May 30, 2024

Sarah Leach lost her regional editor job with Gannett on April 29 for talking with me about a broken promise to her and others in the company’s community news division. Calling it a blessing in disguise would be a little strong, but a month later Leach told me support from inside and outside the profession has been “overwhelming.”

Even better, she is finding multiple new places to tell the story of a right-wing takeover of the Ottawa county commission in her hometown of Holland, Michigan — a story that she has been bird-dogging for more than a year — as well as the story of her split with Gannett.

Leach’s firing has been the subject of stories in The , and . The nonprofit Michigan Advance commissioned her to , where religious right commissioners essentially dismantled the health department.

Leach also launched and, she emailed me, “It’s on track to exceed 1,100 subscribers with average pageviews of above 2,500 (not bad for going rogue and not depending on unrelated site traffic).” She plans to supplement her coverage with opinion contributions from other writers and residents.

Leach’s offense was airing a complaint about a seven-month pause in a new hiring program that would have plugged reporting gaps at Gannett’s smallest papers, many operating with only one or no on-site journalists. Because she shared the content of an internal memo with me, Gannett chose to dismiss her, a 14-year veteran at the company, for cause. She received no severance.

I thought my story on the dismissal would be well-read and fire up journalists who expect better from the nation’s largest company in the news business. The reaction was way more than I had thought, though. It was among Poynter’s best-read stories of the year so far, with an unusually high percentage of that traffic from social media referrals. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sending it around to colleagues.

Leach told me that landing a new full-time job or putting together a portfolio of work is going more slowly, but she is not discouraged. “I’m bringing in enough freelance (including a Washington Post assignment) to give me time to give my next steps thorough consideration.”

But Leach, who has spent her career in community news, also recognizes the reality of a financial pinch that put her at odds with her bosses, may narrow choices. In a that announced her dismissal, she wrote:

The brutal fact is that there is a crisis in local journalism (specifically community papers the size of Holland) — one that corporate media companies don’t have a clear answer on how to address.

I’m not bitter toward my former employer. It’s not Gannett’s fault. In many ways, it’s just the natural byproduct of media conglomerates owning publications in major metropolitan areas with hundreds of thousands of people … and papers in much smaller towns who need local journalism just as much.

It’s a mixed business model that can’t work under a single strategy. Investing in small community papers doesn’t yield revenue and growth like a large metro newsroom. That’s because community papers aren’t intended for maximum profit and growth: They’re meant to serve their communities with reliable information so residents can make informed choices.

As for Gannett … chief communications officer Lark-Marie Antón repeated that she would not comment on a personnel matter. Nor would she say whether Leach, who oversaw 25 papers in four states, had been replaced or her duties redistributed.

I also asked Antón if she wanted to comment on the facts and fairness of my story (which was admittedly harsh), and Antón let loose via email:

While we aren’t a “widget factory,” our product is TRUTH and FACTS, which entail the need for TRUST internally among colleagues and fostering that trust externally among our audiences.

Sarah has her version of the “truth” and then there’s the narrative she is choosing to peddle to justify her actions.

As a part of the Content team, Sarah knew that Kristin’s door is ALWAYS open, (Kristin Roberts is chief content officer) and everyone EVERYONE knows it. She responds to emails, calls people directly, and anytime there is a question about strategy or resources, she takes it and addresses it honestly.

As a public company, we have to protect sensitive nonpublic information. All of Kristin’s emails, memos, slides, and reports set the ground rules (which you know as the recipient of clearly labeled internal documents). None of this is new.

As a public company, we must protect sensitive nonpublic information. Especially when the content is shared with incorrect context or to drive a personal agenda.

I would also note that your story mentions a “hack” of email, which is inaccurate if using a company account.

Antón is right on her last point, as another reader had pointed out. My saying Leach’s company email was “hacked” was at best metaphorical and imprecise, and perhaps just wrong. A true hack is going unauthorized into someone else’s. Employers have a legal right to do so in office email accounts. Shortly after publication, we changed the wording from “hacked” to “tapped into.”

I learned two more things in the aftermath of Leach’s dismissal: First, that community news has a fierce constituency, even if it is last in line for resources at Gannett and other chains.

Second, that the Ottawa story and Leach’s agenda-setting coverage has resonance, even across the state in Eastern Michigan. Leach told me that one of her early decisions was that she would continue to cover it through the end of the year even if she wasn’t paid. Elections are coming that will test whether Ottawa’s antigovernment government is really what voters want.

Abigail Shanley, a Penn State student who had been an intern at The Holland Sentinel last summer, wrote a , saying, “From my first day on the job, I could tell she was an incredible journalist.”

I also heard from a management consultant who agreed with Gannett that Leach deserved to be fired, but he prefaced that by saying, “As a casual reader of news about Western Michigan, Sara Leach was a standout reporter. The Ottawa County political news became highly charged and politicized. Reporting was difficult, with reporters targeted by politicians. Her reporting was above reproach and professional.”

The reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business asked me what I would have done were I Leach’s manager. (I managed newspapers and magazines for 15 years earlier in my career.) If discipline was necessary (though I don’t think it was), I would have reprimanded or suspended her and told her not to do it again Or if she was being asked to leave, I would have paid severance.

Gannett keeps a tight lid on press contacts, demanding that every interview request flow through Anton’s office. Firing Leach may add to the fear of God for others who would cooperate by talking to a journalist writing about the company or its 200-plus individual outlets.

The downside besides reputational damage is that Gannett lost a dogged reporter, an advocate for community news and a problem solver for others at the company trying to make the best of tough times.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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  • And do you think you could have done more to protect Sarah, such as not using a company email to send sensitive information to you?