Nine Answers About the Gazette-Mail Combo from Publisher Susan Shumate

Jul 24, 2015

Susan Shumate is the new publisher of the Gazette-Mail. In week three of her job, she announced the combination of two newspapers, the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail.

Over the past century, Charleston’s two newspapers brought down corrupt politicians, exposed injustice, and served as West Virginia’s first draft of history.

And now, the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail are joining into one newspaper. Why is this happening, and what does it mean for West Virginians?

Gazette-Mail Publisher Susan Shumate says the combination is necessary for financial reasons. A federal agency recently filed a $1.3 million lien against the newspaper for missing payments to its pension plan, according to the West Virginia Record.

But in an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Shumate says the new newspaper also will be more than the sum of its parts.

Hear our interview with Shumate on The Front Porch podcast on iTunes or however you listen. Here are five takeaways from our interview with Shumate:

1. Why the announcement was made on Sunday, July 19

Charleston was one of the last two-newspaper cities in the country, and one of the smallest. With declining print revenues, publishing two papers was unsustainable.

“Financially, for Charleston newspapers, it wasn’t an option any longer,” Shumate said.

Shumate confirmed that the announcement was timed to coincide with the expiration of a federal judge’s settlement of an anti-trust lawsuit. So July 19 was the first possible day they could combine the newspapers.

“There’s nothing positive about somebody losing their job. But the Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail really haven’t had the deep news cuts that other news organizations have had to have,” she said.

2. Why the announcement wasn’t shared with most staff in advance

With 77 journalists in both newsrooms, if they had known in advance, someone would have leaked it. And Shumate said she wanted readers to give the combined newspaper a chance, and not pre-judge it.

“People are passionate about their papers. They really are. By showing them the example of what we can do without letting people worry about it, and fret and say, ‘Oh, my news coverage is going to change in a month, my news coverage isn’t going to be the same…’

“There’s never an easy way to announce this."

3. Why Shumate believes the combined newsroom will be better than two separate papers

Efficiency. In the past, each paper would have sent its own reporter to a meeting about the landslide at Yeager Airport.

This week, one reporter covered the meeting, and the other filed a story from the site of the landslide.

“It’s making the stories better, deeper, and for me, more fulfilling,” Shumate said.

In the past, the Gazette may have 7-8 local stories on a given day. One day this week, there were 19.

She said readers are telling her, “I used to be able to whip through my paper in the morning and go through my day, and now I’m having to carve out a chunk of time,” to read everything.

Shumate doesn’t think the loss of competition between newspaper reporters is an issue. In the digital age, there’s still plenty of other competition, she said.

The first weekday combined edition of the Gazette-Mail
Credit Andrew Brown via Twitter: @Andy_Ed_Brown

4. Why the Gazette-Mail is requiring all newsroom staff to re-apply for their jobs

Right now, 77 people work in the Gazette-Mail newsroom, she said – 45 from the Gazette, and 32 from the Daily Mail (one DM position was vacant.)

The goal is a combined newsroom of 65.

There is no master plan for how many employees will be on each “beat”  - sports, government, etc. Also, there’s a chance the new newspaper may have new and different beats than the old ones.

Shumate says the employees themselves are helping to shape the combined organization.

“We will have been able to dream up the super newsroom or the dream newsroom,” she said.

“It’s great seeing the staff in the newsrooms putting their stamp on what they think the newsroom of the future will be."

5. What the focus of the combined newspapers will be

“I see our future and our business model being able to really dig into the local stories,” Shumate said.

Some of their priorities, in no particular order, include:

  • Better multimedia presence, such as online video
  • More in-depth and investigative reporting
  • Local news
  • Government – state and local
  • Entertainment – what’s going on this weekend, what can you take your kids to do
  • Sports – high school, WVU, Marshall, etc.

6. Why they are keeping two separate opinion pages – one literally and figuratively on the left, the other on the right

“I think the Charleston Gazette readers and Charleston Daily Mail readers identify with those pages, and that was the core reason they subscribed to either one of those papers,” Shumate said. “By keeping those, we really want readers to feel we are embracing what they want.”

7. What the mission statement is for the combined newsroom

“Cover everything fairly and evenly,” Shumate said.

“I don’t think you’re necessarily doing a great job if you don’t get criticism from both sides. A newspaper’s job tends to be watching what’s going on in the community. And not everyone is going to like what you say.”

8. How the Gazette-Mail will monetize digital readers (web traffic) – or not

"That’s the question every news organization is asking right now.  And it’s very difficult. It’s an industry-wide question, and one that nobody has a great answer for," Shumate said.

“Every conference you go to is, (the question is) how are you going to monetize the web traffic?”

9. How the Gazette-Mail will continue the legacy of “Sustained Outrage” begun by her father, Ned Chilton, and continued by her mother, Elizabeth Chilton

“It makes me proud when I think of how my parents led with honesty," Shumate said.

“Any great newspaper has that strong adversarial tone,” she said. The combined newsroom will allow all reporters more time to investigate stories.

“That is their dream job.  They want to get to the bottom of the story. They want the whole truth,” she said.

An edited version of “The Front Porch” airs Fridays at 4:50 p.m. on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio network, and the full version is available above.

Share your opinions with us about these issues, and let us know what you'd like us to discuss in the future. Send a tweet to @radiofinn or @wvpublicnews, or e-mail Scott at sfinn @ wvpublic.org