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Detroit Free Press Editor Peter Bhatia stepping down – Detroit Free Press

Peter Bhatia, the top editor of the Detroit Free Press, told staff Friday that he will depart the company early next year in the hope of saving jobs from looming companywide layoffs.
Bhatia, 69, who started at the Free Press in September 2017 and is also a regional editor in the USA TODAY Network for nearly 30 properties in Ohio and Michigan, said in a late morning staff meeting that he decided to leave the company so that the newspaper’s owner, Gannett, could use the financial savings of his departure to reduce the number of layoffs at the Free Press that are set to occur in January.
The precise impact of Bhatia’s resignation on the number of layoffs has yet to be determined. Prior to his decision to leave, as many as 14 voluntary and involuntary layoffs were planned, including five reporters.
“We’re in a difficult period economically,” Bhatia said in an interview. “The company is going through a layoff process and I essentially made the decision to lay myself off in the interest of saving other jobs.”
Bhatia said his last day at the Free Press − and Gannett − is Jan. 18.
“I do have other opportunities that will probably come to work out at some point,” he said, “but if by getting my salary out of the budget it saves some jobs of people on the staff, I think that’s the right thing for the Free Press.”
At the time he announced the staff layoffs last week, Bhatia said the downsizing would be an unfortunate step back in the Free Press’ efforts to diversify its hiring. The Free Press employs a total of 110 people.
In his own career, Bhatia was the first journalist of South Asian descent to lead a major U.S. daily newspaper, which he did at The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, from 2010 to 2014.
Bhatia was the 2020 recipient of the Ben Bradlee editor of the year award from the National Press Foundation. Earlier this month, Gannett named him its 2022 top employee.
“Since the beginning of 2020, we have made 30 hires,” he wrote in a staff email. “Of those 30, 27 are people of color or women. This staff reduction will cut into what the diversity and skills gains achieved during that time.”
Gannett has done layoffs and other cost-cutting measures at its news properties in the wake of big back-to-back quarterly losses, including a $54 million net loss in the three months ending Sept. 30.
To generate money, the company recently did a sale-leaseback deal for the printing press site in Sterling Heights that prints the Free Press and the Detroit News.
Some of Gannett’s financial challenges relate to debt from its 2019 merger with rival newspaper chain GateHouse Media.
During Bhatia’s time in Detroit, the Free Press rolled out in summer 2020 an online paywall for some stories after years of all-free reporting on its website. The move was aimed at bringing more financial sustainability for the organization, and the Free Press has since exceeded company expectations in gaining paid digital subscribers.
“We’ve had a really good run here. The staff has done an amazing job, and our success in digital (subscriptions) and in journalism in general has been fantastic. I am really going to miss that,” he said.
Asked about the reaction at the corporate level to his decision to leave Gannett and the Free Press, Bhatia said, “I think it’s safe to say that my bosses didn’t want me to leave.”
“I didn’t want to leave − I love Detroit,” said Bhatia, who lives in the city. “I love the Free Press, but I think it’s in everybody’s best interest that I do so.”
A replacement has not been named.
In 2018, Bhatia won the Robert G. McGruder Distinguished Award for his commitment to media diversity. The award is bestowed by Kent State University and honors the late Bob McGruder, who was the first Black executive editor of the Free Press and a longtime champion of newsroom diversity.
Bhatia has decades of experience in the news business. He arrived in Detroit from Ohio, where he had been editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer since 2015. Before that he was at The Oregonian for more than 20 years and an editor there.
The deadline for Free Press staffers to volunteer for layoffs is next week. The staff layoffs are tentatively set to take effect Jan. 18.
Bhatia and his wife, Liz Dahl, have two grown children. He received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1975 with a double major in history and communication.

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