WFIU/WTIU News releases findings on the influence of private equity firms on local news in south-central Indiana
Earlier this year, the WFIU/WTIU News team received a $15,000 grant from the Poynter Institute and the Omidyar Network to investigate the influence private equity has had on local news in south-central Indiana. The news team used the grant to launch Paper Cuts, a five-month-long reporting project that tracked the power of media conglomerates and private firms over Indiana papers and documented the limited coverage of local matters that remains.
“Our newsroom has reported on the newspaper layoffs, and we’ve hosted on-air discussions about the crisis in local news. However, we hadn’t been able to get into the weeds to explain how private equity firms are really at the center of these newspaper deals until now. With the help of the grant from Poynter, our news team has been able to do this important investigative work,” said WFIU/WTIU news bureau chief Sara Wittmeyer.
The complete findings from the Paper Cuts investigative series were released this month in 12 parts at wfiu.org/papercuts. The reporting by the Paper Cuts team, which included editor Bob Zaltsberg, reporters Sarah Vaughan and George Hale, data analyst Jainish Shingala, researcher Cathy Knapp, digital editor Katy Szpak, and digital producer Eoban Binder, traces how ownership changes accelerated a decline in south-central Indiana newspapers.
In 2019, Schurz Communications Inc., a family-owned company, sold its publishing division to GateHouse Media and its private investment firm owner, New Media Investment Group. The publishing division included The Herald-Times in Bloomington, the Bedford Times-Mail, Clay City News, The Ellettsville Journal, the Martinsville Reporter-Times, the Mooresville-Decatur Times, Spencer Evening World, the South Bend Tribune, the Paoli News-Republican, Springs Valley Herald, and the Orange Countian. GateHouse (now Gannett) cut staff and publication days in the name of operating efficiency at these newspapers. Paper Cuts examines the negative impact that these cuts had on the newspapers and the local communities they served.
A content analysis from the Paper Cuts team reveals there was a 74 percent reduction in all local news coverage in The Herald-Times from September 2018 (four months before ownership changed) to September 2022. Circulation dropped at all the Indiana papers owned by Gannett, and The Ellettsville Journal and Clay City News ceased publication. Other communities like Bedford and Spencer retained their local paper, but no local reporting staff, leaving them in a news vacuum. Paper Cuts looks at how democracy struggles when there are no journalists to share what local officials are doing. The series also presents local case studies from Monroe, Morgan, and Owen counties on grassroots efforts to offset the loss of local journalism.
In the conclusion of the Paper Cuts series, Bob Zaltberg, former editor of The Herald Times, writes, “The decline in the local newspaper scene since family ownership switched to private equity company control is evident. How much of it was caused by market conditions, rather than specifically the ownership change, is unclear. What is clear is the combination of the two has devastated print news in south-central Indiana.”
Read more about Paper Cuts at wfiu.org/papercuts.
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