October 25, 2021

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Unlimited Technology

Civic-minded tech exec buys 20 newspapers from Gannett

Another successful tech executive is making a midlife foray into newspaper publishing.

I hope that Jeremy Gulban, who last week bought 20 papers from Gannett in America’s heartland, has at least some of the success Jeff Bezos enjoyed since he bought The Washington Post in 2013.

Gulban, 46, isn’t in the same league as Bezos, who bought the Post at 50. But he’s starting out with a similar a vision for applying technology and business skills to improve the newspapers’ operation and ensure their survival.

Such newcomers help make the case that there’s still a future for newspapers, especially if they receive an infusion of support to upgrade systems and transition toward a more digital future.

Gulban is CEO of CherryRoad Technologies, a New Jersey company that began in 1983 working on mainframe computers.

Clients include cities, states and port districts, including the Port of Seattle. CherryRoad builds, modernizes and runs software systems and services.

Gulban told me he decided to invest in newspapers while looking for civic ways to apply the company’s expertise last year during the pandemic.

First he tried school districts and municipalities, but the ones he spoke to were already using big services like Microsoft’s or Google’s.

“There was really no opportunity to do anything creative with anyone, so we started thinking of other ways we could make a difference in the community and newspapers came to mind,” he said. “It just felt like this was an opportunity to see if we could get into the business, see if we could put our skills to work and make the industry stronger.”

A broker connected him to a small paper in Minnesota. “If he had not been a nice guy I would have walked away,” Gulban added.

But they clicked, and Gulban bought the Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais. Then he bought four other papers in Arkansas, and relaunched a defunct paper in another small Minnesota town.

That turned out to be a warm-up. Last week he acquired 20 papers, including five dailies, that Gannett sold in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Gannett spun them out as it works to cut debt from its 2019 megamerger with GateHouse Media.

Owen Van Essen, the broker representing Gannett, said there continues to be interest in acquiring smaller newspapers. As the value of these papers decreases, they become more affordable to local buyers and individuals like Gulban.

Van Essen said some smaller publishers are still doing all right with businesses built around subscriptions and Main Street advertisers.

Publishers are also operating far smaller newsrooms, walking a tightrope between cutting costs enough to survive while still providing enough coverage to attract subscribers.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Gulban said. “If you want more readers, you’ve got to put a better product out, and you’ve got to make investments of people on the street who put out a better product.”

Gulban plans to increase reporting capacity, especially at the former Gannett papers that were shockingly understaffed.

“It’s a bit of a struggle to find people though,” he said.

The small weeklies will probably run with a staff of one full-time and one part time reporter. At the larger papers, printing two to five days a week, he expects to have around two or three in the newsroom.

That’s still awfully lean. It’s hardly enough to do basic coverage. But it’s an improvement over what’s now happening at the 20 papers being acquired.

“In a lot of places, there’s one person putting out the paper multiple times a week,” he said.

The small Pulitzer-winning Iowa paper I wrote about Thursday, The Storm Lake Times, has a staff of around 10. But about half of them are members of the family that owns it, and the editor works for free.

Gulban plans to continue printed newspapers, which he believes are important to the papers’ presence as a community institution. A number of people want a printed paper and don’t want to read it online, he said.

To make it work, Gulban believes he can improve business operations, such as workflows, and use CherryRoad’s web hosting facility. Systems developed will eventually be offered to other media companies.

A decade from now, CherryRoad could make more money providing that technology than from publishing papers, he said.

This isn’t exactly what I expected to save local papers. Ideally, local owners would step forward. But there is no standard template for operating a newspaper, and even places without a local publisher still need local news.

All sorts of owners and models are needed to sustain the thousands of independent newspapers that communities depend upon to keep them informed and hold government accountable. And regional publishers who save and invest in smaller papers are better than Wall Street types milking them to death.

If Gulban finds a formula that works, I hope he shares it widely. With luck it will enable him to hire even more journalists at his 27 papers.

Best of all, Gulban said he’s committed to the mission, one he first began to appreciate as a kid reading local papers. Now he sees them as a utility and a vital institution to keep check on government.

“I think it is a very viable service,” he said. “If you don’t have a newspaper, where’s the local news going to come from and how are you going to know it’s quality, accurate news?”

Amen to that.

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