How Bloomington “Citizen Sovereigns” can rescue local media

When I moved to Bloomington late last year, I was glad to find the place still had a daily newspaper. Some towns – like Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I made my home for 22 years – haven’t been as lucky.

Cropped Front Page Herald Times New Owner
The front page of the Herald-Times on Jan. 29, 2019.

Granted, I’ve heard that the Bloomington Herald-Times is a shadow of its former self. It has suffered through several rounds of downsizing tied to financial challenges that are ubiquitous in the newspaper industry. And the owners weren’t local, though Schurz Communications at least was headquartered in Indiana, not on the coasts.

Then in January, Schurz announced plans to sell all its newspaper holdings to GateHouse Media, a New York-based conglomerate. More layoffs quickly followed. The H-T lost two people, one of them long-time photographer Jeremy Hogan. This came on top of an earlier round of layoffs last August, which were likely a prelude to the acquisition. 

It’s worth looking at the implications of these changes, putting them in a broader context.

Beyond that, we need to do more than just snipe at decisions that people in the news industry make. It’s far more productive to explore what we can do as citizens to take control of our local news coverage, enhancing what’s already here and ensuring its future stability.

But first, what are we up against?

The GateHouse Way

GateHouse Media logo

The most recent H-T layoffs were no surprise, given GateHouse Media’s reputation.

For background, check out this NPR report: “Can A New Business Model Save Small-Town Papers?” An excerpt:

Roughly 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged across the United States in the last 15 years – 2,000 – which makes the newspaper buying spree of New York-based hedge fund GateHouse Media all the more surprising. It is now the largest newspaper owner in this country, although some warn that its business model is damaging to journalism.

Yet news reports about the Schurz acquisition only gave a glancing mention to implications of GateHouse ownership. An article in the Indianapolis Star made a passing reference to “critics who accuse the company of drastically reducing staff and making other cuts…” A Feb. 10 follow-up by the Business Insider described layoffs in the wake of this acquisition, and referred to GateHouse’s “reputation for rapidly expanding through acquisition and making deep staffing cuts.”

Mostly, though, the reports of this acquisition – including coverage in the Indiana Daily Student and Indiana Public Media – highlighted corporate talking points. Chief among them was the assurance that GateHouse’s size and scale would benefit the 145 newspapers in its portfolio.

So What’s Next?

In addition to the acquisition and subsequent layoffs, the H-T also saw a leadership change in the newsroom this year.

Zaltsberg Perry
Bob Zaltsberg (left) and J.J. Perry

Near the end of 2018, Bob Zaltsberg, who’d been editor at the H-T for 33 years, announced his plans to retire in early 2019. At that point, the sale to GateHouse was already in the works, though not yet public.

To replace Zaltsberg, Schurz Communications picked J.J. Perry, who was editor at another Schurz newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Perry has strong ties to Bloomington. He graduated from Indiana University and worked for 13 years at the H-T in a variety of positions, including arts editor, news editor, digital editor and assistant managing editor.

He took over from Zaltsberg on Feb. 1, the same day that GateHouse assumed ownership of the H-T.

Perry’s first column upon his return confronted these changes. He did a solid job with it. He acknowledged the realities of layoffs and financial challenges while striking an overall optimistic tone, despite a pretty daunting outlook.

He’s had practice at this kind of thing, as recently as last July. At that point, he was writing about layoffs at the American News and Farm Forum in Aberdeen, South Dakota, when the publication cut 7 percent of its staff. The publisher of the Dakota Media Group, which owned those papers and was in turn owned by Schurz Communications, said the layoffs were intended to increase profitability. In hindsight, it seems likely those cuts also were made to prepare for the GateHouse acquisition.

In his H-T column, Perry didn’t serve up the typical more-with-less bromide. I appreciate that. However, he lost me when he described the benefit of this ownership change: “GateHouse did not buy these newspaper properties to fail or die. With their sheer size – nearly 200 papers across the country – GateHouse promises efficiencies of scale that Schurz was never going to attain.”

I’m really tired of the “efficiencies of scale” argument. When applied to the media, what it ultimately means is this: Decisions aren’t made with a specific community’s needs in minds. Most major decisions aren’t made locally at all, in fact. And the people making those decisions? We won’t even know who they are, much less be able to reach them to advocate on our community’s behalf. 

Perry will be the local face for GateHouse, and he took a stab at answering questions in his second column, published on Feb. 10.

But he didn’t – and most likely can’t – answer the question posed by James Shanahan, dean of IU’s Media School, in that Indy Star article I cited earlier: “The $64,000 question is what kind of manpower and womanpower are they going to have to cover local issues? Bloomington is a very vibrant community. There’s a lot happening politically and a lot happening at the university and you need a lot of reporters to do that well.”

Even If You Don’t Romanticize the Past, The Future Looks Grim

Do layoffs even matter? What about journalism as we’ve come to know it – is it worth saving?

Would Ben Franklin scoff at modern journalism?

Antonio Garcia Martinez wrote a provocative column for Wired this month: “Journalism Isn’t Dying. It’s Returning to Its Roots.” He argues that the notion of journalism as a key underpinning of democracy is a relatively modern construct, as is its professional objectivity.

Martinez finds parallels between the opinionated, partisan, often anonymous pamphlets circulated by our nation’s Founding Fathers and the sensationalized posts that feed the Internet trolls today.

From the article:

Journalists pining for a return to their golden age of advertising-supported journalism are disturbingly similar to aged Midwestern factory workers seeking a return to the time when high-school-educated labor could afford middle-class lives with total job security. Both golden ages resulted from a unique set of economic and political circumstances that are now gone and impossible to reproduce. Those who claim democracy requires the precise flavor of journalism we’ve known for a century or so will have to explain how our republic survived the century preceding.

I take his point. Yet democracy itself has evolved over the past two-plus centuries. More of us are literate, slavery is abolished and women can vote, among other things.

Journalism changed, too. Tracking down facts, analyzing data, bearing witness and making sense of these things – and making them accessible to a broad audience – are key to holding those in power accountable for their actions. And all of this is crucial if we want an informed, engaged citizenry that’s eager to help tackle the challenges of our society.

Of course, this isn’t a radical observation. The well-funded, well-connected Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy published a report this month that takes a deep dive into these same issues.

The report – “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America” – presents recommendations that are far-reaching and aspirational. So much so that it feels like yet another report to be discussed mostly in places like the IU Media School, but not in actual newsrooms or by people who are searching for ways to build a better informed community.

That said, I take to heart the commission’s concluding call to action:

“We are citizen-sovereigns. We must act as sovereigns, take responsibility and move forward.”

Moving Forward: An Alternative Approach

What might it look like for a community to “take responsibility and move forward”?

Bloomington MC partners
Potential partners to create an independent locally owned news organization in Bloomington?

Last year, I wrote a column about how to build a local, independent news organization with 1) stable funding, 2) a decent-sized staff to provide consistent, credible coverage of local government and other key areas, and 3) accountability to our community.

I proposed pooling financial resources from a wide range of local sources: educational institutions, government entities, private foundations, large nonprofits, and individual donors. These funds could be augmented by other revenue – subscriptions, sponsorships, events, etc.

On the newsroom side, the organization would have a relatively small core staff, supplemented with freelancers and shared content through partnerships with other local media.  

Those media partnerships would be vital, since the goal would be to support current local efforts, not undermine them. Partners in shared content – and shared revenue – might include the Limestone Post, Bloom Magazine, WFHB, WFIU/WTIU, and The Ryder, among others.

Media Panel 1
Panelists at a Feb. 14, 2019 “Meet the Media” event for nonprofits. From left: Carmen Siering of Bloom Magazine, Wes Martin of WFHB, and Bob Zaltsberg, recently retired Herald-Times editor. Not pictured: Joe Hren of WFIU/WTIU.

My original proposal was specific to Ann Arbor. But Bloomington has similar elements that could make this a success: multiple local funding sources, a variety of locally-owned media, a culture of collaboration. 

The challenge – for Bloomington, Ann Arbor or any community – is to achieve the leadership and collective will to tackle this new kind of journalistic enterprise. At stake is the resilience of a reliable local information source for the critical issues we face in our town. We can’t count on having that when media ownership is based elsewhere, or when the business model is primarily profit-driven.

So will we embrace the role of citizen-sovereign? I’m optimistic that Bloomington is up to the challenge, and I’m willing to put my shoulder to the wheel to help. The B Square Beacon – this site I’ve started with my husband and fellow journalist, Dave Askins – is a step in that direction.

As I continue to explore our new home, I’ll keep looking for ways to help build a better informed, more deeply engaged community, one with residents who play an active role in the future of local media.

Additional Reading

A hedge fund’s ‘mercenary’ strategy: Buy newspapers, slash jobs, sell the buildingsWashington Post, Feb. 11, 2019

Local newspaper giant GateHouse Media laid off at least 60 journalists across the US after a $30 million acquisitionBusiness Insider, Feb. 10, 2019

Why Journalism Urgently Needs A Domestic Marshall Plan – And Democracy Demands ItForbes, Feb. 7, 2019

Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in AmericaKnight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, February 2019

Sale of Bloomington and South Bend papers not a shock to industry watchersIndianapolis Star, Jan. 30, 2019

Herald-Times, Other Local Papers Sold To GateHouse MediaIndiana Public Media, Jan. 28, 2019

GateHouse Media buys Bloomington’s Herald-TimesIndiana Daily Student, Jan. 28, 2019

Seeding an Oasis in Our Local News DesertMedium, Aug. 9, 2018

Newsonomics: GateHouse’s Mike Reed talks about rolling up America’s news industryHarvard University Nieman Lab, June 20, 2018

One thought on “How Bloomington “Citizen Sovereigns” can rescue local media

  1. Howdy, good piece…someone had posted it on Facebook where I saw it. Here is what I commented there: If all of the folks interested in this particular topic would actually go to a volunteer orientation at WFHB and choose to become journalists you would in short order have exactly what you’re talking about. The MORE volunteers with a greater range of experience the better. The more we can keep MONEY out of this equation the better. Everything can be produced via WFHB. Programs do not have to actually “air” on the radio to find a home on the web site as audio and web content. Producers and “programs” need to be vetted by the News and Public Affairs Committee. But where before there was limited space for new blood due to having only so many on-air spots available for news (because the station is oriented to music–and in this it is also excellent), now there is essentially unlimited space to produce and host programming. Why run around and “make partnerships”? All you need is at the Firehouse.

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