Two days ago, Judi Terzotis, Gannett’s newly-minted President of its newly-created Gulf Region Division, wrote the obituary for a 134-year-old daily newspaper that, in its heyday, had been one of the most influential and innovative journalistic institutions in the entire country, The Town Talk of Alexandria, Louisiana.
Ms. Terzotis can be forgiven for not appreciating the magnitude of her announcement. She has only been on the job for about a year, and The Town Talk is just one of several mid-market papers for which she is responsible.
It’s also worth nothing: She’s apparently never actually lived in Alexandria. Lafayette has been her home for around three years.
Before that and during a brief break from Gannett, she was President of a paper in Fort Collins, Colorado for a couple of years, and before her gig in Fort Collins, she was an associate editor of a paper in Colorado Springs, which also lasted about two years. But eventually, Ms. Terzotis found her way back home to Gannett, where she had shuffled through three different jobs for three different papers in Mississippi and Tennessee in less than a decade.
All told, Ms. Terzotis has held at least 8 different jobs in 5 states, almost exclusively with Gannett, during the last 19 years. I do not know Ms. Terzotis, but it sure sounds like she is a loyal and valuable utility player for Gannett Corporate. She very well may be a kind, decent, and intensely brilliant leader who has risen through the ranks because of her tenacity and her laser-like focus on the ever-bleaker financial spreadsheets and web traffic analytical reports.
I also fully understand how the ubiquity of free, online news has upended the traditional newspaper business model, forcing publishers- both big and small- to imagine more effective, more competitive, more targeted, and more profitable strategies.
But, much like The Times-Picayune’s similar decision to switch to a three-day-a-week publication supplemented by a daily digital site that is heavily reliant on wire stories available almost everywhere for free (and therefore functionally obsolescent), I cannot help but lament the ways in which the blind rush to consolidate media companies, more than any other factor, murdered the local newspaper, which is not only a critical community institution; the local newspaper, more than anything else, continues to be the most important check against public corruption.
It is simply impossible to outsource stories about City Hall or the School Board or County Commissioners or, in Louisiana’s case, Police Jurors to some national freelance reporter or some rookie straight out of high school. Local news-gathering and reporting relies on those who possess institutional expertise and those with a desire to learn it.
The local newspaper should be a community’s ears on the ground and its eyes on the streets, but the only way its reporting can be taken credibly is if it is informed by the oral histories of people who live there and the knowledge that journalists only gain by fully immersing themselves in the community, every single day. It’s not always glamorous work, and it rarely earns major national awards or commendation.
Today, Gannett owns a national daily, USA Today, and, until recently, 109 other local dailies all across the United States and 150 brands in the United Kingdom. Since its founding in 1906, Gannett claims to have earned a grand total of 56 Pulitzer Prizes during the last 111 years, between its 110 American newspapers.
But, notably, those numbers appear to be either highly inflated or deceptively counted. Gannett did win a Pulitzer for special reporting in 1964 and another Pulitzer in 1980 for its news service. Its flagship paper, USA Today, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In addition, The Virgin Island Daily News, under Gannett, won a Pulitzer in 1997; The Rochester Times-Union, one of the conglomerate’s first acquisitions, won the prize in 1971; The Observer-Dispatch, which was also one of Gannett’s very first properties, won a joint award for public service in 1959. The Detroit Free Press picked up a Pulitzer in 2014, with Gannett as a limited managing partner. And The Des Moines Register, which prior to its purchase by Gannett had earned more Pulitzers than any other paper not named The New York Times, managed to earn three additional Pulitzers in 1987, 1991, and 2010.
There are only two possible ways in which Gannett could claim it has earned 56 Pulitzer Prizes, instead of the 10 it has actually collected: Either Gannett is counting each and every recipient as winners of an individual award (and yes, very rarely, two or three journalists may share a prize for the same collaborative work), or, more likely, they’re counting every previously-awarded Pulitzer Prize won by every newspaper that they would eventually own.
By contrast, The New York Times has won 119 Pulitzers; The Washington Post has 47, The Wall Street Journal has collected 39, and The Boston Globe has 26 under its belt.
Yet USA Today, Gannett’s most prized asset and the largest national newspaper in the entire country, with a circulation that is nearly the circulation of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal combined, hasn’t won even a single award. A 111-year-old media conglomerate with 110 American newspapers under its corporate umbrella has won journalism’s top prize fewer times than the Times, the Post, the Journal, or the Globe. Politico and Huffington Post and even The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Massachusetts each have more Pulitzer Prizes on their mantles than the largest newspaper in the country.
And sure, you could argue that the Pulitzer is just an elitist and meaningless vanity prize and that USA Today has such a wide circulation because it better responds to consumer demand. But that ignores something blatantly obvious to anyone who lives in a community in which Gannett operates: They are systematically deconstructing and destroying local, community newspapers in order to subsidize their substandard, laughable, and vapid gossip rag posing as a legitimate national news source. There’s no serious reporting in USA Today. When is the last time USA Today actually broke- on its own- a story of profound national or international consequence?
When Joe D. Smith sold The Town Talk in 1996 to Central Newspapers, it’d been a family-held enterprise for 113 years. Scholars from all over the country were fascinated by what Joe D. had created in Alexandria; he was an innovator, decades ahead of his time. In 2005, Fredrick M. Spletstoser, an academic from Missouri, wrote an entire book about the early years of The Town Talk. (I’m glad I hoarded a few copies of this before it went out of print, because today, used copies are selling between $90 – $400).
Spletstoser recognized the symbiotic relationship between my hometown and its newspaper, and if you ever have the chance to read his book, take it. Even if you’re not from Central Louisiana, it’s a fascinating case study.
In 1996, when Joe D. sold the paper to Central Newspapers (who then sold it to Gannett), newspapers were already online, even in Louisiana. The Times-Picayune launched their first online site in mid-1995. Everyone in the industry understood that the Internet had the ability to dramatically reorient the ways in which we receive and discern the news. But people also understood the value of the product that Joe D. Smith had built: A feisty little newspaper with a big voice.
The Town Talk sold for $62 million.
Shortly thereafter, Gannett pilfered every last penny from it. They outsourced the local printing press, leaving Downtown Alexandria with an enormous, vacant, blighted warehouse and stealing away dozens of good-paying jobs. They brought in a couple of high-priced executives who cared more about their next job in the next city than they ever cared about Central Louisiana. They fired dozens of career employees and award-winning journalists. They were too slow or too stupid to learn how to adapt to the Internet.
And perhaps most critically, they never understood their own business, believing that local journalism could somehow be automated.
On May 13, 1864, Union soldiers burned Alexandria to the ground. At the time, Alexandria was the second-largest city in Louisiana and, ironically, a haven for Northern sympathizers. William Tecumseh Sherman had once lived directly across the Red River. It’d take decades before Alexandria fully recovered, and no one was more instrumental in guiding and cheerleading its recovery than an Irish immigrant who published columns on his own printing press extolling Alexandria as “the future great city.”
His name was Edgar McCormick, and along with his friend and fellow Irish immigrant Henarie Huie, he founded The Town Talk.
More than a century later, The Town Talk was the very first newspaper to ever print a column I’d written, as a member of its Youth Council. It was a glowing review of our high school’s production of The Music Man.
And even before that, The Town Talk was the very first newspaper to print my name in a story about someone else. I was the ring-bearer at my Uncle John and Aunt Erin’s wedding.
My mother and father owned a real estate brokerage firm in Alexandria, and over the course of twenty years, their names were printed in advertisements in The Town Talk more than 10,000 times. So, in a way, it is also a chronicle of their professional lives, which I could never fully understand as a child and which is all the more important to me since my father’s death in 2001.
I will always cherish little stories like these (apologies in advance to my mother):
And these too:
Because this is part of the magic of a good local paper: At its very best, it chronicles our lives, and people will pay to read that, no matter what.
Here’s my younger brother Mark obviously swinging and missing at a pitch when he was 8 years old (To his credit, a few years later, he managed to knock out one heckuva home run):
I understand there are certain stories that, nowadays, are better suited online, but it’s not nostalgic or sentimental to assert that there are many more moments- in the life of a community- that require the permanence of ink and paper.
If Gannett truly cares about the people of Central Louisiana, there’s a simple solution. Instead of eliminating our one and only daily newspaper, sell it back to the locals. Of course, today, it’s only worth of a fraction of the $62 million it sold for 21 years ago.
But for more than a century- through the aftermath of Reconstruction and the invention of radio and then television, through two world wars and devastating assassinations, through a race that finished on the surface of the moon and an Air Force base closure that threatened to destroy our local economy- the people from Central Louisiana wrote and published The Town Talk themselves. And year after year, it turned a profit.
Gannett isn’t failing in Central Louisiana because of the Internet. It’s failing because they don’t give a damn about spending money to create the one and only product they are uniquely capable of selling: The local news.
Ouch. Anaddah ain’t dere no mo.
Lamar: You have written many fine blogs. With those I have disagreed , I was still stimulated to think. With many you write with a passion so sadly lacking in most journalism. But this was the best , because you are so correct on all points. Forget Reconstruction. The real scalawag and carpetbagger to our community has been Gannett. Sad , sad to use a current popular Twitter expression. Local buy back would be an early Christmas present for all.
Lamar – the most obvious person to rescue and resurrect the Town Talk is you! I mean that seriously.
As a New Orleans native with an LSU journalism degree, living in Alexandria in the late 1970s and working as a Town Talk reporter, I was heartened and amazed by the paper’s professionalism and dedication to excellent news reporting. There was a Capitol news correspondent (or two) who doggedly covered state politics and often ruffled the feathers of statewide elected officials. The Town Talk was a well-respected and prestigious news organization, headed by the visionary Joe D. Smith. The newsroom had a steady stream of visitors from newspapers nationwide and a handful of international publications, who wanted to see the radical new way of producing a daily newspaper using computers. The Town Talk was one of the first three dailies in the US to convert to the nascent computer technology in the 1970s. The organization was ahead of its time back then, and it’s been sad to watch it devolve.
You would make a difference. Your community needs it. The formerly venerable publication needs it. There is a time for a return of a native.
Jerel M. Giarrusso
I remember when Town Talk started using computers in 1972 for the cold type composition. I left the Town Talk after 8 years, for a couple of years (1974-1976) before returning in 1976 for another 28 years. I went to work at Morning World newspaper in Monroe, and they started using computers about 1976, so were 4 years behind the Town Talk technologically.
There’s nothing to buy but a brand name – the presses are gone – and a photo archive I worry about, a beautiful visual history of the area since the late ’50s (earlier photos were donated to NSU).
I worked at the Town Talk for 36 years, and remember that when Gannett took over the Town Talk, that started the paper downhill, and culminated in the announcement, that it will now be printing only 3 editions a week.
The department I worked in had 40 employees at one time, and that department no longer exists. I have read that there were 314 employees, when Gannett took over, and now there may as few as 20 employees today, and that number may be reduced after the announcement of a 3 days a week paper.
The Gannett Corporation has no interest in the Cenla economy, as shown by their outsourcing of jobs to other states, that were previously held by local employees.
The Town Talk was founded 134 years ago in 1883, and will be celebrating or rather mourning their 134th anniversary on March 17. It is questionable now, if the Town Talk will remain in business, with even less income from subscriptions.
It is also questionable whether the focus on the digital edition of the Town Talk will replace the revenue lost by printing fewer editions.
So very similar to what happened to the Times-Pic and other Newhouse papers. Look at nola.com, al.com, mlive.com and nj.com – all the same look and layout. The same goes for a Gannett “local paper”, just a variant of USA Today with the same look and style.
Great story Lamar. It is a sad day here in Alexandria.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Lamar, thank you for your comments. I was fortunate to work at tha “Alexandria Daily Town Talk” for 22 years. I thought I would retire from the newspaper, but things changed.
I worked with many award winning journalist who took pride in their work, keeping our government leaders in check and responsible for their actions through investative reporting. For the time, we had the best technology available and helped to develop software used for larger newspapers. That vision was that of my Uncle Joe. I know he had Central Louisana in mind when looking at the future. The legacy of the family, like your’s, is very evident. I think the culture we have today can be linked to many of the contributions the families of the Town Talk made. The land the Performing Arts center is on, a room the is in memory of my Aunt Jane, Louisiana College and St James Episcopal Church are a few of those examples.
Sure a local newspaper would be great, but that industry has gone through so many changes with the growth of the internet. The anilog news has not keep in pace with the digital one. I think if creative ideas to blend the 2 together would give the new visionaries on Cenla a good project to try to be successful.
This is a beautifully written story about the Town Talk. I first read the TT in the mid 1960’s when I was courting a young lady from Alex. It was much better than the Times Picayune. By the way, that young lady and I have been one for 50 years.
Powerful, and so true. I watched Gannett gut the Shreveport Times for the 16 years I worked there. Heartbreaking.
The electronics of today will never replace the printed Town Talk where one sits in a comfortable chair with a newspaper in hand, slowly perusing the obits, local, state and national news with a cup of coffee
Thank you Lamar for putting to words what I have been thinking for a long time. I just got my bill last Friday for my yearly subscription to the Town Talk and the price has gone up to $306.01. The Town Talk has been delivered to my address since 1942 when my parents built this house. This may sound stupid to some folks but this is a life changing event for me. Reading the paper the first thing in the morning along with a cup of coffee has been part of my life for many years.
The Alexandria Daily Town Talk created “Central Louisiana,” its news reports and advertising pulling communities all over the area into one larger community. I cannot imagine the region without it. And why are its archived photographs at ULM, not LSU-A or Northwestern, Central Louisiana institutions?
I learned to read by reading The Town Talk. At 3:30 PM, the paper landed in my family’s driveway. My mother dripped coffee and together, we walked out to pick up the paper. Once she settled herself in the gold wingback chair in our living room with the paper, my only-child world fell silent. I might get a “hmmm” now and again, but until she finished her first perusal, I was on my own. More than anything in the world, I wanted to read, to be part of that world my mother encountered on the pages of that newspaper. So once she moved to the interior of the paper, I stood before her, trying to make out the headlines of the day. “Eye-o Jeye Ma. What does that mean?” I remember asking. She stopped, looked at the words my index finger was trying to make out, and pulled me to her. “Iwo Jima,” she said. “It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean. A terrible battle against the Japanese is going on there, Honey.” On the first day of my first-grade year, I came home announcing that now I could read, and I showed my mother the paper on which I had written “BOB.” “You’ve been reading The Town Talk for two years. Of course, you can read!” my unimpressed mother said.
That paper was a physical and cultural fixture in my life, as it was in the lives of all its readers, I assume. It created a world—Central Louisiana—of which I was a part. When I went to college, my parents gave me a subscription. But only as an adult did I realize what a remarkable newspaper it was. Its editorials, the care of its proofreaders, the thoroughness of its coverage of such a wide variety of subjects, local and national—how did a small-city paper manage to produce such a fine paper? Surely the answer is the one Mr. White gave: it covered local news with depth and elegance.
And what will happen now that Gannett has undone the world The Town Talk held together? But that is not Gannett’s concern. What a cool, thoroughly disinterested business decision does to a community and region is not a matter of interest to the folks in Arlington, Virginia. The loss of yet one more independent voice just makes the nation run more smoothly and anonymously. Easier to herd.
No digitized version of USA TODAY will be The Town Talk