Washington Post’s Gazette Community Sites Were Stuck in a Print Past

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I was shocked to hear last week that Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post was closing its Gazette community news sites in suburban Maryland. But if I had been paying closer attention to the fast demographic and lifestyle changes in those suburbs — and how they were gradually overwhelming The Gazette like a slow-motion but just-as-deadly-tsunami — it might have seemed a little more obvious.

(Full disclosure: I used to work for Chuck Lyons at a chain of community weeklies before the Post chose him, in 1993, to lead The Gazette — which he then expanded throughout suburban Maryland and into Fairfax County across the Potomac River. Fuller disclosure: earlier, I had been a reporter at the Washington Post.)

This Alexa chart is worth a thousand words about what happened to The Gazettes:

Gazette vs. Bethesda MagazineThe Gazette used to be well ahead of its main competitor, Bethesda Magazine, but now there’s not much daylight between the two sites. The numbers are even more devastating for The Gazette since Bethesda Magazine primarily represents only one community in suburban Maryland, while The Gazette represented 28 communities. Bethesda Magazine did get a boost when it acquired Scott Brobeck’s Bethesda Now in April, but the trend line was already in place, as the chart shows.

Just six years ago, when it was celebrating its 50th anniversary, The Gazette looked as if it would be around for many anniversaries to come. Sam Katz, then mayor of Gaithersburg, where the Gazette was launched in the basement of its first publisher, recalled how he and other local public officials used to troop to the Gazette’s headquarters to seek a pre-election annointing: “This was a sitdown in front of three or four representatives of the papers. … It was a big influence on what you were doing and thinking.” During that same 50th birthday celebration, Donald Graham, then CEO of the Washington Post, which his grandfather rescued from bankruptcy in the 1930s, said: “That’s the one thing The Gazette has going for it – it’s close to its customers.”

No more. What happened?

The seeds of The Gazette’s demise were planted in 2005 when Post Community Media spent a stunning $40 million on four-story-high Mitsubishi printing presses, which, while “state of the art,” were essentially 19th-century publishing technology in an emerging 21st-century digital world. Post Community Media is owned by the Post company, but it is wholly responsible for its own debts, and $40 million was a crushingly heavy burden on the company’s balance sheets. As the biggest operation in Post Community Media, The Gazette had to shoulder most of that burden.

That meant that the Gazette remained locked in a print mentality just as the Internet was beginning to show its potential right down to the hyperlocal level. Besides paying down its share of the $40 million debt from the new presses, The Gazette had to cover the costs of pre-print, printing and distribution of more than half a million free papers weekly. That total bill probably hit $5 million annually. Add The Gazette’s share of year amortization costs for the new presses, and you’re looking at an annual bill of at least $8 million and probably closer to $10 million.

To meet this burden, The Gazette did snip off some of its print distribution in outlying communities, but that wasn’t enough to stop the flow of red ink. The Gazette went further, and consolidated community editions to cut editorial costs. Now, The Bethesda Gazette was the Bethesda-Chevy Chase-Kensington Gazette. Bethesda is a diverse, urbanizing, mixed-use community three times as big as more conventionally suburban Chevy Chase and Kensington put together. The only thing residents of the three localites have in common is that they are residents of a county whose population is 1.2 million – that size is not something a chain of community papers would really want to brag about.

While creating these “camel” community websites, The Gazette ignored the biggest demographic transformation in its markets, including the one where its headquarters was located: the rise of the millennials. In 10 communities in Montgomery County, millennials – those who are 20 to 34 years old – now constitute at least 35% of the county’s population.  Millennials are big on urban lifestyles, including biking and other fitness, restaurants and nightlife, condo homes and – not least – social media. But The Gazette’s camel sites — still reflecting a much earlier baby-boomer generation — mostly ignored these new lifestyle preferences. I could find only four references to millennials in the papers’ archives. Social media stats show that The Gazette, with 28 communities, had only 8,743 followers on Twitter, while Bethesda Magazine, serving just one community, has 7,060. The Gazette had only 7,873 Facebook “likes” compared to Bethesda Magazine’s 5,573.

It didn’t help The Gazette that its desktop homepage, with long columns of small-type headlines, looked only slightly more inviting than a telephone directory.

The wreckage from The Gazette’s closing extends far beyond the newspapers’ offices. The main source of community news for residents of metro Washington’s Maryland suburbs whatever their age group or lifestyle is gone. Gone too is the papers’ deep community involvement. Lyons set up a mentoring program at a local elementary school in which staff members at the papers still participate. He himself was instrumental in the drive that created the $90 million Strathmore performing arts center in Montgomery County — Post Community Media pitched in with $1 million — and nurtured numerous other local institutions and initiatives and made sure they and thousands of community achievers, including  academic honorees in the schools, all got ink in The Gazette.

On June 12, the day The Gazette’s closing was announced, CNN media editor Brian Stelter lamented:

“Think back to when you were 12 years old. Think about the excitement you would have felt  seeing your name in the town’s newspaper, knowing how proud your parents would be and how your neighbors would notice.

“Then think about what we’re losing in the digital age.

“I’m thinking about it because my hometown newspaper, the Damascus Gazette, in Montgomery County, Md., was just axed by one of Jeff Bezos’s companies.”

Stelter didn’t seem to notice that the Damascus Gazette was actually axed back in June 2014. But I know how he feels.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.