Civic-minded CTO buys 20 newspapers from Gannett
Another successful tech executive is making a foray from quarantine into newspaper publishing.
I hope Jeremy Gulban, who last week bought 20 newspapers from Gannett in the Heart of America, will have at least some of the success Jeff Bezos has enjoyed since he bought the Washington Post in 2013.
Gulban, 46, is not in the same league as Bezos, who bought the Post at 50. But he begins with a similar vision to apply technology and business skills to improve the way newspapers operate and ensure their survival.
These newcomers are helping to demonstrate that there is still a future for newspapers, especially if they are given support to upgrade systems and move to a more digital future.
Gulban is CEO of CherryRoad Technologies, a New Jersey company that began working on mainframe computers in 1983.
Customers include cities, states and port districts, including the Port of Seattle. CherryRoad builds, modernizes and operates 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.
He first tried school districts and municipalities, but those he spoke to were already using big services like those from Microsoft or Google.
âThere really was no opportunity to do anything creative with anyone, so we started to think of other ways to make a difference in the community and newspapers came to us. spirit, âhe said. “It was just like it was an opportunity to see if we can get into the business, see if we can put our skills to use and make the industry stronger.”
A broker put him in touch with a small newspaper in Minnesota. âIf he hadn’t been a nice guy I would have left,â Gulban added.
But they clicked and Gulban bought the Cook County News-Herald in the Grand Marais. Then he bought four more newspapers in Arkansas and relaunched an old newspaper in another small town in Minnesota.
It turned out to be a warm-up. Last week, he acquired 20 newspapers, including five dailies, which Gannett sold in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Gannett has spun them as he works to reduce the debt of his 2019 mega-merger with GateHouse Media.
Owen Van Essen, the broker representing Gannett, said there was always interest in acquiring small newspapers. As the value of these papers declines, they become more affordable for local buyers and individuals like Gulban.
Van Essen said some small publishers still do well with businesses built around Main Street subscriptions and advertisers.
Publishers also operate much smaller newsrooms, walking a tightrope between cutting costs enough to survive while providing enough coverage to attract subscribers.
âIt’s a vicious cycle,â Gulban said. âIf you want more readers, you have to put out a better product, and you have to invest in people on the streets who come out with a better product. “
Gulban plans to increase reporting capacity, particularly in the woefully understaffed old Gannett newspapers.
âIt’s a little hard to find people though,â he said.
Small weeklies will likely operate with a team of one full-time reporter and one part-time reporter. In the major newspapers, which print two to five days a week, he expects to have about two or three in the newsroom.
It’s still terribly thin. This is barely enough for basic coverage. But this is an improvement over what is currently happening in the 20 logs being acquired.
âIn many places there is one person who publishes the newspaper several times a week,â he said.
The Pulitzer-winning little Iowa newspaper I wrote about Thursday, The Storm Lake Times, employs about 10 people. But about half of them are family members who own it, and the publisher works for free.
Gulban plans to continue publishing newspapers, which he considers important for the presence of newspapers as a community institution. A number of people want a printed piece of paper and don’t want to read it online, he said.
For this to work, Gulban believes he can improve business operations, such as workflows, and use CherryRoad’s web hosting feature. The systems developed will eventually be offered to other media companies.
In a decade, CherryRoad could make more money providing this technology than publishing articles, he said.
This is not exactly what I expected to save the local newspapers. Ideally, the local owners would take a step forward. But there is no standard model for running a newspaper, and even places without a local publisher still need local information.
All kinds of owners and role models are needed to support the thousands of independent newspapers that communities depend on to keep them informed and to hold government accountable. And the regional publishers who save and invest in smaller newspapers are better than the guys on Wall Street who milk them to death.
If Gulban finds a formula that works, I hope he shares it widely. Hopefully, this will allow him to hire even more journalists in his 27 newspapers.
Better yet, Gulban said he was committed to the mission, a mission he began to enjoy as a child reading the local newspapers. Now he sees them as a public service and a vital institution to watch over the government.
âI think it’s a very viable service,â he said. âIf you don’t have a newspaper, where will the local news come from and how will you know it is accurate and quality news? “
Amen to that.