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Paper Cuts: When private equity firms control local newspapers

Chapter 9

Local case study: Monroe County options, ideas growing in wake of news cuts

Numerous young reporting options and multiple ideas are springing up in reaction to deep cuts in reporters, content of the once-dominant Herald-Times.

Monroe County residents have relied on news from a local newspaper and its reporters since the 1820s.

Bloomington’s Herald-Times was owned 53 years by an Indiana family with a history of newspapers also dating back to the 1800s. One of about a dozen in a chain of papers, it generally maintained a news staff of 30 or more staff members who generated and produced original local content and was published seven days a week.

Today, it is one of more than 300 papers owned by private equity controlled corporate media giant Gannett. It publishes six days a week with a total news staff of seven people and runs a generous number of articles and videos from Gannett’s other properties. As any local reader will tell you, it’s a shell of its former self.

The paper’s decline spans decades, a fact that was brought home to former H-T employee Janice Rickert during a recent auction of the HT archives. Rickert wore many hats in 42 years with the paper — copy editor, page designer, the editor’s right hand. The newspaper was declining before the Gatehouse-then-Gannett takeover, she said.

“In 2011, we were a shadow of the volume the paper was in the 1980s, the ‘90s and the 2000s,” she said.

The for-profit journalism model was already collapsing with the arrival of CNN, the internet and “free news available at any moment in your hand,” she said.

In the years leading up to the decision to sell its newspapers, Schurz Communications tried many things to enhance the H-T’s offerings — instead of “cutting our way to prosperity,” former Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg said.

The H-T worked with the Readership Institute at Northwestern, New Directions for News from the University of Missouri, and the Learning Newsroom project sponsored by the American Press Institute and the Knight Foundation. It also worked with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The Herald-Times in Monroe County, Mooresville-Decatur Times, Spencer Evening World and Martinsville Reporter-Times using the same stories across multiple front pages. Martinsville Reporter-Times ran this story on Monday, Oct. 23, both Mooresville-Decatur and Spencer ran this story on Wednesday, Oct. 25, and Herald-Times ran this story on Friday, Oct. 27.

The Herald-Times in Monroe County, Mooresville-Decatur Times, Spencer Evening World and Martinsville Reporter-Times using the same stories across multiple front pages. Martinsville Reporter-Times ran this story on Monday, Oct. 23, both Mooresville-Decatur and Spencer ran this story on Wednesday, Oct. 25, and Herald-Times ran this story on Friday, Oct. 27

Todd Schurz, former Schurz Communications president and CEO, said the company’s diversified portfolio with assets in broadband and its growth in cable meant it could weather the downturn in advertising revenue that had supported its newspapers in the past and endure the havoc wrought on the print medium by the internet.

“And my hope was that in that model, we would have enough time to find and discover what was going to be the sustainable economic model for local media,” Schurz said. “So that's why we were trying all of those things.”

In the end though, Schurz said company leaders realized the best possibility of the papers’ survival would come from a larger company with more properties to spread the costs over. So, they sold.

An analysis of content, staffing and circulation from just before the sale and three years after shows an even sharper decline.

In September of 2018 — just prior to the 2019 GateHouse buyout — the H-T published about 970 original articles and opinion pieces. By September of 2023, that number dropped to about 250.

Staffing numbers also declined sharply. In 2018, the paper had a news staff of 29; By 2022, the news staff had dropped to just seven employees.

“The Schurz company certainly wanted us to make money and cover the big stories that would sell papers,” Rickert said, “The basketball games and the quirky things like a crocodile in Lake Monroe or whatever.”

But the Schurz owners also believed in the role of the newspaper as a public watchdog, she said, and emphasized coverage of local government and local schools, including and especially when “somebody in in a position of power was abusing that power in some way.”

“When we got to Gannett-land, Gannett saw clicks as being the most important thing,” Rickert said.

Gannett also wants government and watchdog reporting, Rickert said, if it gets clicks. But there are problems inherent with maintaining such a small staff.

“If you've only got four or five reporters on the news side doing reporting in Bloomington and Monroe County, you're not going to get out and about and make enough contacts with enough people to get that tip about what's going on — to have somebody who trusts you enough to tell you what's going on and knows you'll protect them. Because there's just not as many people out making those human contacts with the sources in the community.”

“We didn't do that work because it paid well, or that it gave us everything we ever wanted. We did it because we loved our community, and we did it because we felt it was important.”

With less local coverage, a drop in circulation followed. In 2018, the H-T had a circulation of 14,872 but by 2022, circulation had dropped to 9,400.

Gannett officials declined to comment on the changes in their south-central Indiana newspapers and instructed their Herald-Times employees not to comment. Instead, they issued a statement through Herald-Times News Director Jill Bond:

"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."

Those who research the decline of local news often point to the loss of government and political coverage, but other valuable local news has also been lost. For example, local high school sports coverage and reporting on the arts.

Chris Howell spent more than 20 years with the Herald-Times as a photojournalist and photo editor. Covering local sports was a highlight, he said, both for the news staff and the community.

The year before the sale, the paper had a staff of four full-time photographers and one videographer, Howell said. Even when fully staffed, they couldn’t get to every story community member wanted them to. And sports are especially important in smaller communities, Howell maintained, because “that's the conversation at the diner, that's the conversation as they're walking down the street, on the front porch, between neighbors.”

When he left in May of 2019, about three months after the private equity takeover, he was the only photographer still employed at the H-T.

Howell said the sale of the Schurz newspapers left “a sense of abandonment, almost” as he watched colleagues “start the day with a job and end it without one.”

“We didn't do that work because it paid well, or that it gave us everything we ever wanted,” Howell said. “We did it because we loved our community, and we did it because we felt it was important. And we were being told by representatives from the company that came in and bought us that things would, you know, still be — that [community journalism] would still be a priority. But it became pretty clear pretty quickly that they were saying that, but they weren't offering the tools to support that.”

Alain Barker’s Bloomington arts credentials stretch back at least two decades and include 10 years growing the Bloomington Early Music Festival and a stint on the Buskirk Chumley Board of Directors. He currently serves as the director of music entrepreneurship and career development at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Barker said from about 2004 to about 2014 “there was a lot of heart and commitment in the local media” to develop stories that were not only representative of “the particular shape of the arts in Bloomington,” but also to support the development of its cultural scene.

“So it was as much reporting as it was engaging with and collaborating with arts organizations in town,” he said. “There was an enormous amount of commitment coming out of the newspaper during that time.”

But even before the sale to GateHouse/Gannett, Barker began to see “a radical shift” in arts coverage.

“I will say that there are heroic actions within the staff of the newspaper to be able to keep the reporting going,” Barker said. “And I do believe that there is a sincere and deep desire and commitment to keep the newspaper as a local source of meaningful stories rather than just simply a pipeline for AP stories or redistributed stories from different parts of the country and around the world.”

What is the future of local news in Bloomington and Monroe County?

An array of media organizations in Bloomington are working to not only sustain local news but together provide a broader scope of it than the Herald-Times can in its current form. In addition to WFIU-WTIU News, independent media groups the B Square Bulletin, WFHB Community Radio, the Limestone Post and the Bloomingtonian each contribute to the local news landscape in Monroe County with reporting from trained journalists.

Community leaders and local stakeholders are discussing the potential uses for a new local news fund, according to Tina Peterson, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County.

The fund was set up with the Community Foundation by Herald-Times News Director Jill Bond. Gannett would not allow Bond to comment for this project, but Peterson said the official fund description describes it as supporting “a robust, thriving, accessible and comprehensive local news landscape in Monroe County and surrounding counties.”

Nearly $20,000 has been raised so far from individual donations and the recent auction of the Herald-Times archives.

The money is meant to support nonprofit journalism programs — Report for America or The American Journalism Project, for example — build local news capacity, or support local news collaborations, according to Peterson.

“The most significant clarification, I think, is that it's not meant to support infrequent publications or necessarily online publications that don't support a comprehensive reporting of news,” she said.

The Board of Directors of the Community Foundation will decide what organizations or programs receive funding. But first, more community conversations are needed to identify the news gaps and the impact on the community, Peterson said.

“From the beginning, we've committed first of all to making sure that we've met with all the key players, so to speak — those who deliver news and have an understanding of what they're capable of, what their intent is, how they can contribute.”

“We want to make sure that we're being reflective of what we as a community define as important as it relates to local news,” Peterson said.

Chapter 10: Statewide effort based in Indianapolis targets news deserts throughout Indiana »


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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