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Indicted Mayor, Shrinking Paper: Fall River Exemplifies High Stakes In GateHouse-Gannett Merger04:45
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The Herald News' proximity to Fall River Government Center, left, makes it easy for reporters to keep an eye on public officials. But recent cuts at the GateHouse-owned daily have left a newsroom staff in the single digits. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)
The Herald News' proximity to Fall River Government Center, left, makes it easy for reporters to keep an eye on public officials. But recent cuts at the GateHouse-owned daily have left a newsroom staff in the single digits. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

The deal struck this month to join the GateHouse and Gannett newspaper chains could diminish local news coverage in cities like Worcester, Quincy, New Bedford and Brockton, where some of the 10 Massachusetts dailies affected by the merger are based. The companies say they're aiming to cut as much as $300 million in annual costs, and some area journalists have already been laid off.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Fall River, where the GateHouse-owned Herald News is the primary watchdog for a government led by Mayor Jasiel Correia, he of the 13-count federal indictment.

A recent episode underscored the precious and precarious nature of local reporting: On a night this month when most of Fall River's 90,000 residents had something better to do than sit through a City Council meeting, Herald News writer Jo C. Goode was in the council chamber to witness Correia show up, unexpectedly, to interrupt a debate about a troubled public works project.

Council President Cliff Ponte told Correia to leave the floor; the mayor refused. In the middle of the standoff — which later ended with a premature adjournment and no resolution — Goode started live-streaming on Facebook, and approached Correia.

"So, mayor, what are you hoping to accomplish here?" Goode asked.

"I'm just going to join in on the discussion, which is my right," Correia replied. "I am the mayor of the city, and there's a very important discussion with a premier project of this administration that was being totally hacked by some councilors."

Goode easily could have missed this showdown between Correia and the City Council because the short-staffed Herald News had assigned her to simultaneously cover another event.

Councilor Steven Camara said the public suffers when there isn't a robust, local press corps.

"I think anyone who's in public office sometimes has a love-hate relationship with the press but, you know, the media and the press is very important in the functioning of government and the functioning of our lives," he said.

Camara estimates the number of reporters covering Fall River, from all outlets, is about one-third of what it was 15 years ago.

Newspapers across the country have been cutting staff for years, and there's no end in sight, according to Elizabeth Grieco, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center.

"If you look at the trends that we see in the various kinds of data, it is very likely that next year is going to be another bad year," she said.

GateHouse and Gannett plan to close their deal next year. The combined business would include daily newspapers in almost every state — more than 250 altogether, including the flagship USA Today.

The companies declined interview requests, and Goode said GateHouse wouldn't let her speak on the record. But on an earnings call with investors, Michael Reed, who will lead the joint venture, touted a commitment to local reporting.

"The combination of these two leading local news, media and marketing services companies will transform the landscape and better position our combined company to not only preserve but actually enhance quality journalism," Reed said.

"Enhance" is not the word Dave Souza would use. Souza was the last staff photographer at the Herald News, until he was laid off last week, along with the paper's sports editor. He says six journalists have been let go since May, bringing the newsroom staff down to single digits.

Photographer Dave Souza, at home in Dighton, looks at some of his favorite pictures from a 34-year career at the Herald News. He was laid off last week. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)
Photographer Dave Souza, at home in Dighton, looks at some of his favorite pictures from a 34-year career at the Herald News. He was laid off last week. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

At home in Dighton on Monday, Souza cued up a staff Christmas video that he produced a few years ago, to underscore the recent attrition.

"He's gone; she's gone," Souza said, over and over, as the faces of former colleagues appeared onscreen. "That's what's happened to the paper, unfortunately. They've been cutting it, and cutting it, and cutting it."

Naturally, Souza considers this a tragedy. But how about the indicted mayor? Correia might stand to benefit if the GateHouse-Gannett merger leaves fewer eyes on his administration.

Yet, he said he doesn't want that to happen.

"Of course, sometimes I feel there are certain reporters that have a bias, and I think every politician feels that way," Correia said. "But it also reminds me, all the time, when they do report something that I maybe don't want them to report, in the way that they do, how important the press is."

This segment aired on August 21, 2019.

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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