USA Today’s vice president and executive editor of news and initiatives Kristen Go will be leaving Friday, making her the eighth high-ranking editor or executive to depart Gannett in the last six months.
The company, which underwent several rounds of cuts last year, has experienced a mass exodus among top leadership. In November, president of Gannett Media and USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth announced she would be leaving at the end of the year. A wave of departures followed, including president of Gannett’s news division and USA Today editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll and senior vice president of local news and audience development Amalie Nash.
Executive editors at some of Gannett’s largest local papers have also left. George Stanley, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told staff in December that he made the decision to retire after the company announced its series of cutbacks. Weeks later, Detroit Free Press editor Peter Bhatia announced he would be resigning too. Bhatia told his staff he hoped his departure would reduce the number of planned layoffs at the paper. Both editors were giants in the industry, having led staffs to multiple prestigious awards.
The masthead-level departures have left employees at Gannett concerned about the future of the company. Gannett, which owns roughly 200 dailies and is the country’s largest newspaper chain, went into financial freefall last summer. Massive quarterly losses led to more than 600 layoffs, furloughs, a hiring slowdown and the suspension of company contributions to employee 401(k) plans.
Those severe cuts have saved the company money — Gannett reported profits for the last two quarters despite declining revenue — but they have also driven people away, many of whom had decades of experience at the company.
The departures signal a near complete turnover among top Gannett news leadership. GateHouse bought Gannett in 2019 but kept the Gannett name and many of its top leaders, most of whom left in the recent exodus.
Many of the executives who have left have not shared publicly their reasons for leaving, though some have announced new roles. Carroll, who declined to comment for this story, has joined the Arizona State University Media Enterprise to head a local journalism initiative, and Bhatia is now CEO of the new non-profit news site Houston Landing. Gannett spokesperson Lark-Marie Anton said in an email that the company does not comment on personnel matters but is “grateful” for the contributions of current and departed employees.
Though it has been clear to employees that Gannett was struggling financially, many were shocked when Perez Wadsworth announced she was leaving and took her departure as an ominous sign.
“She had just been promoted,” said Julie Makinen, former executive editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs and regional editor for Gannett’s California papers. “She didn’t say so, but we figured she couldn’t stomach the changes.”
Perez Wadsworth was Gannett’s No. 2 executive, behind CEO Mike Reed, and highly respected as a journalist. She had been with the company for more than 25 years, and in June, she was promoted to president of the newly formed Gannett Media group and given additional responsibilities. But six months later, she was out. (Perez Wadsworth could not be reached for comment.)
Perez Wadsworth’s interim replacement, Henry Faure Walker, who runs Gannett’s British subsidiary, was not popular, Makinen said. “The handwriting was on the wall. Who the hell was this guy?” Sample initiatives from Faure Walker included higher story counts and shorter stories.
During the December layoffs, Gannett slashed its news division by 6%. One of the casualties of the layoffs was executive editor of The Providence Journal, David Ng. Some leaders were told to expect more cuts to come. Bhatia wasn’t told to make additional cuts but sensed the company’s problems weren’t over after the fourth quarter and decided to leave.
“I was almost in a position to retire, and I didn’t want to leave,” said Bhatia, who served as regional editor over newspapers in Michigan and Ohio in addition to overseeing the Free Press. “It was a painful thing. These layoffs could go very deep. I just didn’t want to do it.”
Makinen decided to leave in March. “There was a continual hunt for even small cost savings bordering on the absurd.”
“It had the ring of desperation,” she said, “as if they were hunting for change in the seat cushions …. It was clear they had no intention of investing in the majority of papers. They were going into hospice care.”
That month, Jennifer Orsi, executive editor of the (Sarasota) Herald-Tribune and regional editor of Gannett’s Florida and Georgia papers, also left. (Orsi now works at the Poynter Institute.) At the corporate level, Nash, who was Gannett’s top ranking editor over local news, left the same day as Orsi. Similarly to Perez Wadsworth, Nash was a well respected journalist and longtime executive at the company, and many were left dismayed.
A business executive, Kris Barton, president of digital marketing solutions, and news’ senior director of career development and training, Mackenzie Warren, departed in March as well, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
At USA Today, senior director of opinion, engagement and partnerships Kristen DelGuzzi left in February. By May, executive editor of news and investigations Jeff Taylor and editor-in-chief Carroll were also gone.
The exodus of Carroll, Taylor and Go, combined with the departure of other editors, means that nearly the entire USA Today masthead has left within the last six months.
Gannett chief content officer Kristin Roberts, who joined the company from McClatchy in March, has told USA Today staff that she is working to fill vacancies and that she has no plans for additional layoffs this year, according to two USA Today employees.
Asked about Roberts’ and the company’s plans, Anton wrote in an email that Roberts joined Gannett to “champion innovative storytelling opportunities and develop strategic content initiatives to expand our audience and drive growth.”
In recent earnings calls, Reed cut an optimistic tone. During the call covering Gannett’s first quarter results, he told shareholders, “We believe our most challenging comparisons to prior year are behind us. … We are at an inflection point in the trajectory of our company.”
While still laboring under a huge debt from the 2019 merger, Gannett recorded a profit for the second quarter in a row. The company also raised its full year outlook for adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), net income and cash flow.
Still, people are leaving. One USA Today employee estimated that nearly 30 people have given notice since March. Along with Go, deputy managing editor for politics Luciana Lopez is also leaving, and data editor Steve Suo left last week.
Despite the departures, the company’s goals for the newsroom have not changed, according to two USA Today employees. One of those employees said that they worry about their colleagues who now have a heavier workload.
That is the bigger story, they said. Not the departures, but the people who are left behind.
Media business analyst Rick Edmonds contributed reporting.