
Jacquelyn Martin
Gannett headquarters in McLean, Va.

Laigha Anderson wanted to be her own person. Coming from a big family Leavenworth, Kansas, that was hardly a given. She had to get out.

“I didn’t want to be so-and-so’s daughter or so-and-so’s cousin,” she said. “I just wanted to be Laigha.”

In December 2018, she graduated from the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, and six weeks later, she moved from the place she’d spent her young life to Burlington, Iowa. A small newspaper — “Iowa’s oldest” — hired her on to cover local government.

In February 2019, then-general manager of The Hawk Eye Sean Lewis wrote a column telling the community to welcome her to Burlington. He explained that the paper was aware of newspaper delivery issues, but things were changing for the better: Anderson was a part of a slate of hires that were “good news” for the local paper.

“We have made headway over the last few months at The Hawk Eye because of the hard work and integrity of the staff here. Some are new and some have been here most of their adult lives. They all share a common goal of restoring The Hawk Eye to the community newspaper everyone wants and deserves.”

Anderson got to work. A few months after Lewis’ column, her analysis at The Hawk Eye found that Des Moines County had double-taxed the City of Burlington for between $1.23 and $1.52 million over 10 years. After the story ran, she said people would make jokes about the money she saved them on their property taxes.

And there’s a lot like this: how a missed assessment drove up the property evaluation of a shed by $35,000 or her award-winning coverage of the murder trial of Diavontae Davis.

It wasn’t all hard-hitting stories. There was the threat of layoffs, the daily grind of public meetings and the copy deadlines that only seemed to move earlier.

Laigha Anderson moved to Burlington in 2019 to cover local government for The Burlington Hawk Eye.
Laigha Anderson
Laigha Anderson moved to Burlington in 2019 to cover local government for The Burlington Hawk Eye.

“I was working so fast,” she said. “I felt this pressure of if I don't write this, then people will say, 'There’s no local news.’ ”

On Friday, Aug. 12, Anderson took a bus from Burlington to Iowa City for a doctor’s appointment. In addition to being in a wheelchair, she manages multiple chronic illnesses that leave her with bouts of intense nausea.

For the day, she had two appointments scheduled. There was her doctor and the executive editor of The Des Moines Register, her boss’ boss. She knew she was getting laid off.

Newspapers cut across the Plains

That Friday, Carol Hunter, the executive editor at the Des Moines Register, called an “All Iowa” meeting to tell staff about the layoffs. This didn’t come as a surprise as they’d been warned via email and by industry news sites like Poynter that layoffs were coming.

The Burlington Hawk Eye and The Des Moines Register are part of Gannett/USA Today Network, the nation’s largest chain of newspapers. This month, the company reported a disheartening second quarter. Revenue was down. Costs were up. And a reduction program was implemented.

“We are not satisfied with our overall performance in the second quarter and have quickly responded to this rapidly deteriorating economic environment by implementing a significant cost reduction program that we believe will better position the company to realize its long-term growth goals... The changes and reductions to our cost structure are focused primarily on our legacy print business,” the company reported.

In addition to leading the Register, Hunter is the regional editor for Gannett/USA Today Network newspapers in the Plains Region. And on that day, she was tasked with explaining where the cuts had happened.

“The marching orders” she explained were to try and protect resources as much as possible at the top-40 newspapers, big metro papers like the Register and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader (even though one position was closed at the Leader). She said, “In order to meet the cut I needed to make, (there) were these very deep cuts at some of the smaller papers.”

She rattled them off: There were two layoffs at the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. Two more at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. Another two from The Hutchinson News in Kansas (“Which was an even smaller newsroom”). A part-timer laid off at Springfield News-Leader, and a full-timer at the Topeka Capital-Journal, not to mention a host of unfilled positions that would be closed.

The Burlington Hawk Eye — the only of Gannett’s 13 Iowa properties discussed — got the worst of the Plains region: Three full-time reporters and one part-timer were laid off. This left three in the newsroom: two for the news section and one for sports.

Back in 2015, the Associated Press presented the Hawk Eye with two prestigious awards: the First Amendment and Mark Twain awards for its newsroom's excellence. On the award, there are 25 faces smiling from the 2015 newsroom. Seven years later, only two of those faces remain at The Hawk Eye.

 In 2016, The Burlington Hawk Eye newsroom was awarded for its investigation of the shooting of Autumn Steele by Officer Jesse Hill. The Associated Press presented the staff with the First Amendment Award, as well as the Mark Twain Award for consistent contributions to the daily report.
In 2016, The Burlington Hawk Eye newsroom was awarded for its investigation of the shooting of Autumn Steele by Officer Jesse Hill. The Associated Press presented the staff with the First Amendment Award, as well as the Mark Twain Award for consistent contributions to the daily report.

Several of Gannett's Iowa employees declined to speak to IPR for this story. Michaele Niehaus, one of the remaining writers at The Hawk Eye, referred questions to Gannett’s corporate communications.

"We've been transparent about the need to evolve our operations and cost structure in line with our growth strategy while also needing to take swift action given the challenging economic environment,” Lark-Marie Antón, the chief communications officer at Gannett, said in a statement. “These staffing reductions are incredibly difficult, and we are grateful for the contributions of our departing colleagues.”

In response to follow-up questions from IPR, Gannett Communications wrote in an email, “Out of deep respect for our colleagues, there is no further comment.”

Gannett top editor on the fate of small newspapers

With its more than 250 papers, Gannett oversees the smallest rural weeklies – like Iowa’s Boone News Republican – all the way to large news desks like the Detroit Free Press. During the meeting, Hunter laid out that the plan was “to try and protect resources as much as possible at the top-40 newspapers.”

In a recording of the Friday staff meeting shared by a Gannett employee, one staffer asked, “Sure that’s good for the Register, but what is the long-term plan for these other papers?”

“That is a real difficulty,” Hunter responded. “If you look around the country at Lee (Enterprises) and McClatchy, I don’t think we’ve figured this out.”

She pointed to local moves to buy up smaller town newspapers, like Amy Duncan and Mark Davitt’s purchase of The Indianola Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune or CherryRoad Media Inc.’s growing portfolio of properties.

“I have, you know, a lot of faith in the kind of one owner and local publisher route which I think is what is sustaining a lot of the smaller newspapers,” Hunter said. “I don’t think a public company with the kind of infrastructure we have in legal and HR and finance and on and on. ... You end up not serving them very well with a big company.”

She said the company was trying different things to create a more sustainable future for smaller papers through, for example, changing delivery so that it is once or twice a week, not 6 days a week with only two reporters.

When asked if there was any immediate impact on Iowa’s non-daily Gannett properties she said, not immediately.

“But I think they’re in some ways – most of them – are in rougher shape than the dailies and are being heavily looked at for what their future should be,” she said.

Life after deadline

While boarding a bus back to Burlington the evening after being laid off, Laigha Anderson told IPR that it’s going to be different not being in the newspaper every day, bringing Burlington to its residents.

But that’s not a bad thing. She said she is thinking about trying out for a play or becoming one of the people who speaks for a long time during city council meetings.

“I want to get more involved now because my life isn’t full of potential conflicts of interest,” she said.

With her job at The Hawk Eye closed, she’s looking at next steps, and she’s hoping to take them nearby.

“I do want to stay in Burlington because Burlington is my home. I didn’t choose Leavenworth. But I chose Burlington,” she said. “I chose to apply for the job here. I chose to take the job here. I chose to stay here. This is my life.

“This is where I’ve built my life. And god willing I’m going to continue to stay in Burlington.”

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

Zachary Oren Smith