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Updated: May 13, 2024

The new Worcester media, part 1: The downsizing of the Telegram

A photo of the Telegram & Gazette sign, where half of the letters are removed Photo | Christine Peterson After the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reduced the size of its lease in the Mercantile Center, the company's logo was removed from the top of the building.
The new Worcester media This is part one of a two-part series examining the ongoing fragmentation of the news media industry in Central Massachusetts. Read part two here. 
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In November 2013, one month after buying the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Boston billionaire John Henry announced his plan to resell the paper. His parting promise was to sell to a local owner.

Henry told T&G staff, "It's important for the Telegram & Gazette to be under local ownership," the paper reported at the time. "If we don't find the right owner, you're stuck with me."

Henry did find a new owner, but it wasn’t local. In May 2014, he sold the paper to Florida-based Halifax Media Group. After a series of mergers, the company became part of

Gannett, a $2.66-billion conglomerate operating 200+ daily papers, according to Forbes.

The first day after the sale to Halifax closed, 20 of the T&G’s 80 newsroom staff members were laid off, according to Dave Nordman, who was then a managing editor and later became the paper’s executive editor. Over the next two years, another 20 were let go, and the paper today has about 20 reporters, according to its website.

With resources spread thinner, the 75% drop in staff at Worcester’s paper of record occurred alongside a decline in the quantity and quality of news coverage, the Worcester Business Journal found by analyzing T&G articles over the past decade. The result, largely, has been a trend toward so-called transcription journalism relying more on press releases than exclusive reporting to fuel news.

This story is not unique to Central Mass. The plethora of free news online has made it difficult for local newspapers to remain profitable. Since 2014, major corporations like Gannett have bought more than 1,000 local papers, according to research by the University of North Carolina. These sales often come with staff cuts, reducing the capacity of newsrooms to cover local news.

With its paper of record shrinking, Central Mass. has seen several small media companies emerge to try to fill the gap. Together, they offer a more diverse range of news sources with different business models, but none compare in scale or reporting power with the T&G, even with its reduced resources.

Transcription journalism

During its decade of non-local ownership, the T&G’s coverage has changed in both quantity and quality. These changes illustrate the increasingly limited resources, as the region’s paper of record is publishing fewer stories and relying more on press releases rather than original reporting. The paper published more than 2,400 articles in September 2011 compared with 506 in September 2023, the T&G’s online archives show.

WBJ analyzed major publications’ coverage of one of Worcester’s largest economic investments in the past 15 years: the $160-million construction of the Polar Park baseball stadium. Looking at each story from Polar Park's groundbreaking in June 2019 to September 2019, WBJ quantified how many sources were quoted, who those sources were, and where the news came from.

A quarter of the T&G’s stories during this time were based on press releases or events. That marks a decrease in original reporting. In 2010, when covering the $565-million CitySquare development, the T&G did not use press releases to report any of the stories in the three months after CitySquare’s groundbreaking. Instead, reporters based their articles on city government meetings, construction updates, and exclusive news from sources. These primary sources avoid the vetted narrative of press releases, which can favor those who issue them.

A man with glasses in a white shirt and tie
Mark Henderson, owner of The

“You have a lot of transcription journalism,” said Mark Henderson, former T&G reporter who runs news aggregator The “They didn't realize that they were really doing transcription journalism; they were just trying to file their stories and go home.”

Even with its reduced staff, the T&G has provided important accountability journalism. The paper has won awards for its lengthy battle to obtain police records from the City of Worcester and expose misconduct in the department.

"For more than 150 years, the Telegram & Gazette has been the most trusted source for local news in Worcester,” said T&G Executive Editor Michael McDermott. “We continue to emphasize accountability reporting.”

Still, the paper has to carefully pick its spots, as the capacity to do this kind of time-consuming reporting is constrained by limited resources.

Decades of downsizing

Like many local papers, the T&G has struggled to maintain subscriptions, a primary source of media revenue.

Paid print subscriptions for the Sunday T&G had fallen in half before John Henry came onto the scene, from more than 116,500 in March 2004 to around 57,700 in March 2014, according to audited circulation reports shared with WBJ. As of October 2023, Sunday T&G paid print subscriptions were 11,000.

The drop in circulation and advertising dragged down the paper’s value as it changed hands. In the mid-1980s, the T&G’s local owners sold the paper to the San Francisco Chronicle, a then-family owned and operated publisher. After a little more than a decade, in 1999, the Chronicle sold the T&G for $300 million to The New York Times Co. This had followed The Times purchase of the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993.

A man in a portrait photo
Michael McDermott, Telegram & Gazette executive editor

With the purchase by the New York Times Co., there was much initial enthusiasm in the newsroom about the sale, according to a 2016 T&G article reflecting on that period at the paper. Indeed, a partnership between the Globe and T&G was blossoming, but those hopes fizzled in 2013, Nordman said.

Henry bought the Globe and T&G for $70 million in 2013, approximately two cents to the dollar compared with the $1.4-billion combined price tag paid for the two dailies in the 1990s.

It wasn’t a problem unique to the T&G. In the same decade before Henry bought the T&G, circulation for daily newspapers across the country fell by about 26%, according to Pew Research Center. Since 2005, the country has lost 2,900 daily and weekly newspapers, putting the nation on track to lose a third of its papers by the end of 2024, a Northwestern University study from 2023 found.

A number of outside forces factored into this decline.

“Craigslist came along and started publishing classified ads mostly for free, thus taking 40% of newspaper revenues almost overnight. Google and Facebook took most of the rest,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “The rise of hedge-fund and private-equity ownership squeezed the remaining life out of newspapers, taking the remaining revenues and using them to enrich their owners and pay down debt.”

The result is fewer journalists, which has hit smaller, non-metropolitan communities the hardest. Prior to Henry’s sale, the T&G included local sections focused on six Central Massachusetts regions outside Worcester.

“The Telegram & Gazette is a newspaper, but if you look back 10 or 15 years ago, it was seven newspapers,” Nordman said.

A man in a portrait photo
Dave Nordman, former Telegram & Gazette executive editor

Those locally zoned sections were eliminated over the years starting around 2010, and Worcester Magazine – a weekly alternative media publication – was pulled under the same umbrella as the T&G in 2020, resulting in a cut of its five editorial staff members down to one.

Gannett owned a number of other local papers not directly affiliated with the T&G, including the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, Grafton News, The Clinton Item and The Landmark, which covers the Wachusett area north of Worcester. After Gannett announced it would lay off the editors of those four publications, CherryRoad Media, a New Jersey-based company founded in 2020, bought them and they have continued to run, in many cases with a single editorial staffer.

“Worcester has a ghost paper, and it happens to be owned by Gannett,” said Walter Robinson, an editor-at-large at the Boston Globe. “Gannett’s not into journalism at all anymore. They’re into making as much profit as they can for as long as they can before they get out.”

A chart of Worcester media outlets
A chart of Worcester-based media outlets

Filling the gap

Smaller media organizations emerged since Henry’s sale to try to make up for reporters bleeding out of the T&G.

“I do feel that there is still news coverage, just in different forms,” said Andy Lacombe, news director of Spectrum News 1, which provides televised journalism in Worcester.

In Central Mass., those new outlets included statewide organizations that began focusing on the region, like the Springfield-based MassLive and Boston-based WGBH, which started designating reporters to the Worcester area in 2013 and 2020. Online-only startups like This Week In Worcester launched in 2017, and local cable provided Spectrum, which expanded its Spectrum News 1, partnered with the national Spectrum brand to provide 24/7 coverage starting in 2017.

A man in a suit
Andy Lacombe, news director of Spectrum News 1

“The quality of journalism in the city of Worcester right now is better on a day-in and day-out basis than it has been for 20 years,” said Henderson. “That gets lost in the fact that it's not just happening because of one entity.”

Others are more pointed in their criticism.

“Since the Telegram has been in decline … there is a space here, and that's what MassLive advertised itself as filling back when it launched,” said Bill Shaner, author of the Substack newsletter Worcester Sucks and I Love It. “But they're not acting like the Fourth Estate. They're just doing essentially PR work for the city.”

Even with its reduced staff of 20 editorial employees, the T&G remains the largest newsroom in Central Massachusetts by a good margin. Spectrum News 1 has seven staffers who focus primarily on the greater Worcester area, per its website.

“Journalism has to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. You can't do that with one or two reporters,” Robinson said.

A man in a suit sits, looking at the camera
Walter Robinson, editor-at-large for the Boston Globe

MassLive, owned by New York-based Advanced Publications., based 35% of its coverage of Polar Park on press releases or events in the first three months after the stadium's groundbreaking, and 42% of Spectrum News 1’s coverage was based on these. Both are more likely to rely on press releases than the T&G, which used original reporting for 25% of its Polar Park stories in this time period.

Noah Bombard, the former senior managing editor for MassLive Worcester, said he took accountability journalism very seriously during his tenure, which included the aforementioned Polar Park coverage. He now heads communications for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities under former Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus.

Compared with the T&G and MassLive, Spectrum had the most variety of voices in its coverage. More than 40% of its quoted sources for Polar Park were people outside the city government and development team behind the project. About a third of the T&G’s quoted sources were non-government, non-development folks. Less than 20% of MassLive’s sources came from outside that circle.

“You aren't getting any stories about issues that the people we cover don't want us to know,” said Robinson. “Watchdog journalism does not exist in most cities in Mass. and that would include Worcester.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Spectrum News 1 as broadcast news. The station actually refers to itself as televised news, as Spectrum News 1 is not available via over the air broadcast. An earlier version of this article also stated that MassLive is the digital arm of The Republican, when in fact it is owned by New York-based Advanced Publications, and misstated Noah Bombard's title at MassLive. His title was the senior managing editor, not editor. 

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May 15, 2024

Where's the mention of Kirk Davis and Gatehouse, which owned the T&G before their parent company bought Gannett? If you're going to mention bottom-feeders and profit-suckers (even quite briefly) you've got to include the local ones too. Kirk published the Holden Landmark. This is a good evaluation of the fall of the T&G, but it doesn't really name names. Bottom-feeding and profit-sucking are choices, like other business activities. Those who make that choice should be forced to own it. Was that part of the history edited out?

May 14, 2024

There is a lot of really terrific in-depth journalism still being done. But as Mark Henderson points out, it's no longer in one central legacy publication. And news consumers are much more likely to encounter that news on the web where you can instantly access it across a variety of sources -- some paid and some still free.

Having worked in Worcester as editor of Worcester Magazine, editor of online startup Worcester Wired, digital editor at the Telegram and finally as senior managing editor for news at MassLive as we expanded to Worcester, I've had a unique front-row seat to the changing news environment in the city and county from a variety of vantage points. I think we sometimes forget that there was a lot that needed to change with that legacy journalism model. It was often rigid, less engaging with readers and continued to put print first as a business model while simultaneously acknowledging that digital was the future. It hasn't been the future for some time. It's been the primary avenue for news consumption and engagement for nearly 20 years now. If your business model doesn't live in that world, you're not long for it.

As for MassLive, we not only took accountability journalism seriously, we practiced it daily (who broke the news about the PawSox relocating to Worcester? That story wasn't from a press release). That doesn't happen by covering meetings. It happens through deep source building and talking with the community, not at them. We also embraced our role as guides on a super information highway. I think that is a concept that some of my colleagues who also came up in print either don't grasp, or just aren't comfortable with. That means matching our readers' passions for the best fireside dining spots in the area (because they are searching for it, it's useful and a good reporter will do it right) with equal commitment to naming the 45 state troopers who were involved in an overtime scandal. It means reporting on the city's gourmet doughnut craze while simultaneously putting a reporter on a 6 a.m. ferry to Martha's Vineyard where a plane full of migrants just landed. It means having Nick O'Malley rank all 24 flavors of wings from Wings Over (because he's fun to watch) while at the same time having the courage to sue the University of Massachusetts for public records over a $40 million disagreement with UMass Memorial that had been the city's best kept secret.

There is a lot of fantastic journalism still being done out there. It's not all in one place anymore. It's a competitive field. And I think that's a good thing.

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