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Paper Cuts: When private equity firms control local newspapers

Chapter 6

Researchers, citizens decry the impact of ownership changes

Members of communities that no longer have family newspaper ownership say a lot is now missing from what used to be their daily habit. Researchers at major universities have documented the losses.

Mark Kruzan served in Indiana’s legislature from 1986 until 2002 and is a former mayor of the City of Bloomington. He’s also a keen observer of the local news landscape. When WFIU asked Kruzan why the public should care about private equity backed organizations controlling local newspapers, he hesitated, saying he couldn’t answer without “sounding melodramatic.”

“I literally believe it's a threat to democracy,” he said. “And I think the bigger problem than just the acquisition of local media by equity firms, a bigger problem is people not realizing it's a big problem.”

Kruzan has witnessed a steady decline in coverage of government and elected officials since he began his career in 1986. He recalled that within just his first four months as a state legislator he was quoted in 88 articles. In 2023, by his count, there have been no locally written articles of Monroe County’s local legislators – nothing beyond their 2022 re-election campaign announcements, he said.

Since 2005, nearly two-thirds of the journalists working in newspapers have left the industry.

Local news coverage was eroding even before private equity’s influence became apparent. Statehouse and local government reporters who had been present in committee meetings pressing officials to explain their issues, votes and actions, gradually went away because of funding cuts.

“There was no one asking questions,” Kruzan said. “And the loss of that accountability of people in public office is a blessing and a curse for politicians; nothing but a curse for the general public.”

When those who are spending $100 million of taxpayer money aren’t asked about their choices, he added, that affects the community.

Mark Fraley, assistant director of Indiana University’s Political and Civic Engagement program, sees the role of newspapers and reporters similarly:

“They were always a means of being able to hold people accountable in a way that drives them to be their best selves when they're governing. So being able to have the singular newspaper supported by a civic infrastructure is one of the most healthy forms of accountability that we can have when it comes to local governments.”

Researchers document losses

Research from New York University supports these observations about declining governmental news coverage in the paper “Local Journalism Under Private Equity Ownership,” completed in 2022 and updated in 2023.

The authors found a distinct rise in private equity ownership of newspapers “from just under 5 percent in 2002 to 21 percent in 2019.” And, as the private equity business model took over, they saw “declines in news content about local government (but not national or international content, which is more easily syndicated across newspapers).”

If voters don’t know much about local policy issues or their elected representatives, they’re not likely to get out and vote. Researchers Sabrina Howell, Arpit Gupta and Michael Ewens found evidence of this in both county and national elections: voter turnout drops after private equity takes control of local newspapers.

This waning voter awareness is also connected to “the increasing nationalization of U.S. politics, including the rise in straight-ticket voting based on partisan issues rather than location-specific policy positions,” they state.

The researchers go on to say, “This civic engagement result is unambiguously negative as voter knowledge of local policy issues and participation in the political process are crucial for local government accountability and, ultimately, a functioning democracy.”

“The importance of media to political outcomes in the U.S. has never been more apparent,” they conclude.

"The loss of that accountability of people in public office is a blessing and a curse for politicians; nothing but a curse for the general public."

Journalist and educator Cheryl Owsley Jackson maintains that newspapers also play an important role in sparking and informing local conversations about social justice issues, especially in mostly white, mostly middle-class communities. Jackson is a visiting lecturer at The Media School at Indiana University and is African American. At one time, she wrote a diversity column for The Republic newspaper in Columbus, Ind.

“Because if you have a reporter in the community who has their ear to the ground and they understand the community — they have similar interests and what they care about — you can take something like a George Floyd case and localize it in a way that includes the community and maybe enlighten some people,” she said. “I think with private equity buying up the newspapers and then firing half of the reporting staff and then letting some of them work from home, you don't have that reporter with their ear to the ground who's able to then elevate the social issues.”

“Investment owners” such as private equity firms specifically focus on cutting reporters and editors who do political and general assignment reporting, according to researchers Johanna Dunaway of Syracuse University and Erik Peterson of Rice University. That’s because political and governmental beats in particular “are expensive to report on and are less popular with readers compared to more entertainment-focused topics,” they state. Those doing this work make up about 80 percent of the newspaper newsroom, according to the researchers, while reporters covering entertainment, health and fitness, and culture comprise just 20 percent.

The total amount of local news a single newspaper generates inevitably declines.

As newspapers become ghost papers or are closed altogether, “the first to go are often those serving rural, ethnic and/or low-income populations,” Dunaway and Peterson say.

Their paper “'New' News Barons: Investment-Oriented Owners Reduce Newspaper Political Reporting Staff” is soon to be published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.

The content was counted on microfilm from September 2014 and September 2018, and on the Herald Times E-Editions online for September 2023. Three areas were counted. Stories with bylines of staff writers is listed on top. Locally written opinion pieces is listed in the middle; this includes editorials, columns, guest columns and letters to the editor. Stories without bylines (listed on the bottom) include obituaries, columns such as area briefs and police beats, calendars, sports roundup stories, sports agate packages, and stories by non-staff members whether or not they had bylines. The briefs columns, calendars and similar items received a count of one for the entire collection of short items.

The unfortunate truth is the newspaper industry has been in decline for decades. Dunaway and Peterson point to “smaller print audiences, reduced advertising revenues and difficulty monetizing online readers.” But they conclude that the rise of investment ownership “has added fuel to the fire.”

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism have been documenting that decline. A few fast facts from The State of Local News 2023:

The U.S. is down 2,900 newspapers from the number of papers active in 2005 and that decline is accelerating. “The nation is on pace to lose one-third of all its newspapers by the end of next year,” researchers said. Many papers that remain only publish weekly.

Since 2005, nearly two-thirds of the journalists working in newspapers have left the industry.

Medill’s latest research also identifies counties at risk of becoming “news deserts,” including four in southwest Indiana: Scott, Crawford, Jennings and Rush counties. WFIU’s conversations with residents of Lawrence, Owen and Morgan counties reveal some already consider themselves in a news desert due to less frequent and more shallow coverage from a local ghost paper, even if those counties aren’t showing up on a researcher’s map.

Community members are exasperated by limited local news coverage

At the community level, readers are noticing the effects of social media coverage that’s rising to fill news gaps left when newspapers wane or close. More than a dozen citizens joined WFIU/WTIU to share their views on the subject.

"People will look at what's going on at the county council or the city council and they'll comment on social media, and often times that can descend into maybe not the healthiest form of discourse imaginable,” said Fraley from the IU Political and Civic Engagement program.

"People are making very serious life decisions about information that, wonderfully, is available 24/7,” said Monroe County Council president Trent Deckard. “The problem is it's available 24/7 and no one is editing it.”

Community members also miss more than government and social justice coverage. With so much content duplicated across papers, "The biggest thing with this is the feeling that our paper isn't local,” said Bloomington City Council member Jim Sims about the Herald Times.

Owen County Historian Tony Neff lamented that local families aren’t covered in the Spencer Evening World. A newspaper is an important source of genealogical history, he pointed out, but also it’s the stories of local people that make for community.

“One of the major things that holds the community together — a small community like Spencer or Gosport — is the local sports,” he said. “We went to a weekly newspaper when it was bought out and that weekly newspaper shows up on Wednesday. And when the local sports happen in high school on Thursday or Friday, it's basically not covered,” said Neff.

Long-time Ellettsville resident and town council member William Ellis concurs:

“Local coverage means something to the athletes, to the families and those actually contributing financially,” he said. “When something's printed, it has kind of this perception that it's newsworthy. And when you go a week without sports scores, especially if someone wins something like a divisional or whatever, it kind of takes something out of it.”

With limited local content, Monroe County resident and historian Elizabeth Mitchell doubts the current version of her local paper is worth the price of a subscription.

“Through the grapevine we hear about stuff and it may show up in the paper one day to two days later,” she said. “And that's a shame. So why would we want to pay for that?”

Officials at Gannett declined to speak with WFIU/WTIU News about the changes in their south-central Indiana newspapers. Instead, they provided a statement from Jill Bond, News Director for The Bloomington Herald-Times, Spencer Evening World and Bedford Times-Mail. 

"The Bloomington Herald-Times, Spencer Evening World and Bedford Times-Mail have deep roots in their communities and throughout the south-central Indiana area. Our newspapers leverage local resources while relying on our USA TODAY Network to ensure continued coverage." 

A final word

A journalist familiar with local newsrooms under GateHouse and Gannett but unwilling to talk for this story because of a fear of being fired shared this excerpt of a letter written by journalist Eugene Patterson, former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, The Washington Post and The St. Petersburg Times.

“At its simplest, a free press keeps people free.

No society can stay free if its rulers go unwatched. For power corrupts. Given secrecy, people with power can do as they please, and seize yet more power until they crush any who differ.

A free press stands vigil on their acts and tells the public what they're up to.

So the public can identify the rascals, and, with the free vote, turn them out.

Blind the public to the scrutiny of its leaders and they will saddle it with tyranny as surely as history foretells the future.

Every authoritarian regime that ever has oppressed a people has first hushed its free press.

No people informed by a free press will long accept oppression.

Remember this always when foolish citizens grow impatient with imperfections of a free press. Their chance to stay free rests on its right to be wrong.”

Chapter 7: Local case study: Morgan County citizens fight back with newspaper »


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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