The Late Edition

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Tim Swarens compares the layoffs that swept through The Indianapolis Star and other news outlets this past winter to a hurricane.

“We lived in south Florida,” the longtime Star opinion editor and columnist says. “So I know what it’s like to board up and prepare for a big storm. You know it’s possible, and you think you’re ready, but you’re not. Because when it happens, it still surprises you. And it’s more than you could have imagined.”

On January 23, the Star laid off Swarens. He had been with the paper for more than 20 years, and as a columnist, had been one of the most recognizable faces of the state’s largest newsroom. His firing, along with those of longtime Star fixtures Amanda Kingsbury and Pete the Planner (Peter Dunn), came on the heels of buyouts of six other veteran staffers a few weeks before.

The departures were part of a flurry of events. In February, the Star’s parent company, Gannett Co. Inc., grappled with a hostile takeover attempt by Digital First Media. Digital First’s largest shareholder is Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund focused on acquiring embattled businesses and often stripping them of assets before selling or closing them. Gannett’s board of directors rejected Digital First’s initial purchase offer of $12 per share and cast doubt on the purchaser’s ability to come up with enough funds to complete the sale. That move did little to quiet the chatter, however. (Representatives from the Star did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Then, in early March, Indy’s alternative weekly newspaper, NUVO, announced that it was shuttering its print publication. NUVO had been publishing for nearly 30 years when the weekly let go more than 40 percent of its staff, aiming to reinvent itself as a purely digital publication. While the city’s two other longtime papers, Indianapolis Business Journal and The Indianapolis Recorder, seem stable at the moment, perhaps because they appeal to specific audiences, the events shook the Indianapolis newspaper world.

The buyouts, layoffs, hostile-takeover attempt, and NUVO decision prompted some locals to contemplate a world in which the Star did not exist. Swarens believes the fear is well-founded. “Recent months have been difficult for all media, but particularly for newspapers,” he says.

Several years ago, the Star, like most metropolitan daily newspapers, began focusing almost entirely on the digital side of operations. The papers have done so because readers of their print products are older and diminishing. Unfortunately, not enough advertisers have followed the paper over to the digital side. When most businesses spend money on digital ads, they’re doing so with Facebook and Google, not local newspapers.

That has left the Star and other newspapers with smaller revenue streams—and with little choice but to cut expenses, starting with personnel. As a result, readers complain that they’re getting less for their money. They cancel their subscriptions, leaving the papers with less to offer advertisers, creating a vicious circle.

The numbers show as much. Gannett’s fourth-quarter Securities and Exchange Commission filing from 2018 revealed that the company’s revenues were more than $100 million less than the previous year’s—$751.4 million compared to $854.2 million in 2017. In almost every category, the company recorded eight-figure decreases from the previous year.

Although the prospect of the Star ceasing publication entirely in the next few years is remote, experts say it’s a possibility long-term. And further attrition seems almost certain. All of which begs the question: What does the city stand to lose?

Dennis Ryerson is retired now, but from 2003 to 2012, he was the editor of The Indianapolis Star. Ryerson lives in Denver, Colorado, where he was once managing editor of The Denver Post. His experience with both papers gives him a glimpse of what Indy might look like if Digital First acquires Gannett and the Star.

Alden Global Capital purchased the Post eight years ago. Last year, the Post laid off about a third of its news staff. That followed deep cuts in 2015 and 2016. A little more than a decade ago, the Post’s newsroom employed roughly 300 people. Today, it employs a few more than 60.

The Star’s staffing losses haven’t been quite as deep, but they have been severe nonetheless. Records from the Indianapolis NewsGuild—the labor organization representing the Star’s newsroom and building personnel—show that 212 people were employed there in 2007. By 2019, that number was down to about 80.
Ryerson says the community takes a huge hit when its newspaper declines like that. “I can feel it here in Denver,” he says.

Post reporters still do good work, Ryerson insists, but there aren’t enough of them. This leaves huge gaps in coverage. He says there are few arts stories, and that healthcare reporting is spotty. But the larger effect of the Post’s decline is that people just don’t know their community as well. “At their best, newspapers educate,” he says. “But to educate, you have to repeat the lesson or people forget. Too often now, because newspapers lack the resources, the lesson isn’t repeated.”

Publications such as the Post and the Star, Ryerson says, once served as facilitators of conversation. They provided a baseline of information about local government and activities that made it possible for citizens to understand what was going on. Without strong local papers, he says, “we as an informed citizenry and community are going to suffer.”

Jennifer Lawless has studied this phenomenon. Last year, the professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a collaborator, Danny Hayes of George Washington University, published an article in the Journal of Politics tracing the link between the decline in local newspapers and civic engagement. They examined more than 10,000 stories about congressional campaigns between 2010 and 2014. They then drew upon a survey by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study of 9,500 people. Several times during the survey, those people were asked questions about the congressional campaigns in their district. Lawless and Hayes found that the respondents knew less about the campaigns than respondents in previous, similar surveys conducted when newspapers were more robust. The researchers also discovered that those less informed citizens were less likely to vote or otherwise participate in civic affairs. When they did, their views also were more likely to be rigid, because they got much of the limited information they received from people or organizations with no interest in providing competing interpretations or complicating facts.

“That’s unfortunate because people want to know what’s going on and they want sources of information they can trust. When they lose the independent coverage newspapers provide, they don’t just lose the newspaper. They lose that connection with the community.”

The result was a population less able to meet the demands of informed citizenship. Lawless says she doesn’t know where this all will lead, but she’s not optimistic. “The prognosis is not good at all,” she says.

Ryerson agrees. He says he attended a mayoral debate in Denver and was shocked to find only one reporter there—and none from the Post. “When I was an editor,” he says, “we would have sent a reporter, a photographer, and a columnist.”

He points to studies showing that as newspapers have declined, local governments have become less efficient and more corrupt. One of those studies came from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Researchers there discovered that, in communities where newspapers had disappeared or declined, municipal government officials had higher wages, higher deficits, and higher costs for borrowing money.

“If I were a public official,” Ryerson says about the newspaper industry’s disintegration, “I’d be cheering because I can get away with murder.”

Swarens says the full effects of the Star’s cuts haven’t been felt locally yet, but there are places where the impact of its diminished staff can be seen. He cites some of the counties surrounding Indianapolis such as Hendricks and Johnson as examples of places where the paper no longer focuses much attention or resources. Some big school districts such as Wayne, Warren, and Pike also receive little, if any, scrutiny.

“That’s unfortunate,” Swarens says, “because people want to know what’s going on and they want sources of information they can trust. When they lose the independent coverage newspapers provide, they don’t just lose the newspaper. They lose that connection with the community.”

Even in its diminished state, the Star has had some big wins in the last few years. Its investigative team published a series of stories on sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics that earned national attention. Its sports team routinely wins top honors at the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards. But its business and political coverage has dropped off noticeably.

Everyone seems to agree that the decline of newspapers such as the Star leaves a void. No one, though, seems to know quite how to fill it. Ryerson doubts any solution will come from publicly traded companies who must answer to Wall Street and shareholders. “All they want is to suck as much money out as possible,” he says.

[pullquote align=”right” caption=”Matt Shafer Powell, chief content officer, WFYI”]“We don’t see this as an opportunity. We see it as an obligation.”[/pullquote]If managers can’t achieve a 15 to 20 percent return on investment, they look for ways to cut costs, even if it means damaging the product. Individual or private ownership of newspapers might be an answer in some places, “because they can afford to take a longer view,” Ryerson says. He points to the success The Washington Post has had since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the paper, but acknowledges that people with the resources and interest required to own a newspaper are rare.

Ryerson also notes the growth of public broadcasting in Colorado. The NPR and PBS affiliates there have a news staff almost as large as the Post’s now, and the stations recently acquired a local news website. “It helps them cover Denver and helps fill the gap a bit, but not nearly enough,” he says.

Matt Shafer Powell, chief content officer for WFYI Public Media in Indianapolis, sees a role for his station as the Star downsizes. (Editor’s Note: The author hosts a radio show on WFYI.) WFYI recently secured a seven-figure grant from the Lilly Endowment to increase its news staffing and provide more coverage for all the state’s public broadcasting stations. Even with a larger staff and more resources, however, Powell says WFYI can’t possibly do everything a metropolitan daily newspaper does. He calls the slow destruction of the newspaper industry a tragedy. Public broadcasting stations are doing the best they can, but they struggle to respond to what he considers an emergency.

“We don’t see this as an opportunity,” he says. “We see it as an obligation.”

NUVO has relaunched itself as a not-for-profit news site, but with a staff that is a little more than half the size it had when it was a print publication. Swarens says there are others in Indianapolis also trying to launch an online publication like the Texas Tribune, a non-profit that aims to promote civic engagement in the Lone Star state through original journalism. Those talks remain in the fledgling stage.

Regardless of what other outlets do to fill the gaps, the Star will need a new generation of digital subscribers to stay in business. Without a strong metropolitan daily newspaper, Swarens argues that Indy will lack a trusted, shared source of information. New media that rely directly on support from their audiences will speak only to their bases. “That’s a horrible place for our culture to be,” he says.