The Fall of the Star: Ownership Mattered

August 13, 2019

by Craig Ladwig

Gannett Company, Inc., which owns five metropolitan dailies here in Indiana and more than 100 nationwide, is nearing a deal to combine with a private-equity-backed firm with “a reputation for aggressively slashing expenses,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

“The companies are grappling with a brutal environment for local newspapers around the country,” the paper notes. “Local papers have suffered particularly sharp declines in circulation compared to national outlets as readers look elsewhere for news and classified ads disappear.”

How did this happen? There is a growing stack of commentary on what has gone wrong with journalism. Missing, however, is an answer to a question that would be obvious in analyzing any other business: Was there a change in the ownership model?

There was, in fact, a dramatic one. America’s heartland newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s were purchased by widely held corporations motivated by: 1) the industry’s reputation at the time for being inflation-proof; and 2) inheritance taxes that pressured a generation of newspaper families to sell.

Eugene S. Pulliam’s Indianapolis Star, once a statewide power, succumbed to that reality somewhat late but succumb it did. In 2000, the Gannett Company acquired it.

The new corporate spokesman, as is the custom, promised to continue the tradition with only minimal changes in staff or scope. It was the joke that never got a laugh.

For corporations operate newspapers differently than do individual owner-publishers. That that has to be said should indicate the shallowness of the current analysis. Where the Pulliam family counted as part of its profit margin the satisfaction of leading a statewide readership, Gannett, not unreasonably, was interested in the money.

First to be noticed was that adult supervision left the building, reversing the flow of newsroom authority and power that had prevailed for a century. Previously, the copy and news desks reflected the publisher’s personal preferences, political, social and professional, those of a man or woman who had put their life’s treasure into supporting and leading a community through their family’s newspaper.

Under Gannett, the most experienced editors were allowed to leave — encouraged, even. That sounds counter-productive but corporate executives may prefer hiring their editors from some distance — easier to manage than a local know-it-all.

A friend, just one example, walked out the door taking with her a degree from an Ivy League college, fluency in Spanish and economics, invaluable Washington experience covering the Supreme Court of the United States for a national wire service, and, perhaps most important, deep and loving roots in Indiana with family relationships that included a state party chairman and the publisher of a revered small-town newspaper.

Left behind at the Star were the professionally nondescript from somewhere or another in Gannettland. Know that the headquarters would not be judging them on any journalistic skills during their five-year stint here in flyover country. Rather, they would be judged on how smoothly the newsroom operation would go. And that smoothness depended on how well they mollified the younger, liberal staffs with radical political bent that have always been the management challenge of a metro newsroom.

The first Gannett editor to occupying the Star newsroom, arriving eager to relate and to make the times-have-changed point, sported a ring on one ear. The hidebound fogies on the copy desk, the reporters’ ancient enemies, went out on both of theirs.

Story ideas that would have been spiked during the Pulliam era, i.e., “Let’s do a special full-color page on the various styles of condoms,” became de rigueur. Over the years, day in and day out, such “human interest” proved to be death to readership — that and the recurrent sophomoric lectures on the opinion page.

In sum, throughout the Midwest, these new, hip editors turned out to be woefully unprepared to guide serious information systems, especially those with a family-centered customer base. The late novelist Donald Barthelme, a reporter for the Houston Post early in his career, described the period artfully in a 1980 essay for the New Yorker:

“Top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.”

How late is it? Consider the numbers:

And don’t expect the gap to be filled by broadcast news, which, absent the benefit of sound, newspaper-driven perspective, is entertainment at its best and silliness at its worst. Nor has the Internet, still a dog’s breakfast, shown us its promise.

We in the hinterland will miss — nay, are missing — those home based owner-publishers and their corps of hidebound fogies. For their journalism was the editing, sifting, sorting and weighing of facts, the forewarning when possible of events and honestly explaining their portent, all to a trusting daily readership of average folks.

It turns out to have been a critical element of a healthy democracy.

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Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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