INDIANAPOLIS — The tweet to The Indianapolis Star from someone with the handle “VelociraptorOfLove” was full of outrage.
“This VITAL PUBLIC INFO is behind a pay wall shame on u @indystar,” it read.
The story? It was about changes to IndyGo bus routes, the kind of news you will not get from The New York Times. The kind of news that takes a local reporter hours to do interviews, cover meetings and write, a photojournalist to help it come to life with pictures and editors to copy edit and publish.
It takes, in short, newspaper employees who are not volunteers. Yet across the nation, local journalism is in trouble.
People want news about their community — but have gotten used to getting it for free online. Print subscriptions are drying up and the advertising dollars that once kept those subscriptions low have not been replicated in digital formats. Newspapers that in the 1990s saw their websites as novelties to supplement the print edition now regret having given away their work product.
People who got their news online for free for decades balk at paying for it. And people who still subscribe grumble about cancelling because the paper has shrunk — a direct result of the routine and massive layoffs that have affected newspapers across the nation. Fewer dollars equals fewer reporters equals less news coverage.
It’s a downward spiral that so far shows little sign of rebounding.
Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said that when he first joined that group in 1992, it had 190 member newspapers. Today, as papers have shuttered, there are 150, of which 60 are daily newspapers, down from 70. Two counties have no local newspaper at all: Crawford and Scott.
Does it matter? Of course. In fact, a 2018 study done by three economists from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois found that when newspapers close, government borrowing costs go up. No watchdog, they found, led to concerns that the investment was riskier, leading to higher interest rates. Other research has found lower participation in elections when news coverage evaporates, along with increased government corruption.
“I’m optimistic journalism will continue to be still a needed and wanted commodity,” Key said. “The danger is: What happens to our democracy?”
It isn’t just closures. It’s the slashing of staffs.
The Herald-Tribune in Batesville has been named Indiana’s best non-daily paper twice since 2008. But this month, it’s already tiny newsroom staff was cut from three to only two, including managing editor Debbie Blank. The lone sports reporter — the only person who is going to cover local sports in what Blank told me is “a sports crazy town” — was let go.
“Every day is stressful as we two remaining reporters try to make the newspaper great,” she said. They publish twice a week: Tuesday and Friday.
So far, their website has no paywall.
“Local readers respect the work we do, but I’m not sure those getting our news for free now would be willing to pay for it online,” Blank said. “I think residents of small towns will miss newspapers when they’re gone — because where else will they ever bet able to get truthful local news?”
When I asked Dave Hill, editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter, if anyone would cover the mayor, council, sheriff, school boards and sports team if that paper folded, his answer was blunt: “No. Nobody would.”
Indianapolis media may pay attention to big news there. But the daily and weekly events that make up the life of a community? That’s the Daily Reporter’s lane, with print editions five days a week.
They, too, let people read their online stories for free. No wonder that online readership is “fairly robust” while, he said, the paid print circulation drops every month.
Still, Hill said, “we remain bullish on local journalism.” His paper’s owners, AIM Media Indiana, own six papers in small to mid-sized communities in Indiana providing news that their communities cannot get elsewhere.
“Our company is committed to doing the best we can with the resources we have,” he said.
Bravo. Committed owners matter — but committed readers even more so.
Which brings me back to VelociraptorOfLove. After a civil back-and-forth with an Indianapolis Star editor, the person got to read that bus route story after all.
Because they bought a digital subscription.
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists