They’re Inextricably Connected…

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.


  1. Absent the papers, we are left with local TV news. “If it bleeds it leads” is still the dominant ethos. Hysteria vs thought. And ENDLESS repetition—endless.
    As with the papers, sports and trivia dominate.
    PBS is good for national issues but our local PBS has been infected by right wing church boys for decades. What to do?

  2. As as IU journalism grad, I know the campus newspaper, the IDS, sees part of its mission as filling Bloomington’s need for journalism. I wonder how well that can be done by even talented students on a staff that changes significantly year to year. But I really hope they can. And that people notice and take advantage of their work.

  3. We moved from Morgan County to Florida five years ago. Now, living in St. Augustine for nearly a year, I read the Jacksonville paper online, and find that aside from one reporter who writes about what the city council does, much of what I see online from the paper involves sports – high school, college, and professional football, and high school track and field. Very little else.

    One interesting detail about the reporting on track and field, is that a lot of the articles are about the girls’ teams – a small indication that the paper is not completely antediluvian.

  4. The fourth estate has rendered itself a useless tool in democracy via the advertising model. The editors weighed in to balance the rights of advertisers over the local stories. Behind most local government stories are oligarchs who buy lots of advertising and expect – even demand – special treatment.

    Gannett isn’t even a US company any longer – it’s owned by a Japanese multinational bank/venture fund.

    The problem with Gannett-owned entities is they sold out to the oligarchs some 40 years ago, which started its steady decline. So they became a useless tool for readers/subscribers.

    Some of the best journalists flocked to Facebook and Twitter, but as we are learning, the government has censored what we write for years. The owners oblige via algorithms and priority placement for friendly mainstream sources.

    We don’t need stenographers; we need journalists. But once you ask the wrong question, those in the government sphere avoid the journalist.

    Without accountability, this oligarchy is only getting worse. Its trajectory is fascism, where a small government serves the oligarchy via the two performative political parties.

    If you don’t think we are already there, read the January 6th Committee’s report, which whitewashes the entire event. Washington is a facade.

  5. The Internet certainly helped kill the local newspaper. I hadn’t thought about the impact something like Craig’s List had on paper revenue. I had always considered Craig’s List a down and dirty, no frills listing service that you had to pick through a lot of unnecessary stuff to find anything of value. Today was the first time it occurred to me that sounds just like the classifieds in the paper! But the Indy Star always had competition in the classified ad space. There was the “Trader” and “Wheels and Deals”. Both were weekly papers that ran classifieds. The paper was sold at local stores for 50 cents, and you only bought or borrowed a copy if you looking for something. They charged a much smaller fee than the Star to create a listing as well.

    The second thing that helped kill the local paper was the way they used the Internet. They had an amazing opportunity to distribute the same content while eliminating the printing and distribution costs. What did they do when they went online is they immediately started giving away the content! Oh, sure they made some money off the online advertising, but if anything those flashing, flickering, CPU and screen space consuming advertisements drove away more readers.

    Even today with a paid online subscription to the Star, I have to endure the barrage of online advertising. The algorithm the web page uses to feature the top articles is like a beauty pageant or popularity contest. Popular content from a week ago is most likely still going to be featured on top, while new news stories are buried down somewhere in the ratings. Even my local library gives me online options to sort content, newest to oldest, most popular, etc.

    Using the APP for the Star e-edition, there are still ads published in this facsimile paper, but there is an annoying 3/8” wide bar of screen space at the bottom that flashes tiny little ads at me. It consumes screen space and delays the response time of the App. They still don’t get that am reading the paid version and having bought the premium content, I don’t want the annoying flashing ads, even if they are tiny!

    There are local papers that have figured it out. The Indianapolis Business Journal is a shining local example. They have actually hired more journalist in recent years. The give away a little bit of content, but after the third article in a month, you hit the pay wall. They have an online e-edition that doesn’t flash ads at you. The downside is have a very specific coverage point of view in that they only report on how policy issues will effect the local business community.

    I haven’t figured out the revenue model for a recent online addition, the “Capital Chronicle”, but with the collapse of coverage in the Indy Star, they are giving a shot at doing coverage in the State House.

  6. I consider our local Gannett outlet, the News-Press, to be irrelevant when it comes to news. I take it because I enjoy curling up in my chair with paper and pencil and doing the crossword puzzles AND I love the funny pages, which have improved significantly with Gannett. When the paper was local, we had the joy of reading “Henry” and “Nancy”, two comics that were never very funny. Today, I get “Pearls before Swine”, “Zits”, “Dilbert”, and on Sunday “Baby Blues”. Admittedly, this is a far cry from the WAPO funny pages, but it’s 1000% better than it was.

    One thing I have noticed is that only us old fogey’s still take the daily newspaper. Whenever a house in the neighborhood is sold, the new owners don’t take the paper. Which came first, the lack of interest by readers or the lack of interest by publishers?

  7. Ironically, Sheila’s column arrived just as the “real” Herald-Times paper did not. Again. Non-delivery occurs too frequently (not counting Saturday’s when the paper does not publish). The only remedy available is an extension of my subscription!

  8. Pascal – you should get the Tampa Bay Times, even if it it is only electronically. Seems to have decent local, especially state, coverage.

    As far as getting a local paper in your driveway, we can see this ending soon here in NC. The paper gets smaller and as the houses turn over, the new folks don’t get it. They have trouble with turnover on the deliverers and the schedule is erratic. I would not be shocked if home delivery ends in 2023.

  9. Journalists by their very nature are not publishers. Publishers by their very nature are not journalists. Therein lies the root of fundamental failure of strategic succession planning. The culture of journalism and publishing died of self inflicted benign obstinance.

  10. Newspapers’ focus on entertainment and sports—especially sports—is reflective of the focus on sports in our educational systems. I’ve always found it disgusting that high schools and universities channel obscene amounts of money on sports programs and even more obscene amounts to coaches, whilst the educational sides struggle. And speaking of education, why, in this day and age, would anyone even consider going into journalism, considering the lack of job opportunities and security? Heartbreaking.

  11. Whatever you do, don’t move abroad. Gannet has blocked their sites to overseas IP addresses so I can’t even read the obituaries from my home town. I am not paying for that paper online, no sir. When a classmate dies, my high school posts it on our alumni Facebook group hopefully with the funeral home link. I’ve had to remind them that our local paper is blocked abroad unless you purchase a subscription.

    I hate those flashy ads too which is why I’m a regular here because your page is much easier to read. Thanks for that. Happy New Year Professor. All the best.

  12. I just read this letter to the editor in today’s Boston Globe…

    “George Santos was simply presenting himself as instructed. I suspect that research into New York’s Third Congressional District indicated that a gay, Jewish, wealthy banker with non-Ivy League education could defeat the Democrat for the open seat. Santos, along with the majority of Republicans of late, simply just followed the script, albeit with a tad more hubris. What is most troubling, however, is that had there been robust local reporting in the district, perhaps much of this may have surfaced before the election. Without credible, local reporting, this successful tactic will be repeated and metastasize around the nation.”

  13. Lester, you make the most relevant case with a current vivid example what happens with unbridled politics absent local journalism supported by local distribution channels.

  14. Here in Tucson, Arizona, the local Arizona Daily Star is owned by Lee Enterprises, located in Davenport, IA, and is the fourth largest newspaper group in the U.S.

    Lee has essentially followed the Gannett script for the Daily Star: local real estate sold, printing presses sold (paper now printed in Phoenix), reporters, editors other local staff fired [Lee used the term “laid off,” but when the job is gone and isn’t coming back, you have been “fired.”], cheapest paper stock available, paper consists of mostly advertising, a heavy reliance on Associated Press and other national syndicates for national stories, and just a couple of months ago, even reducing the comics page to only about 10 comics (apparently purchased for all Lee papers nationwide). Lee also attempted to switch to a cheaper crossword puzzle but received so much blow back that they switched back.

    Through all the downsizing of the newsroom and cost cutting, the Daily Star has somehow managed to continue to do a fairly decent job of local and State government reporting. It has also recently printed in-depth reporting on the water shortage/crisis in AZ and the Southwest and the issues with immigration at the border.

    The subscription price for a daily — delivered — paper was already outrageous — over $80 a month. Then a couple of weeks ago, we received a letter from the Daily Star informing us that beginning next month the price for a print subscription will increase to $100 a month plus taxes. That’s over $1,200 a year for a diminished product!

    As an old guy, I admit I like having a paper in my hands instead of reading an E-edition on the internet. I also feel a responsibility to support what “local” journalism still exists. But I’m not sure I can justify continuing with a print subscription at that price. It almost seems like Lee is intentionally trying to discourage people from having a print subscription by making the cost prohibitive to most people.

    Unfortunately, I see no solution except to roll with the times and switch to the E-edition.

  15. I keep watching the expanding Santos lies and wonder “Why now?” Too much detail for this information not to have been known…and reported…prior to the election. Can’t blame Republicans for the lack of reporting; only for supporting and backing their latest lying member to Congress.

    Nor can we blame the lack of local or national newspapers for allowing this to happen.

  16. We live in Charleston where the local paper the Post and Courier remains family-owned and invests heavily in good journalism. They also partner with papers in smaller towns throughout South Carolina to do investigative stories. They still face challenges.

  17. When I lived in central New Jersey (suburban NY for news purposes), I had the feeling that more New Yorker’s liked the Post over the Times because it emphasized sports.

    However, I blame the Meme of the ’80s – “Capitalism isn’t the best thing; Capitalism is the only thing.”

    Everything is a commodity to be sold and profit is the only value that is legitimate. Thus, such silliness as “informing the public” goes by the wayside. Also, this meme views employees as an expense to be minimized, especially those that can’t prove their worth. Thus, only sales people, who can quantify their contributions, and executives, who take credit for all profits and assign blame for all loses, can be counted as valuable.

    Then the vicious downward cycle of worse coverage – worse readership/worse readership – worse coverage begins.

    It is sad. I decided that the comics (the only part of the Indy Star that I still appreciate) aren’t worth the price of the subscription. IBJ, at least, has some coverage that is decent.

  18. The IndyStar did cover the embellished resúme for our illustrious Secretary of State elect Morales. It didn’t matter. Gerrymander means anyone with an R after their name is automatically elected for state office. Rokita got lots of coverage before he was elected. Again, it didn’t matter.

  19. Aging girl; The reason you can’t get a Gannet Paper in Europe, is that the the website does not conform to the EU Privacy laws. They are scraping and collecting (and most likely selling) data about your newspaper browsing habits in ways that don’t conform to the EU privacy laws.

    There are ways around this. First when in the EU, pay for a VPN service. I have used ExpressVPN and VyprVPN in the EU, Russia and China with some success. These Virtual Private Network services can makes it look like your connection originates in the US if you pick a US based server.

    Secondly when you use a web browser to view the Gannet site, use the browser’s “incognito” mode and open up a new session every time you sit down to read the paper. The “incognito” mode creates a browser session that generates new tracking cookies every time you sit down, so they won’t be able to keep a long running history of your browsing habits.

    Signed, a Cisco Certified Network Engineer

  20. Roaches and Rats love the dark!

    Lugen Presser (lying press) is the slogan for treasonous narcissistic sociopathic self-serving grifters and sycophants!

    Why do you think grifters hate the press? Light is a disinfectant, when you can see, you can exterminate. Darkness is where roaches and rats thrive.

    Politics is just food for the rats and roaches. There is never any penalty for those rats and roaches that get caught lying. It’s actually legal to lie in politics. The press shines its light on individuals like Santos and Trump, while they just Mealy Mouth and obfuscate loudly all the while continuing their secretive and clandestine shenanigans. Misdirection and sleight of hand are the rule!

    As long as this continues, you can never have equality or fairness! Because eventually history will be completely rewritten. And, the disinfecting light will be but a memory until that generation fades away.

    Mortality is the enemy of men, words never carry the weight of experience. So unless There is unyielding action on those righteous words that are expressed and written down, They bear no value.

    Comprehension, knowledge, wisdom, education and faith have no value without works. Our society seems to leave the works to the Roaches and Rats.

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