The Outstater

October 23, 2020

“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.” — Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker, 1980

WHEN THE CONVERSATION at the morning coffee turns to the local newspaper, the complaint isn’t about bias anymore, it’s about fraud, as in “wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.”

The definition, let it be clear, is not applied to the smaller community newspapers that have maintained legitimacy despite hard times — heroically so. Rather, it is applied to the metropolitan dailies, namely the Indianapolis Star and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. There you will find an elaborate hoax under way, a Wizard of Oz behind a screen. 

The two newspapers, one owned by Gannett Inc. and the other by the Inskeep family, are trying to convince us they are something they are not, that is, an honest hometown paper. Speculation says that is important to them for two reasons: First, to justify their status under the state’s legal-notice law (more later); and second to pad their financial profile for any leveraged buyout.

As with any fraud, the facts are obscured. These newspapers no longer promote audited, unqualified circulation figures. Consider that Editor & Publisher reported just after World War II that a Fort Wayne newspaper had 120 percent market penetration, meaning that it was considered essential enough for many to subscribe both at home and at the office. Today, look down your street mid week and count the one or two morning newspapers plopped in the driveways. 

Advertising lineage is visibly down, but just as important is the change in the nature of the advertising. Gone are the small commercial advertisers that attested to the economic vitality of a community and to a proud relationship with the local newspaper. Now there is large institutional advertising — hospitals, utilities, big corporations and the like — whose intent appears to be political rather than commercial. 

Are they buying protection from negative media stories and editorials or paying for boosterish coverage? If so, this the new journalism. In contrast, a typical day at the traditional hometown dailies included an irate advertiser or politician bursting through the front door to threaten bodily harm (see Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee”). Today, you are challenged to find a single word critical of the big local advertisers or their favorite projects.

It is reported that the staff at the Indianapolis Star has fallen from 200 to 70 in 20 years. Compare that with the staff of a statewide metro daily in the 1980s of 500 or more, a small town in itself. Newspapers back then made up the largest manufacturing sector in the nation.

The Inskeep family in Fort Wayne to its credit has maintained a modicum of staffing. The noticeable decline, though, has been in influence. The paper is read only by the perversely curious and hard-core liberal. 

It made strategic sense for a Republican city councilman to boycott the Journal Gazette during the most recent city election. He declined to meet for the customary endorsement grilling, spending his time walking his district. He was reelected despite being outspent more than two to one. 

Come to think of it, what would be the result of an opinion survey that asked likely voters whether they were more likely or less likely to choose a candidate endorsed by either of these newspapers?

Finally, the two newspapers fail a traditional test of readership: Whether you can find out what the police siren last night was all about. Or try to find the cause of a fire or the obituary of a prominent neighbor. The New York Times at its peak covered Sunday sermons.

A friend asks the defining question: “If you cannot learn the name of the new pastor at your neighbor’s church or that the nice young woman at the bank got married last weekend, or that the date of the Home Extension Club meeting has been changed, what really is the value of a newspaper?”

This all will come unraveled if the Legislature ever gets around to reforming the outdated Public Notice Advertising Law, which requires legal notices be published in local newspapers.

Rep. Wendy McNamara of Evansville would do just that. She argues that the fees for sheriff’s sales are notably suspect. “I believe newspapers throughout the state of Indiana are using (Indiana’s public notice requirement for sheriff’s sales) as a subsidy,” McNamara told the Evansville Courier & Press. “There is no rhyme, no explanation and no reason given for why such a disparity exists between charging for these ads. And especially these ads – well, this business, I should say – have become kind of a cottage industry.”

The law transfers tens of thousands of dollars to publishers (nobody at the Statehouse is keeping track) on the assumption that they still are providing a unique community service, that Hoosiers read their product in numbers justifying the renumeration. For example, the Journal Gazette has collected $22,000 so far this year from the city of Fort Wayne alone. There is more, much more. The charge for a single sheriff’s sale might be as high as $1,700. Multiply that statewide by all of the Indiana counties, cities, sales, court filings, and so forth.

Again, the smaller dailies, the real newspapers, can make the case that they are a tribune earning the allegiance of their community. The metropolitan dailies cannot — and good riddance to them. — tcl


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