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Paper Cuts: When private equity firms control local newspapers

Chapter 2

No journalists at Bedford Times-Mail signals a news vacuum

Since it was purchased by the private equity backed GateHouse company, now Gannett, the daily in Lawrence County is an example of one that no longer has local reporters. A former staff member talks about what has been lost.

Journalism professor and researcher Penelope Muse Abernathy describes how giant media organizations operate in her work The Expanding News Deserts.

“The large hedge funds and private equity groups that purchased distressed newspaper chains in recent years introduced a new management philosophy that focused on bottom-line performance to the exclusion of journalism's civic mission.”

When private-equity-backed GateHouse (now Gannett) took over the 10 Indiana newspapers that had comprised The Hoosier Times group, it followed the typical “media giant” playbook: it quickly reduced staff and publication days in the name of operating efficiency. As a result, the papers became shells of their former selves and local news coverage dwindled.

But coverage and content weren’t the only thing diminishing. Livelihoods were as well.

The Bedford Times-Mail exemplifies the decline of several former Hoosier Times papers in south-central Indiana once private equity came for them.

No single comprehensive source for local news

Krystal Shetler spent 25 years at the Bedford Times-Mail in Lawrence County copy editing, designing the pages, and reporting on her own community of Mitchell. She ran the newsroom her last few years there. 

Photo of Krystal Shetler

Krystal Shetler

“I loved for so many years telling the stories of our friends and neighbors and to this day, I will see something and go, ‘Oh, I'd love to write a story about that,” she said. “If I still worked for a newspaper.’”

In the newspaper’s heyday, Shetler recalls, the Times-Mail employed more than 30 journalists and had active features, sports and photography departments.

“We had a robust [news] department,” Shetler said, “and we were doing great work.”

Before being sold to GateHouse, the paper covered every aspect of the community from a limestone building in the center of town: local government meetings, elections, festivals, crime, local schools. And something the community especially rallied around — high school sports.

Shetler recounted a number of stories that captivated and reflected the people and issues of Bedford, Mitchell and other rural communities in Lawrence County. Stories that aren’t being told now because, by her account, there is no trained journalist covering them. The Times-Mail press is closed down, the building is empty, the loading dock is padlocked.

framed newspaper articles of track meets

Like many families, former Times-Mail managing editor Krystal Shetler looked to the paper's local coverage to maintain memories of her children’s sporting achievements. “I would get press plates and get posters made and I would go down to the local Ace Hardware and have them framed with their names on it so they could hang it in their rooms. That’s part of what’s gone.”

Shetler acknowledges local citizens are trying to fill the news holes.

“There are a couple of Facebook and digital news sites but they'll focus on maybe just governmental meetings and maybe they'll post a live video but no after-account, no issue-related story to follow,” she said.

Shelter goes on to name a few more sources for specific but limited local news: a local radio station covers the police and probable cause cases from the local courts; a school board live streams meetings on YouTube.

“So if I want to know who's arrested, I know where to go,” she said. “If I want to watch an entire two and a half hour long video of the North Lawrence School Board I know where to go. But there is no comprehensive place left for you to find local news in Lawrence County.”

What does a community lose when it loses reporters on the ground?

The memories of an entire community are lost, Shetler said.

“You lose the stories of the semi–state games and the state championships. You lose the stories of the 100th birthdays and the fish fries. You lose the stories of the Persimmon Festival Parade and who had the winning persimmon pudding,” she said. “You lose those pieces that make us a unique community.”

The loss of local government coverage is a particular concern. Without anyone to explain the issues, people become apathetic, she said.

Bedford Times-Mail building

The Times-Mail building is now empty. The 21,062 sq. ft. building is listed for $425,000 through Century 21 Commercial. Gannett sold its Bedford printing and packing plant in April of 2023.

Election coverage is a big part of any newspaper’s commitment to its community and so it was with the Times-Mail. Shetler recalled the paper running race previews and, for heavily contested races, partnering with area chambers of commerce to host forums to allow voters to hear from candidates personally. Without a single comprehensive source for local news, Shetler said, the public turns to reports that are not guided by journalistic standards for fair and balanced reporting. 

Lawrence County, she said, is a news desert.   

A physical Times-Mail newspaper is still published Tuesday through Saturday. Shetler said to the best of her knowledge, a freelance photographer takes a local picture for the front page, and the rest is mostly shared content from Bloomington’s Herald Times or the Indy Star.

In fact, Shetler and her husband ended their subscription this summer. She described the decision as heart-wrenching.

“It just wasn’t worth it.”

A business model meant to salvage a struggling industry is the architect of its decline

Eight of the 10 former Hoosier Times daily newspapers are still being published in some form.

Newspaper 2014 Schedule 2023 Schedule
Bloomington Herald Times Daily Sunday - Friday
Clay City News Wednesday Out of business
Ellettsville Journal Wednesday Out of business
Mooresville/Decatur Times Wednesday and Saturday Wednesday
Martinsville Reporter-Times Daily Tuesday - Saturday
Paoli Republican (merged w/ Springs Valley Herald) Thursday Thursday
South Bend Tribune Daily Sunday - Friday
Spencer Evening World Monday - Friday Wednesday
Bedford Times Mail Daily Tuesday - Saturday
Springs Valley Herald (merged w/ Paoli Republican) Wednesday Thursday

These are the days the print newspaper was published in selected prior years and is published in 2023. Two of the newspapers are no longer published at all, and four previously separate newspapers have been merged into two newspapers.

Each of these papers has seen staffing cuts, resulting in content decline, which in turn prompts lower circulation.

Staffing numbers representing full-time equivalents came from former and current editors of newspapers, as well as numbers provided by The Herald-Times to the American Society of News Editors for its 2014 and 2018 diversity surveys. In some cases, two newspapers share the same staff. — Chart by Katy Szpak and Jainish Shingala

Though some Times-Mail staff were let go, others became disheartened and left on their own.

As for Shetler, after GateHouse bought the Times-Mail, she said she wasn’t able to cover the community the way she wanted to or practice journalism the way she had been taught by the old-school journalists who mentored her when she first started at the paper. She left for other employment in 2021. More editors and journalists followed suit until the last reporter standing took a voluntary layoff and severance package, Shetler said.

Chapter 3: With private equity companies, profit is king »


Officials at Gannett would not talk to WFIU/WTIU for these stories. They sent a statement attributed to Jill Bond, news director of The Herald-Times.

Paper Cuts The reporting is supported by a grant from the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Omidyar Network.

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