The Death Of Local News

A recent story in the Statehouse File began with an all-too-familiar report.

Two years ago, Indiana had 70 daily newspapers. Now there are fewer than 50, and over the last year, 13 paid circulation newspapers in the state closed their doors.

The story relayed the personal experience of editors and others at the papers that closed, and went on enumerate the consequences for local communities that have lost their newspapers–either entirely, or by “ghosting” in the wake of acquisitions by companies like Gannett (now part of the even more rapacious Gatehouse).

Citizens who have lost what we used to call “watchdog journalism” are significantly disadvantaged by not knowing what is going on in their communities. Studies show losses in community cohesion, voter turnout and civic participation. Taxpayers take a hit, too– a recent study, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” showed that newspaper closures were followed by higher costs of issuing bonds. (Presumably, bond purchasers anticipate a higher degree of risk when no one is watching the store.)

It isn’t just Indiana. The Guardian recently considered the threat to journalism’s future posed by the degree to which hedge funds are snapping up distressed properties.

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, few businesses may emerge so transformed as local and regional newspapers.

More than 70 local newsrooms have closed over the past 15 months, with hundreds of media jobs lost, as the already difficult financial conditions in the industry intensified during the crisis. By some estimates, a staggering 2,100 local newspapers, or one in four, have closed in the US since 2005.

But into the carnage a new breed of owner has emerged: one that has industry veterans and media observers deeply worried about the future of journalism in America and its ability to act as part of a functioning democracy.

According to a recent analysis, hedge funds or private equity firms now control half of US daily newspapers, including some of the largest newspaper groups in the country: Tribune, McClatchy and MediaNews Group.

Needless to say, these hedge funds have zero commitment to journalism. Their entire focus is on the bottom line and the return on their investments. Groups like Alden Capital have earned a reputation for ruthlessness by dramatically cutting editorial staff and selling off assets to boost profits.

As the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review has noted,

The debate we need to have is do we value these newspapers as an investment like a car dealership or a pawn shop, or do they have a different function in the community? I argue that they do, and they’re important to the way we function every day, but local communities need to buy into that idea.

If professional, verifiable news gathering is lost, a significant percentage of the American public will be left to the not-so-tender-mercies of the Breitbarts and their leftwing analogs.  Aside from bias, these outlets add to the increasing nationalization of news and politics–they aren’t replacing the local newspapers we’ve lost.

It will be interesting to see what happens in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the  New York Times reports that– following the “ghosting” of the Standard Times, the local paper, employees decided to create an alternative. They created a digital paper, The New Bedford Light.

The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.

It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.

According to the Times, similar nonprofit news sites are appearing across the country. There are hundreds now online, and more than 50 have gone up in the last two years.

None, to the best of my knowledge, have emerged in Indiana.

For those of us who are determined to figure out what’s going on in our city and state, there are  reliable, specialized sources we can consult. What we don’t have, however, is a “one-stop” source that doesn’t just give us the news we are looking for, but the answers to  questions it wouldn’t occur to us to ask–and an explanation of why we should care.

What we also don’t have are substantial numbers of citizens who read the same headlines and stories, and as a result, occupy the same reality.

As we are seeing with the Big Lie, it’s one thing to argue about what a particular fact means; it’s another matter altogether to argue about a “fact” you’ve invented. The first argument strengthens democracy; the second one justifies democracy’s abandonment.


  1. Big money, big greed, zero concern for truth, zero concern for democracy. History repeats itself, oy this time there is no place to go, other than the moon. And who can afford that?

  2. Lynne, thanks for the link. I clicked through and read the first post, which shows he is having problems with commenters and censoring or banning people from Facebook. That’s one problem with the local news organizations.

    I already went this route and sadly what Murdoch has done with Fox News is give people the polite, neutral version, during the day, but then hits the propaganda switch in the evening. Ten years ago, I saw comments on the Indy Star clamoring that it was Leftist bs. That was before Trump.

    The problem with the “news” industry is it’s all propaganda tailored for a targeted market of consumers. This is how the internet and its programming sorts you out to “tailor your user experience.”

    Facebook has an algorithm for it. Google does too. Apple, etc.

    What’s interesting is our Congress is looking to break up these monopolies.

    The internet was supposed to be a tool for great democratization. Who hates democratization?

    We talk about this every single day on this blog in one version or another. Even our Founders were frightened of democracies. They didn’t want the people to have too much power.

    Well, needless to say, the Oligarchy controlled the newspapers from almost day one because of the cost of printing. In order to become a “profitable” enterprise, you couldn’t use the power given by the Constitution to hold powerful people in government accountable or you’d get a phone call. Same with the owner of the local factory who bought advertising. And so it went…

    Those in power loved the arrangement they had until the internet came around which promised to democratize information that was controlled by the oligarchy. Furthermore, there was a pioneer named Julian Assange who saw the real power behind the truth. He saw what the oligarchy was doing in bottling up the internet for their own power. He pioneered encryption so he could hold truth to power as it was intended in the constitution. Whistleblowers could transfer their data of government and corporate wrongdoing directly to Wikileaks and then journalists and lawyers would go through all the data and work with publishers to get what could be printed out to the public.

    Well, guess who didn’t like that?

    The case against Assange is unraveling and there will be hell to pay from the Heavens above. Democratization will happen anyway because the people resist oppression innately. However, this will be done on a global scale. There will be some industries previously commodified for profit that will deconstruct before our very eyes.

    The truth shall set us free…

  3. I have posed this question a number of times before regarding the Indianapolis Star; as anchor for Circle Centre Mall, how long can the Star limp along with declining readership? And what happens to Circle Centre Mall if the Star fails? Are there any figures on current readership and subscription numbers of our one remaining daily “newspaper”? Being totally ignorant of the remaining Mall shopping options, and all other shopping options downtown; what would happen to the downtown area if the Star fails?

    Regarding digital news sources; there are many people who do not have computers and is it possible to read newspaper articles on cell phones which people seem to be using for everything today but clearing away dinner dishes. Dinners can be and are ordered and delivered via cell phones. I wonder what would happen to banking stability should the Internet become more unsafe for conducting private financial business? The electronic age has provided much progress but progress does NOT always mean improvement.

    “According to the Times, similar nonprofit news sites are appearing across the country. There are hundreds now online, and more than 50 have gone up in the last two years.”

    Three and a-half years after ending my decades of subscribing to the Indianapolis Star, as did my parents when I was a child, I dearly miss my daily newspaper but…I have NOT missed the Indianapolis Star.

  4. I’m part of the problem. I gave up reading the Star a few years ago because the quality of its local reporting had so obviously declined. Now read IBJ but understand that IBJ has a clear pro-business (vs. pro-market) ideology. At least it has a few local reporters.

  5. NYC used to have scads of local newspapers, going back to the ’50’s. One of them was the N.Y Post, a valuable daily, until Murdoch got his hands on it. Since then it’s been a paper version of his Faux News.
    This process does not augur well for Democracy, though the emergence of the local digital papers might turn out well.

  6. A shout out to Dave Bangert, long time reporter for the Lafayette Journal and Courier now retired, who has started to cover local news in depth via su stack. It is a joy to subscribe to have real local coverage again.

    A small group of local citizens are also publishing a Facebook edition of a more liberal viewpoint on state and national news, but no investigative reporting.

    Right now in Lafayette the only local paper seems to be the Purdue Exponent.

  7. Most of our papers today aren’t “News” papers, they’re “old news” papers. To make up for that they need to have reporters doing deep dives into stories. Sadly, reporters are the first to go when a paper is bought, because they are the biggest expense. I still take the local paper, more out of habit than for any knowledge seeking reason. I take Wapo online and magazines for that. Economics makes the daily paper delivered to our doors untenable. It’s a new world. What will we make of it? I don’t know.

  8. What about NUVO? It would seem to fit into the category of on-line only, local, nonprofit newspapers. It may not be as robust as it used to be, but at least it is carrying on.

  9. No one has mentioned the Indianapolis Times, which I, and my friends, delivered in the 1960s.

    It won a 1928 Pulitzer Prize for exposing the KKK and corruption. Its
    president, 1922-1964, was, Roy W. Howard, a Manual HS 1902 grad, and a giant in the U.S. newspaper industry.

    Howard, was chairman, 1921-52 of Schripps-Howard Newspapers, and a founder of worldwide news service UPI.

    The Times, at 214 W. Maryland (west of Hyatt Regency), with low circulation, ended operations in 1965.

  10. Hedge and equity funds who buy newspapers, drastically cut costs in the newsroom and cannibalize and sell off pieces of the paper, are neither left nor right politically speaking; they are for whatever makes them the most profit, and like many other, uh, “investors,” are prone to suck up every penny they can in such an endeavor and then flee to either the friendly arrangements provided by Chapter 11 (or if more profitable) traditional bankruptcy. This is one of the travesties I have often complained about when adding the bankruptcy code to the internal revenue code for a thorough revamp. We are told capitalists are entitled to kid glove treatment because of the risks they take. Where is the risk when you have Chapter 11, carried interest etc.?

    Our first internal revenue tax was begun in 1913 after finally overcoming Supreme Court holdings that income taxes were unconstitutional. It was sold as a “progressive tax,” i. e., the more you make the more you pay. That is still technically true, except that politicians have via hook or (literally) crook redefined and redefined “what you make” that is subject to the tax, which has in the real world destroyed the original sense of what progressive taxation was all about 108 years ago.

    We exempt churches, social organizations and others from taxation on grounds that they are worthy projects that lead to the common good, but someone tell me why such exemptions (under wraps designed to confuse the gentry) apply to terminally greedy hedge and equity funds, TV preachers who fly around in private jets etc. I’m waiting.

  11. The local news has always buddied up to the oligarchs. Muckracking, i.e., telling the truth about, for instance, oligarchs, was not a local phenomenon. It was a national one. Most local news sources have followed if the bleed it leads mantra of sensationalism. The Vietnam-Watergate era press, that some came of intellectual age with, was an anomaly that REFLECTED the culture war afoot in the nation at the time. When that died…

  12. I was born in the middle of the middle of WWII when every American was learning how expensive democratic freedom was. Many paid the price and the rest honored their sacrifice as patriotism. We haven’t really been tested since with as big a challenge to the fundamental rights that the Constitution promises.

    Under such conditions it’s hard to avoid complacency.

    Was Trump the wake up call?

    I think so but only time will tell.

  13. Hedge funds are only after profit and they don’t just kill newspapers, they kill things like grocery stores (Marsh) and restaurant chains (Steak and Shake).

    I love the idea of crowd sourced not-for profit papers. I took a look at the link for the Bloomingtonian, and while their main platform is not social media, I am not sure how something like news media business could survive in the age of social media. The first post on the facebook page is a statement of the comments policy, and the first comment is:

    “ listen to what I say without talking back”. And they call this a news page!!!”

    and my favorite is:

    “ You shouldn’t sensor peoples free speech. It discredits you page.”

    I think “sensor” might mean you are to ignorant to detect free speech?!?

  14. Is it any wonder that the US is falling, falling on the global ratings for a country’s corruption? Bleeding from the local up…when no one’s looking, no one’s investigating…

  15. It is sad to see any newspaper’s front page say “Part of the USA Today network” and even sadder when almost none are owned by local families anymore, as is the case in Indiana. I am fortunate as here in Maine we have no USA Today network papers. None. A local family owns the majority of the state’s newspapers, but we can (and I DO) also get the independent Bangor Daily News delivered to the door and the wonderful (independent) Boston Globe, too. Add the New England Edition of the NYTimes and it’s almost like life was in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up in the Louisville and Indiana area. But lest we get complacent, we are just a bid by a venture fund away from joining the rest of the country in newspaper never never land if we do not support the local media. Here, it’s great to have local coverage and local meetings reported, and local elections, too. But it’s even better that a couple years ago when the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram told readers they were going to drop the book page and some other features unless they could get some community support, hundreds of us sent gift subscriptions to their e-edition and made contributions, which saved those things. It is true that Monday newspapers are only online up here, but we can flip the pages on-screen, see the ads, and best yet, all the familiar print bylines still are there looking out for us seven days a week. If Maine can do it, so can Indiana, but unlike the owners up here (Reade Brower owns 18 weeklies and four of the seven daily newspapers in Maine) in Indiana it appears the big guys have already taken over, which is a sad sad thing. Oh, and the local press up here is not scared to recreate the past, either… the daily newsletter they offer (free no less) of afternoon updates is called “The Evening Express” which was the name of the old PM newspaper which ceased to exist in the 1980s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the updates there be The Indianapolis News or The Indianapolis Times? It’s all about placement and tradition! Indiana just needs to try harder!

  16. It is sad, but true that the “everything is a commodity to buy, cannibalize, and sell for a profit” attitude is destroying newspapers and more. I hope that these non-profit sites provide an reasonable alternative, but I am not holding my breath on that one.

    It is true that IBJ does have news reporting, while it does have an attitude that would support those that buy up other newspapers.

    One quibble, in the realm of “how we got to this point”, chapter 223:

    “not-so-tender-mercies of the Breitbarts and their leftwing analogs.”

    I’m sorry Sheila but we are now talking made-up news – Breitbart – 4-5 million readers now (way down); leftwing analogs 500,000? or 50,000?

    There is no comparison – in the ’60s, it may have swung the other way, but from MLK/RFK and Kent State to Reagan, WMDs, and Trump, it is a different world now.

  17. The local news is an unfunny joke. Newspapers and television are nothing more than propaganda arms of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, and would never consider investigating, much less substantively criticizing, any group that is a part of this organization. Really, is the opening of a new restaurant on Mass Ave. a news item? How about all of the time promoting the Indianapolis 500? What about every event at Newfields and the Childrens Museum? Last week the Indianapolis Star had an op ed by James Briggs, who was talking about all of the vacant land in Center Township, and the current hot real estate market in which there is a shortage of homes. Of course, he advocated for subsidizing the developers to build in Center Township, and then subsidizing the tenants of properties they build. Developers get money on both ends, and we taxpayers get the bill. No wonder property taxes in Marion County are the highest in the state. If the market is so hot and the need is so great, why the subsidies? Oh, that’s right. The developers are part of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. Why doesn’t any media ever question whether the goals of the members of the GIPC align with the community? Oh, that’s right, the newspapers and television stations are also part of the GIPC.

    Another query: the GIPC pushed for Red Line, which is nothing but a big, fat, flop, and yet, they have their hands out for even more money. They want to choke down Washington Street to one lane in each direction, with no cross traffic except at signalized intersections and no left turns, but they’re getting a lot of push back. IndyGo tries to blame the pandemic for Red Line’s failure, but the pandemic didn’t kick in for at least 6 months after Red Line started operations. Even when it was free to ride, Red line never hit the “projected” ridership. Why doesn’t anyone write about this and question why IndyGo should get more money and do more damage to traffic flow? Wait. I think I know: IndyGo and the design and construction contractors are all part of….wait for it….The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee!

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