When it comes to why I really left the Asheville Citizen Times after 27 years — “the dirt,” as I know some of you good readers want to know — I wish I had something super sexy for you.

Maybe a gigantic liquor bottle-throwing blowup with my boss. Or a diabolical battle over ethics in which an evil Gannett overlord asked me to compromise my very soul on a big story.

Sorry, I got nothing that juicy. But I will get pretty angry here in a sec.

Here’s why I left the Citizen Times, a Gannett Co. property: The corporation has just one approach to the news business these days — relentless, soul-crushing cost cutting.

So instead of the sexy blowup, I give you the proverbial 1,000 cuts … as in, Gannett has made 1,000 cuts to the paper in my time there, and I’ve had enough.

Apologies. I exaggerate for literary effect. But suffice it to say that over the past two decades, the paper devolved from a thriving enterprise with 75 journalists in the newsroom to about 10.

In the past two years we’ve seen 15 people leave. Now counting me.

An Empty Newsroom

And consider this: The newsroom staff is still not back in the downtown newsroom. The paper leases about one-fifth of the second floor in the iconic downtown building the Citizen Times used to own, but it’s empty most days.

“Why?” you ask. Parking. And cheapness.

We were going to go back this spring, as the pandemic eased. But pre-pandemic, Gannett had paid for our parking downtown, a concession to journalists who don’t make a lot of money.

But the company would not pay for employee parking downtown when we came back. I know that might sound petty on our part, but why should the employees have to pay $1,000 a year to park downtown, especially when it had been a paid benefit?

Call it what you want, but that’s a $1,000-a-year pay cut.

And I’m not joking about journalists not making great money. I considered myself fortunate, because I made a pretty good living at the paper.

But a few months ago, when two Gannett regional editors were in town, one of our photographers asked about pay increases, because, as she put it, “I make $17.89 an hour. I could go to Chick-fil-A and make more money, but I love what I do.”

One of the editors said Gannett was looking at boosting pay, especially for entry-level workers. But then he offered an old chestnut of a platitude about the service aspect of what journalists do, and how that requires fiscal sacrifice.

I wanted to holler out, “Bullhockey,” or, ahem, words to that effect.

We all believe that what we do is a calling, but you’ve got to pay people enough to live in what has become the most expensive place in North Carolina, especially when you require a college degree, and a lot of younger folks have student loans.

Even when the Citizen Times was making money hand over fist, Gannett was cheaper than a polyester suit. A former publisher told me that in the early 2000s the paper had a 36 percent profit margin, which put us in the middle third, profit-wise, of Gannett’s roughly 90-plus papers at the time.

Even then Gannett still peddled this canard about sacrificing for the greater good.

The publisher was telling me the profit margin because I had pushed back with my editor about cuts to our parking, home subscription prices and health insurance increases. It came to about $1,000 a year, and I told him it was just a pay cut.

Sound familiar?

Reduced Services, Increased Prices

Once the layoffs began, you were supposed to be happy that you had a job. And Gannett has done layoffs every way possible, including layoffs with almost no notice. You come to work, and people start getting called upstairs to Human Resources, then return in tears to box up their stuff.

And when Gannett isn’t cutting people, it’s cutting service.

When I started in 1995, the paper had bureaus in Hendersonville, Brevard, Sylva, Waynesville, and Raleigh. We truly were the “Voice of the Mountains,” covering the region’s biggest news of the day.

Now, the paper covers only Buncombe County, and in early September it stopped offering home delivery outside the county. It does offer “same-day” postal service delivery, to which my reply, honest to God, was, “You mean the U.S. Postal Service?”

An arterial cut for me came in the late summer when a reader called me, apologetically, to complain about his delivery service (hey, when your phone number is in the paper every day, you get a lot of calls about poor delivery service). He noted that his family had taken the paper for decades, and they kept subscribing even though the price had risen to $932 a year.

My mouth was agape. Nine-hundred, thirty-two dollars a year and you can’t get the paper delivered most days?

Yep.

I recommended he do what I do with streaming services, internet and cell phone companies when they jack the price up: threaten to cancel. “They’ll magically drop the price,” I told him.

He said he’d already done that, and the price came way down, but they still couldn’t get regular delivery. I’ll say this, too: The paper’s delivery manager is a literal Angel (that’s her last name), and truly cares about delivery, but they’ve cut her staff to the bone.

And now, when you want to complain about non-delivery, you will not get a re-delivery of the missing paper. Rather, you have to call the service center. In the Philippines.

Trust me, customer service was atrocious once Gannett moved it out of the Citizen Times to Greenville, S.C. The company’s answer to complaints? Let’s move it across the world!

Print Circulation Falls 90%

Now, keep in mind, the subscription prices have skyrocketed even as the Citizen Times, at Gannett’s behest, cut the editorial pages to one day a week, and eliminated Saturday’s publication. The paper reinstated Wednesday’s editorial pages and letters to the editor after a reader revolt that I might have spurred with a hotly worded column chastising the parent company for yet again taking something away from readers.

Whether it’s regional coverage, timely sports news or comprehensive stock market reports, Gannett only knows one method: cutting.  

Clearly, Gannett is pushing readers to the digital platform, and I can tell you all the company cares about is getting digital subscriptions. 

Print subscriptions at the Citizen Times are down to 8,000 on Sundays, and 6,000 during the week, according to a company marketing report from last summer.

When I started in 1995, it was pushing 80,000 on Sundays, and 65,000 during the week. 

As an editor once said in a news meeting, “We don’t care about print anymore.”

Swear on my mother’s grave.

Now, they essentially give the digital subscriptions away as an inducement so they can tell advertisers, “Look, we’ll get your ad in front of X number of readers every day.”

But news flash! If you cut the number of journalists providing content for those sites and print editions to the bone, who’s going to spend much time with said publication?

And let me leave no doubt here: Gannett has cut its papers to the bone.

Journalism First, Journalists Last

If ever I came close to experiencing a “Paul on the Road to Damascus” epiphany, it was about six years ago when a Gannett-ordered layoff resulted in a half-dozen of our most respected and talented reporters getting laid off. This massacre included stalwart talents whom readers really loved.

A day or two later, two high-ranking Gannett news executives came to talk to the newsroom, including one who had been the top editor of the Arizona Republic, a top-flight newspaper by any standard. They were somber and respectful in talking to us, recognizing how wounded we were.

But then they talked about how when Gannett’s newspaper side split from the broadcast side of the company, which later became Tegna, in 2015, Gannett had to decide just what kind of company it wanted to be.

Would it be a marketing platform primarily for ad sales? A click-baity infotainment site?

“We decided we wanted to be a journalism company,” the former editor said.

I almost threw up in my mouth. I wondered how a man clearly dedicated to journalism could make such a profoundly ironic and hypocritical comment. For once in my life, I bit my tongue (I’d been chastised for some impertinent remarks to our publisher a few days before. Long story … but I swear I did not throw a newspaper at him).

But I wanted to say — no, I wanted to scream — “How in the hell can you claim to be a journalism company first and foremost when you just cut six of our best journalists?”

That kind of corporate encounter, my friends, removes a sizable chunk of your soul.

I knew right then Gannett was in deep, deep trouble. It’s only gotten worse since the company merged with GateHouse Media Inc., another newspaper chain heavily fastened to legacy newspapers, in 2019.

As reported in Poynter and carried on the Asheville Watchdog site, Gannett now is beholden to a hedge fund for $1.34 billion in loans. Gannett lost $54 million in the second quarter and another $54 million in the third, as it announced Thursday.

I commend them for consistency.

As a publicly traded company, Gannett must first and foremost make a profit to distribute among shareholders. That’s the way corporations work.

Okay, honestly, Gannett probably first and foremost has to make its loan payments. What do you think will happen if the company continues to lose money and misses payments on a hedge fund loan?

You know the answer already: more cuts.

I might sound a little angry, and I am. Gannett has devastated local news coverage in just about every city it operates.

Talk to people in those cities, and ours, and you hear a similar refrain: “Our paper is just a shell of what it used to be. There’s just not much in it anymore. If it weren’t for the obituaries and comics, I wouldn’t subscribe.”

I will say this, the Citizen Times has continued to put out a solid newspaper, despite all the cuts. I respect my former coworkers, and I will not be one of the chorus members publicly berating them. They do some great work.

But they’re hamstrung. The corporate overlords set the parameters of how they can operate, and that’s translated to giving readers less and less every year.

More Cuts Are Coming at Gannett

Gannett’s CEO expects more cuts next year before the company miraculously turns the corner in 2024 (hard to believe, at best). And did I mention the CEO, Mike Reed, made $7.7 million in 2021?

Folks, that little news nugget ripped the remaining shard of my soul right out of my chest and stomped it flat right in front of my vacating life force.

Here’s my philosophy on local news: You have to give readers the absolute best product you possibly can.

Gannett’s first and foremost goal is making money. Enough to pay its albatross of a loan back. Enough to give investors a dividend.

See how the two don’t jibe?

I know some in the community may think I’m leaving because I got a buyout. I did not. I was deemed “essential” and turned down for one.

Fortunately, I had this job in the works, and it’s the kind of place I want to work at: a nonprofit committed to giving readers the best product it can, for free, with a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff.

As I said, the goal should be giving the community the absolute best news coverage possible, as long as that news is vetted, ethically produced, and accurate.

The Watchdog’s staff has done that over and over, whether it’s Sally Kestin’s riveting stories about home equity being stolen from low-income residents, Pete Lewis’s and Barbara Durr’s deep dives into Mission and HCA, or Tom Fiedler’s investigations into the web of lies known as Madison Cawthorn’s life.

The Citizen Times has declined to run Watchdog content since February. Hey, I know Gannett needs to be able to make stories “subscriber only,” and Asheville Watchdog insists its stories cannot be placed behind a paywall.

But again, who loses in this scenario? Readers first and foremost, as the Watchdog stories aren’t as widely disseminated, and Citizen Times readers may miss out on vital information.

I still have hope that the two parties can find some common ground here, as I’d love to see my Answer Man columns run in the paper on occasion, and I think the paper’s readers would appreciate that.

But for me, as far as leaving, I got worn out before I could keep fighting from inside the paper. Gannett’s latest announcement — that it would be requiring all employees to take five unpaid furlough days in December, and that it was cutting its 401(k) match — just solidified my decision.

I found it humorous that Gannett also offered employees “sabbaticals” of one to six months. Unpaid.

By definition, a sabbatical is almost always a paid leave, folks. Gannett was offering unpaid furloughs.

In short, I want to work for a place that puts readers, and the community at large, first and foremost in its journalism mission. I believe Asheville Watchdog will afford me that ability.

Gannett is so hobbled by its responsibilities to its hedge fund lender and the stock market that I believe it has lost the focus of what the company should be about, just as those editors who came to speak to us did.

It’s got to be about the journalism, folks. That’s what really matters, and that’s what Asheville Watchdog is all about.


Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org.


[Editor’s Note: Beginning today, John Boyle’s opinion column, Answer Man columns, and news reporting will appear in Asheville Watchdog several times a week.]


[Correction: An earlier version of this opinion column misidentified the central character in a Biblical story about profound conversion, cited by the author as analogous to the moment when the scales fell from his eyes about corporate ownership of newspapers. It was Saul of Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, who had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, and not Moses, who was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep in the land of Midian, hearing the voice of God coming from a burning bush. The Watchdog regrets the error.]

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46 Comments

  1. I canceled my subscription to Gannet and will donate the same amount here. A jump like this is so scary, but it’s so worth it to get out from under a bone crunching machine. I look forward to your continued excellence.

  2. Good work scribe! We appreciate the Watchdawg more than you know. With you aboard I know it can be even better. A subscriber and will continue to be

  3. I worked my way through college at the Akron Beacon Journal, a Knight newspaper in Ohio, starting in classified advertising when I was sixteen. I left after twelve years, while my brother and sister stayed on. I watched as they navigated the buyouts and mergers and heartbreak of seeing the human assets of a once-great newspaper erode beneath their feet. It belongs to Gannett, too.
    My son double-majored in journalism and computer science. He’s been working in computer science, but eventually took a software engineer job with McClatchee. Same heart-breaking process as Gannett. Now he works for one of the few profitable national news organizations, and I’m hoping it will continue to thrive.
    I believe in the importance of newspapers, however delivered. I subscribe to four.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing. The state of journalism is so devastating, but I’m glad you’re able to keep fighting the good fight with Watchdog 👏👏👏

  5. Nice column. I could add so much more detail, but he definitely hits the main points. It’s pretty obvious hometown starts-ups are going to be the successors when publicly held companies like Gannett finally cave. Glad Asheville has one! On a side note: I always thought it was Moses and the burning bush. Copy editors still needed.

  6. ACT repeats the same stories for several days. I can click through it in minutes now that John left.

    Add a local sports section and you can fully replace ACT. Combined with the New York Times, that’s all we really need!

  7. I lived in Asheville in the 80s and remember the fine paper that was then printed twice a day. It was disturbing when we moved back to the area in 2015 and discovered how little local news was still covered but it all made sense when we found Gannett had moved in. My hometown paper was similarly devastated by Gannett buying it which was especially ironic as my hometown has a major university with a decent journalism school. (UF. Go Gators!) I now read the independent student newspaper rather than getting the Gainesville Sun. And after supporting the Watchdog along with having a digital subscription to the ACT, I’d already decided to go with only the Watchdog when my current ACT year ends. This column gives me even more reason to stop supporting Gannett.

    And an annual phone call to the NY Times keeps me getting a digital subscription to them for $1 a week for superior national news with daily editorial content.

  8. This is heartbreaking to read. However it reflects what is happing all over though, with traditional media going through earth-shattering changes. Radio has had similar takeovers and the new community stations are part of the non-profit way radio stays local.
    Thank you Watchdog for being a part of the new way news and local stories are delivered.

  9. Great column JB. Really tells the story the way it is. At least you left on your own terms, rather than being kicked to the curb as i and many others were after decades of service. The Watchdog is lucky to have you.

  10. I’ve been a subscriber for 20 years? The decline has been steep. This past Sunday I marveled once again at the “sports section”(or lack thereof). Two day old stories and PAGES of adds! No Saturday delivery; “ honoring “ holiday’s by not publishing. What a crock! No doubt they’ll “ honor “ Christmas Day , too, and that’ll about do it for me……

  11. The newspaper vultures did the same hack job on the Commercial Appeal, our local newspaper here in Memphis. The paper is a shell of what bit was not sinking ago. We stopped subscribing two years ago. What’s the point?

  12. welcome to advanced monopoly capitalism; this is the way it works. My father was a “newsman”, editor of a county paper in Maryland for years; while he was at the paper it won quite a few prizes. He hated Gannett, but he didn’t understand their bz. model as a feature of our economic system; there’s profit (or simply staying alive) and there’s quality — they’re poles apart. Had a lot of arguments about that. He died in 2005

  13. Thanks to John Boyle for the unequivocal, arrow-to-the-heart overview of the death spiral Gannett has apparently lashed itself to, dragging the Citizen-Times right along for the ride. As a long-time writer and journalist, I admit to a certain bias in all of this but it really does seems like the system of thinking is totally upside-down. What about: Build great journalism and the readers (and revenue) will come. I applaud the work of the Watchdog and I’m so glad to see another solid voice, a fine storyteller and reporter (not to mention world-class humorist) join the team.

  14. I love when liberals look at all the problems and absolutely refuse to connect them all to each other because that would mean admitting capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy actually are a problem and the “free market” has only made life unsustainable for people and for the environment.

  15. I was a working journalist for decades and I loved every minute of it until these same changes started happening. Thank you for speaking the truth about the demise of newspapers and what the bottom like really is all about. The world is riddled with greed and untruth and we still need real journalists to try and keep the balance of truth where it needs to be. I miss that world every day and am thrilled to have at least this…one balanced and truthful place to land. Let me know if you need a spicy woman to write about wild dogs, road rage, or the sadness of greed. I kiss your feet for staying around!

  16. My last day in the newspaper business is November 30th. I started as a writer and photographer and will end my career as a lowly account executive. I’ve been writing my “obituary” from the newspaper industry and could not have written anything better. It has been soul-crushing to sell ads that I believed (for most of my career) that supported community journalism. After recent job cuts and forced furloughs, I realized that my sales efforts don’t do anything to support reporters, editors or the newsroom – my efforts have been supporting hedge funds and hedge fund managers. I am glad organizations like Asheville Watchdog exist.

  17. I wondered how long you could fend off the soul sucking venture vampires of Gannett. Was considering canceling my subscription and thinking that I’d have to write you a dear John letter in the process but no, you’ve relieved me of that, thank you. Congratulations! You’re in the right place.

  18. The proverbial handwriting has been on the wall for years. Extremely talented, respected, and loyal journalists have been thrown to the curb by Gannett (and ACT) for years…. many years. Corporate profits are shrinking. Top level corporate levels have to protect their own personal financial status and the way to do that is to cut lower level staff, reduce paper sizes, reduce benefits, and basically lower the overall quantity and quality of actual journalism delivered.
    The fact that the print version of the paper has actually survived this long is a testament to the dedication of the local ACT employees in the face in increasingly difficult challenges and obstacles to doing the job they love.

    In addition, there is a well-funded nationwide effort to discredit all journalism and lead citizens to get their news from only a very small number of well-controlled sources of propaganda, masquerading as journalistic media. If the message can be controlled then the citizens (and the voters) can be controlled and led to believe a wide variety of falsehoods.

    We’ve seen this happen several times in other nations over the past 100 years. History is repeating itself.

    The combination of Corporate Greed and the Dumbing Down of America create an almost impossible chance of Gannett (Asheville Citizen Times) surviving in any meaningful form.

    But let’s focus on the good news !!!!
    There are independent news sources (such as Asheville Watchdog ) rising up and actually doing true journalism… actually informing citizens of factual news and allowing them to form opinions and make decisions based on facts.

    Rather than simply criticizing the status of large corporate media, I want to encourage everyone to support ALL independent media and especially Asheville Watchdog. By adding many seasoned , veteran journalists such as John Boyle, we DO have a viable alternative source for news.

  19. John – Thank you for the inside story on ACT. We canceled our subscription a couple of years ago when we felt the “value” of the ACT had gone not just down but away.

  20. Thank you, John, for telling how it is. Wishing you well in your new place in journalism and gratitude for staying with the news for those of us who need to read the truth.

  21. I have said for years that John Boyle should be president or at the very least governor. He is one of the few honest journalists left in this world. For years the AC-T has gone downhill. Reading this makes me understand why we don’t see much WNC news anymore. Ironically I tried to cancel my subscription a few months ago and was given a great new rate, however when it suddenly went up with no notice last week, I did in fact cancel. Good Luck John Boyle. You will be missed but I plan to see you in your new position.

  22. John Boyle, I’ve been a fan of yours for decades (and a bigger fan of your wife). So glad you’ve joined avlwatchdog. Love you and Grace!

  23. Yeah, “paper cuts” are the worst. I’m struck by the parallel with HCA – big corporations having their way with beloved, local institutions.

  24. I have been purchasing ACT every morning paying full cover price since home delivery was totally aggravating. Your inside story is the tipping point for me. I will spend my money with AVLwatchdog. I sure miss print newspapers. I’m a dinosaur.

  25. I worked for a good many years for magazine publishers in Atlanta and Charlotte, most recently for Business North Carolina, when the News & Observer owned it. I worked with a number of people who had fled Gannett papers. They were bad then and worse now. I’ll be switching my money to you, since there’s no longer going to be even a little bit of local reporting in the ACT. Not to mention their website could hardly be clunkier.

  26. I am one of those folk who moved here from somewhere else, actually lots of “somewheres” courtesy of a military career. In every location I subscribed to great local newspapers- I grew up with one and value the investigative work it takes to reveal truth. ACT, with the exception of John, as been a major disappointment. I now have it online and spend more time swiping past full page ads for hearing aids, window replacements and gutter guards- the very ad revenue that should be paying for journalism but instead pays a fat cat CEO’s salary. I am glad to have found out about John’s move to the Watchdog- perhaps now I can say goodbye to ACT and supplement my local news from BPR and Mtn X.

  27. I left Gannett’s Arizona Republic in 2003. The same structural factors you identify were plain to see even back then in a time of relative prosperity. The company lacked a public service vision and demanded uniformity and blandness in the editorial product. It was hard to blame readers for deserting us.

  28. Saw a quote which paraphrased is:

    “If a media is not growing, it is entering slow liquidation.”
    Was a quote referencing Facebook (aka Meta)

    But it is reflective of a quote I was told in the 70’s;
    “Media is a creative animal; cease to feed it and it will devour you.”

    Unfortunately debt and over valuation ate first.

  29. A quick look at the editions one can access with their ACT subscription reveals that 98% of all the papers throughout the country is the same information with a few pages of local news. Interestingly, Asheville has more “local” information that most of them. I immediately donated to AVL Watchdog because of your joining them, John, and hope it works out for everyone. BTW, my slogan for the ACT has always been “yesterday’s news tomorrow.” It is gobsmacking how often a story is run with a past date in the actual story (One just recently was Karen Chavez’s new appointment and it stated “she’d be starting November 5. The story ran on the 11th, along with a reminder to watch the election results beginning three days earlier. Seriously, someone can’t check dates in a story prior to running it?

  30. Didn’t know you went to “Watchdog.” Glad you left as Gannett has become a talking point of what is the definition of a bad paper.It is not only the ACT but all of their newspaper operations.Doubt they will be around much longer. Good luck at “Watchdog”, will be reading.

  31. Good luck to you, John Boyle. Our loss of critical, ethical journalism is a major setback for the democracy of our ailing nation. A profound loss.

  32. Thank you John. I’ve been a fan of your journalistic talents for a long time. I grew up in Asheville and totally agree that the AVL-CT has become a shell of a paper. I remember visiting the CT bldg on a girl scout field trip and loved the buzz of the newsroom and all points beyond. I, too, will be moving my allegiance to The Watchdog. I would much rather my $ go towards supporting a non-profit that offers rich reporting of our mountain communities.

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