Back in August, I came across a poignant, first-person essay in CounterPunch, a site I rarely access. (A reader may have sent it to me.) The essay was from a longtime journalist and professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington who was mourning the demise of Bloomington’s long-time newspaper.
The author, Steven Higgs, wrote that the fall of the Herald-Times newspaper after 61 years had been 30-plus years in the making.
It’s a local story that mirrors the decline of daily newspapers nationwide and, along with it, American democracy. As I’ve long lectured to journalism students and anyone who would listen, it’s no coincidence that our democracy and journalism paralleled each other’s descent into the void, into these desperate times.
You simply can’t have the former without the latter.
When he began his career, his “beat” was county government. That included coverage of meeting of the County Commissioners, County Council, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. He writes that he attended “every meeting from gavel to gavel and writing comprehensive meeting covers on each,” and that the newspaper had reporters who did the same for city government, schools and the state legislature.
Citizens of Bloomington and the surrounding areas were fully informed about what their government entities were proposing and doing. As a result, among other things, aroused citizens
* Killed outright a preposterous, experimental PCB incinerator that was supported by Westinghouse Electric Corp., our Mayor and City Council, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. EPA;
* Transformed a Hoosier National Forest Land Management Plan that would have clearcut 81% of the forest and constructed 100 miles of ORV trails into the most ecologically sensitive forest plan in the nation; and
* Scuttled a plan by greedy local doctors to turn our hospital for profit.
In other words, the paper had been fulfilling the mission of journalism–giving citizens actionable information about their communities, information that allowed them to participate in democratic decision-making.
Then, as he recounts, the mission changed. Journalism was reconceived as purely a consumer product. He quoted the publisher of the Orange County Register saying “the paper no longer called its audience readers. They referred to them as customers.”
Then, of course, came the Internet. And Craig’s List, the site that decimated the classified ad business nationwide.
It’s not that their concerns weren’t legitimate. But their initial responses were galling. For example, the H-T hired a consultant from the University of Missouri to deprogram the newsroom through a program called New Directions for News.
First, she sat a room full of professional journalists cross-legged on the floor, gave us pads and markers, and told us, “Forget everything you know about journalism.” Then she had us write down answers to questions like: “Ten things teenage girls would like to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Ten things senior citizens would like to see on the front page.” Ad infinitum.
The decline was inevitable:
At its peak, the H-T had 38 newsroom full-time equivalents (FTEs). In 2019, when the paper sold to GateHouse Media, that number had dropped to 29.
In less than a year, GateHouse merged with Gannett. Three years later, FTEs dropped to about a third of its peak – to about a dozen.
Gatehouse and Gannett were–and are–what I would call “scavengers.” They have stripped newsrooms of knowledgable journalists, sold off real estate and other assets, and displayed zero interest in informing the sort of public debate that nourishes democratic governance. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which–absent some scandal or announcement– no longer covers local government, opting instead to focus on sports and entertainment.)
At the once-excellent Herald-Times, the story was the same.
On Aug. 12, three weeks after putting the building up for sale, Gannett laid off two more H-T reporters – one of my best and favorite former students among them – as part of the corporation’s latest cutbacksnationwide.
The Monday before the layoffs, Gannett CEO Michael Reed purchased $1.22 million of company stock for himself, according to an Aug. 13 article in the New Jersey Globe.
In today’s America, it is still possible to get national news, and from a wide variety of perspectives. But in community after community, local newspapers have either shut down entirely (over 2000 of them in the past several years) or become “ghost” papers like the Indianapolis Star- –papers with newsroom staffing so dramatically pared back that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities.
As a result, local residents no longer share a common understanding of what is happening in their communities, and no longer have the kind of verified, in-depth information that makes democratic decision-making possible.
Unfortunately, as Higgs said, you can’t have democracy without real journalism.