The Boston Herald is one of two papers of note in Boston, MA. It was founded in 1846 and, although it has often been criticized for being slanted towards the right end of the political spectrum and prone to sensationalism, it is widely read even in the solid-blue state—in fact, it is the second largest paper in the entire state. This article is not an endorsement of The Herald or its ideological slant, but rather a story about a truly disturbing set of circumstances exposed by recent events at the paper.
Last Friday, the Boston Herald declared bankruptcy and made public Gatehouse Media’s offer to buy the paper for $5 million ($4.5 million cash and $500,000 in back employee vacation payments). While Gatehouse will continue to publish the paper, this sale exposes two extremely disturbing trends in local media today.
First, the offer by Gatehouse Media to buy the Herald amounts to an astonishing attack on workers’ rights and unionized benefits. Gatehouse is attempting to abrogate all current union benefits for employees at the paper and get out from under longstanding benefits obligations.
“As part of its bid, GateHouse did not wish to recognize any of the publication’s collective bargaining agreements with employees. About 140 of the Herald’s 240 employees are union members, the filing said. GateHouse wants to be ‘free and clear’ of all legacy pension, health and other obligations to Herald workers, the filing said.”
In short, if this sale goes through, Gatehouse Media will be allowed to keep operating the paper with many of the same staff, but free from the collective bargaining agreements that have governed salary and benefits at the paper. Additionally, the pensions of those working at the paper—even for many years—will be wiped out with the stroke of a pen, stealing thousands of dollars from each employee who would be due pension benefits.
Imagine being an employee at The Herald for twenty years, then being told that all of the health benefits you currently enjoy may no longer be honored in a few months and that your pension is likely going to be canceled, despite your decades of work contingent on it as a part of your salary. Staff members were not included in this process and were only told last Friday of the sale, when the editor revealed it to both his employees and the rest of the media.
This tactic of evading pension obligations is often called “pension dumping” and has become extremely common in recent years, not only in the private sector (e.g. Enron) but also in municipalities that are forced to undergo bankruptcy proceedings (e.g. Detroit). The current bankruptcy laws make this tactic a legal, albeit deeply immoral, way for predatory groups to “save” struggling companies by buying them in bankruptcy, stripping workers of the expensive protections and benefits that they were previously given, and operating the company with a new profit margin based solely on cutting worker pay.
The second worrying aspect of this story is that this is yet another example of media consolidation on the local level. In the past, local papers were owned by a variety of different individuals and groups; however, in recent decades, local newspapers are increasingly being consolidated in larger media companies such as Gatehouse Media.
Gatehouse Media already controls 9 local daily papers in Massachusetts (Taunton Daily Gazette, Cape Cod Times, etc.) and over small 100 weekly publications. In total, according to their website, they control papers across 540 media markets in 36 states.
Local media consolidation such as we are seeing under Gatehouse can be extremely dangerous, as it promotes a form of echo-chamber that isn’t conducive to good journalism. While each of these “individual” local news sources appears to be separate, they are actually owned and controlled by the same entity, which can force them to comply with its ideological narrative. The casual reader likely doesn’t know that their local paper and the statewide Herald are actually owned by the same entity, so they can easily be fooled into thinking that it is a good idea to check coverage of each papers’ content by contrasting it with the other.
A large percentage of local news generation bubbles up from local and state papers, so consolidation of these sources can easily lead to certain types of stories not getting covered if the controlling entity doesn’t want them publicized—for example, do you think that any of the local papers owned by Gatehouse Media in Massachusetts did a deep dive on how The Herald’s deal with Gatehouse is attacking pensions? Of course not, because this would run contrary to their owners’ interests.
This trend of local newspapers being consolidated under larger entities has been ongoing for years and impacts virtually every state’s local papers. It maintains the illusion that multiple independent local newspapers are bringing Americans their local news (because the paper’s name and byline doesn’t change), despite the reality that an increasingly consolidated group of owners is controlling local news.
Regardless of what one thinks about The Herald as a paper (I often criticize their reporting), the events surrounding this bankruptcy are disturbing. Even if you disagree with these writers, you should be outraged at how they are being treated in these proceedings, and, even if you think that Gatehouse Media will do a better job running The Herald than the current owners do, you should worry about media consolidation.
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