To the surprise of employees and readers, the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail unceremoniously merged this week.
Written by Zack Harold*
- (3:18 p.m. 7/20/15) According to sources inside the 3 p.m. company-wide meeting, Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette staffers will have to reapply for their jobs. The company will offer severance packages to those not rehired, for the amount of one week’s pay for each full year of service.
- (4:12 p.m. 7/20/15) “It’s an economic reality for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. They had to combine,” says publisher Susan Shumate (via @rachelmolenda)
- (1:36 p.m. 7/21/15) A Gazette-Mail staffer leaked a recording of Monday’s companywide meeting to West Virginia Focus. Click here to see new information from that recording.
Around 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. It was a rare occasion, since the newsrooms traditionally had very little contact with one another.
The publications shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations since forming a joint operating agreement in 1958, but the newsrooms had always remained independent. Although the combined weekend editions were called the Saturday Gazette-Mail and Sunday Gazette-Mail, Gazette staffers wrote most of the content except for the Daily Mail’s editorial page.
Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. Each newspaper runs a bare-bones staff on Sundays. Most reporters and photographers work Monday through Friday—so on weekends it is mostly copy editors, who edit stories and design pages.
Staffers who attended the meeting say they knew something major was about to happen, although no one could guess what it was. It didn’t take long to find out.
Susan Chilton Shumate, who was announced as the new publisher of the Gazette on June 27, made the announcement: The employees of the two newspapers now worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The arrangement was effective immediately. This brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.
Staffers were shocked. No one outside of upper-level management, it seems, had any idea this merger would occur. West Virginia Focus confirmed these details through numerous interviews with newspaper employees, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of losing their jobs.
One Charleston Newspapers employee says the announcement came as a shock to employees despite years of speculation about the newspapers’ future.
“The action itself is not something I am surprised about,” the employee says. “I’m surprised with the way they went about it, but then, I don’t know all the circumstances.”
This employee heard rumors of the change from staff who were present at the lobby meeting on Sunday afternoon but, like many staffers who work Monday through Friday shifts, didn’t get official word for another two hours.
Employees received an email announcing the change around 5 p.m. Sunday. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” the email said. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”
The email said the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—one conservative and the other liberal—and assured employees the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.”
Readers learned of the news just three hours later via an identical announcement on the newspapers’ websites. As of Sunday evening, staffers had precisely as much information as the general public.
“The email they sent made it sound like the Charleston Gazette-Mail would be bigger and better than before … But I don’t know that the situation was handled well enough to make me feel totally confident about that,” the employee said. “Just based on the way that they’ve handled it so far, I don’t think that they will tell us any of their plans before executing them at any point in this transition.”
The company has planned a meeting for Monday afternoon to update employees on how the merger will work. As of Monday morning, staff members seemed to be playing their new work environment by ear.
* * *
Once the initial shock of the announcement wore off, a flurry of confused activity followed.
Daily Mail editors sent their stories and photos to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper, although they had some trouble accessing the computers, since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Despite the time crunch, copies of the newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps right on time Monday morning.
The front page features a story about a domestic violence pilot program from Daily Mail crime reporter Tyler Bell, as well as a story about the West Virginia Public Service Commission written by Gazette business reporter Andrew Brown. Both are listed as “staff writers.”
But the big story of the day—the “play” story as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.” The text is the same as the email sent to staffers and the announcement released online Sunday night.
What the story does not mention is the interesting timing of this change.
On July 19, 2010, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a “final judgement” in an antitrust case brought by the U.S. Justice Department against the Daily Gazette Company and MediaNews Group.
Although the Daily Mail’s and Gazette’s joint business operations were known as “Charleston Newspapers,” the Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette and MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Both companies had 50-percent stakes in Charleston Newspapers until 2004, when MediaNews sold its share to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.
This drew the federal government’s attention and in 2007 the Justice Department filed a suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.”
Three years later, Copenhaver’s final judgment required the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and ownership and editorial control of the newspaper be returned to MediaNews Group. For as long as the final judgment was in effect, MediaNews Group and the Daily Gazette Company were required to seek federal approval before making any changes to this arrangement.
Copenhaver’s final judgment was set to expire five years from the date it was issued—Sunday, July 19, 2015.
Shumate could not say whether the decision to merge the papers had anything to do with the expiration of the final judgment. “I can’t really speak about that as much, just because I’m not as knowledgeable about it,” she says.
She says the newspaper business has declined “dramatically” in the five years since the judgment, however, and without a merger both newspapers likely would have seen major cuts.
“I think ultimately it would have been downsizing both newsrooms,” she says. “To downsize both newsrooms, you lose your local content, you lose your local stories. This is a locally owned company. I’ve been around this building my entire life. It’s a sense of pride for everyone in this building that we put out a wonderful product.”
* * *
It’s a large room with windows overlooking the Kanawha River, often used to hold editorial board meetings with political candidates. It recently served as a dining room for Charleston Newspapers’ annual summer cookout. On Monday afternoon, the room was so crowded about half the attendees had to stand.
A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording.
Shumate began by introducing herself and making a brief statement, echoing the press release put out Sunday. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.”
She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.” But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees.
She estimated the new newsroom probably would employ between 65 to 68 people. There are currently 45 employees in the Gazette newsroom. The Daily Mail’s budget allows for 33 full-time positions, although some positions are currently unfilled.
Every member of the newsroom staff, from top to bottom, will have to reapply for his or her job. The positions will be posted by July 31 and employees will have until August 7 to submit their resumes and cover letters.
“You’re basically reapplying for a position with the new Gazette-Mail,” said Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. “Everything you’ve accomplished, put in these resumes. Don’t think we know everything.”
A committee—consisting of Shumate, former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers, and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—will review the applications and begin interviews by August 10. McIntyre said she hopes the re-hiring process will be completed by August 21.
The newspaper will offer severance packages to those not rehired, for the amount of one week’s pay for each full year worked. Severance packages are limited to no more than 26 weeks’ pay and no less than one week’s pay. Employees are required to work through the transition period, ending August 21, to receive severance pay.
McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”
Byers said the interview committee would be looking for reporters, copy editors and photographers of all skills and experience levels. “This will be the biggest newsroom those of us who’ve been here a while have been used to,” he said.
About halfway through the meeting, staffers began asking questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt.
“There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband. “The fact that it was a sudden change … gave everyone something to work forward on, instead of having trickles of information out and people getting dissatisfied and worried when there wasn’t a reason to.”
Trip Shumate also said “very few people” knew the merger was taking place. One staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. Executives did not answer. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.”
She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew chuckles from employees, many of whom make their livings deciphering “spin.”
One male staffer can be heard on the recording asking what he should say if questioned about the merger. “Do I say ‘no comment?’” the staffer asked, drawing a large laugh from co-workers.
“I would not advise you to go on Hoppy Kercheval,” McElhinny said, referring to the popular MetroNews talk show host who regularly features newspaper reporters. “I would hope everyone reflects this as well as possible,” he said.
* * *
The companywide meeting did little to allay staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury.
“They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” says one Daily Mail reporter. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.” The reporter says the reapplication process is “embarrassing,” and the arrangement is made especially awkward because, “we’re having to coordinate with the people we’re competing for jobs against. It’s like we’re all supposed to be on the same team, but at the same time … we’ve got jobs to fight over.”
Until final hiring decisions are made, staffs of both newspapers are working together to figure out a division of labor. The doors to the two formerly insular newsrooms are now wide open.
“There’s a lot of running back and forth across the hall,” one reporter said. “That would rarely ever happen before. It’s happening all the time now and it isn’t any less weird.”
Susan Shumate says she has been impressed by the way staffers have handled the change. “Right now our priority is trying to get this new combined paper out. It’s been, to me, an awe-inspiring process just to see the newsrooms work together.”
* * *
In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Charleston Daily Mail. I started as an intern in summer 2009, then became a full-time reporter covering education, health, and politics before becoming the paper’s Lifestyles section editor in late 2013.
I left the newspaper in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. But during my final months at the Daily Mail, I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and otherwise shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.
In October, Charleston Newspapers increased the newsstand price of both publications from 50 cents to 75 cents. The cost of the Sunday Gazette-Mail increased from $1.50 to $2.
In addition to the weekly Saturday and Sunday joint editions, the newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays, beginning last Thanksgiving. While the combined editions featured stories from both Daily Mail and Gazette staffers, the Gazette’s copy editing staff did the bulk of the layout duties. Subscribers received a Gazette-Mail on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Memorial Day.
Last year, Charleston Newspapers switched the order in which the newspapers were printed. Instead of alternating two editions—the Gazette “state” edition, followed by the Daily Mail one-star edition, followed by the Gazette “final” edition, and finally the Daily Mail’s two-star edition—both Daily Mail editions were sandwiched between Gazette editions.
Also last year, the company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services.
In January of this year, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its longtime payroll clerk.
The company also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint earlier this year. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays. The situation seems to have been sorted out now, however.
* * *
Many Charleston residents and West Virginia expats took to social media to express their feelings about the merger.
“Saddened to see the end of an era for my hometown newspapers … Hang on, print journalism,” wrote Ashley Hill, who works for C-SPAN in Washington, D.C.
“This is a setback for two independent news voices. But the reality is Charleston held on longer than any other city its size,” wrote Charleston resident George Manahan on Facebook. “Here’s hoping that this will truly be the Gazette-Mail and not one paper squashing the voice of another.”
Former Daily Mail staffer Ry Rivard expressed his gratitude to the newspaper’s staff. “The joyous newsroom is, I’m told, a rare thing. The (Daily Mail) had one,” he tweeted. “Did some of us at both papers wonder (about combined) effort, to have one big staff make one great product playing to each paper’s strengths? Of course. A thoughtful process might have guaranteed that product. The nobody-knows-anything surprise that is unfolding is not comforting.”
*West Virginia Focus writer Shay Maunz, also a former Charleston Daily Mail reporter, contributed to this report.
Managing editor Zack Harold appeared on Hoppy Kercheval’s “Talkline” on Tuesday, June 21 to talk about this story. Click below to listen.