SPEEDWAY – There we were, seated in Claude & Annie’s Bar, four unlikely souls in a world about to be transformed in ways no one could have predicted. I remember that journalist Harrison J. Ullmann, attorney Peter Rusthoven and yours truly were drinking beer. Talk show host Mike Pence was having a Coke.

We had just completed a taping of “The Mike Pence Show” in January, 1997, at a TV studio near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Like any small business, I struggled in those early years after The Howey Political 

Report began publishing in 1994. Pence was gearing up his radio and TV shows. I had gone through a divorce, had custody of my two sons and needed health coverage. The internet was just revving up after it was founded 30 years ago this past week, its founder Tim Berners-Lee now calling it an “uncontrollable monster.” 

The conservative wing of this gathering, Pence and Rusthoven, were urging the liberal Ullmann to hire this writer, ostensibly as a “conservative” voice in the leftward alternative NUVO Newsweekly. Ullmann heeded their advice, commencing a three-year run that had me writing about everything from neighborhoods seeking to purge crack dealers, Mayor Goldsmith’s drug interdiction roadblocks that almost upended the 4th Amendment in the U.S. Supreme Court, to lethal assaults inside the Marion County lockup.  Ullmann was transfixed by lead in the soil poisoning our children, Goldsmith’s phantom voting address, and the Meridian Street police riot that helped elect Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

The journalism at NUVO could be impactful. People didn’t know the full extent of the police riot until NUVO published, verbatim, what the profane cops were yelling at women as their mob moved down the street.

With homicides surging to record levels, we once asked Prosecutor Scott Newman what he needed, and his answer was to get the Southern District attorney to begin prosecuting gun crimes with federal penalties. Meeting with Sen. Richard Lugar in an airport hotel room, Ullmann pressed him on the billions of dollars spent on desegregation busing in Indianapolis. Lugar called it a “train wreck” and not too long thereafter federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin began lifting his busing mandate.

Glory days

These were the glory days of not only alternative press, but perhaps the apex of the newspaper industry on its 20th Century financial platform. The Indianapolis Star and News battled each other vociferously. The two papers probably had a combined 25 reporters, editors and photographers manning their Statehouse press shacks. There were other rivalries, such as the Hammond Times and the Gary Post-Tribune. Families owned an array of Hoosier newspapers, from the Pulliams in Indy, to the Nixons from Michigan City, Peru and an array of cities like Wabash and Frankfort. The Dille family had Federated Media in Elkhart, the Schurz family owned the South Bend Tribune and Bloomington Herald-Times and a half dozen other papers, Fort Wayne Newspapers had the Journal Gazette and News-Sentinel, there was Home News in Columbus and the DePrez family in Shelbyville. 

These family businesses had developed since the Great Depression, some combining the Democratic paper with the Republican to create the local fact-checker and arbitrator while working as the conscience of their communities. There were journalists like Al Spiers of the Michigan City News-Dispatch who watched illegal gambling and prostitution take hold following World War II, found a law-and-order Democrat sheriff candidate, and helped get him elected. By the early 1960s, Michigan City was an “All-American City.”

The families began to sell their newspapers after many of the founders had passed away. Corporations like Gannett and Paxson came in, and leveraged lucrative real estate deals while cutting into muscle and bone on the news staffs. The pricey Pulliam Square condo complex rises on the site of the old Star-News Building while the IndyStar has been downgraded to a mallpaper.

In the pre-internet era, a 35% profit margin was the norm. If you wanted to sell something or hire someone, you did it through the newspaper classified section. At the Peru Daily Tribune in a town of 14,000, about 80 journalists and printers made a living wage. Last time I checked in about five years ago, there was a sole reporter at the Tribune, just a handful of employees in the building on West Third Street, and the town has shrunk to 11,000 population, while meth and heroin had set in.

When everything changed

The internet changed everything. 

The Indianapolis News disappeared in 1999 after Gannett purchased Central Newspapers. NUVO folded as a print publication this past week. What’s occurred in the intervening two decades has been a decimation of local newsrooms. Only a fraction of the editors and reporters in Indianapolis are working today, with centuries of professional journalism relegated to the sidelines. The 20th Century economic model collapsed. They posted their content on line for free,  then failed to see the threat from, Craig’s List and who took over the classifieds. They later tried to erect pay walls, regaining only a fraction of their audiences.

According to Pew Research, the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2017 was 31 million for weekday and 34 million for Sunday, down 11% and 10%, respectively, from the previous year. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics, 39,210 people worked as reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors in the newspaper industry in 2017. That is down 15% from 2014 and 45% from 2004. Median wage for editors in 2017 was about $49,000, while for reporters the figure was about $34,000.

1,400 newspapers close

Associated Press writers David A. Lieb and David Bauder reported this week that 1,400 cities and towns across the U.S. lost a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to data compiled by the University of North Carolina. “Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers or reasons peculiar to given locales for that development,” AP reported. “While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children, or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer. Local journalism is dying in plain sight.” 

Local law enforcement actually misses robust police blotter reporting, often having to try and swat down social media rumor-mongering with no local press to lend credence. CBS “Sunday Morning” reported this past weekend that scores of small, rural communities across the nation are also losing their local hospitals, while many have been ravaged by opioid and meth epidemics. In a bygone era, local journalism would have revealed the early signs.

Five of the 10 largest media companies are owned by hedge funds or other investors with several unrelated holdings, and GateHouse, which just bought the Schurz newspapers in Indiana, is among them. Digital First Media which is targeting Gannett, and Gatehouse follow a strategy of aggressive cost-cutting without making significant investments in newsrooms, Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies news industry trends, told AP.

Publications like the Wall Street Journal, Indiana Legislative Insight and Howey Politics Indiana, which maintained content pay walls, survived. The New York Times and Washington Post gave up their content for free, then reestablished pay walls and appear to be thriving, in part as a reaction to President Trump.

In March 2010, NUVO published its 20th anniversary edition. I wrote a tribute to Ullmann, who died on April 15, 2000: “Ullmann’s concern about the future of journalism has, in retrospect, been justified. He became a tiny shareholder in Central Newspapers just to learn about the inner working of the Indianapolis Star-News. He predicted years before it happened that the News would close and Gannett would likely buy the Star. Family-owned journalism, Ullmann believed, was on the precipice back then, with every obituary published a subscriber never to return. His insurgent ‘White River Gazette’ didn’t get off the ground before his cancer struck, but yielded the ‘Indianapolis Eye’ and a half million investment as a web magazine that was little too ahead of its time.

“Those trend lines have been devastatingly on target a decade beyond Harrison Ullmann’s passing. He saw a day when print reporters would carry video gear and TV guys would post written copy on websites; where Kindle and the iPad would spare the lives of billions of trees. And where the folks with ‘big hair’ on the evening news would gradually fade into the warrens of splayed technology moving from home pages to YouTube, Facebook and beyond.”

Finding reliable news

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard observed the media carnage in a recent IBJ column: “The disintegration of American newspapers is proceeding at a pace that’s breathtaking and disheartening. We need to start talking about where we can find reliable news. The trend is plain for all to see. Most visible in the state’s capital have been the layoffs at The Indianapolis Star and the shrinkage of the papers that arrive on the doorstep. Shrinking the news staff has been a regular part of Gannett’s management since it bought The Star from the Pulliam family in 2000. Departures in recent weeks – some from buyouts, some from layoffs – have included such stars as Tim Swarens, Will Higgins, Greg Weaver and Gary Varvel. And the paper shrank with elimination of valuable columnists such as Ball State University’s Michael Hicks. 

“Lest one wonder about the remaining readership, the prominence of ads for hearing aids and walk-in bathtubs tells you a lot,” Shepard continues. “The current Gannett suitor, hedge-fund vehicle Digital First, has a reputation for fervent cost-cutting. It’s hard to imagine what’s left. This is hardly an Indy phenomenon. Gannett properties like the Courier & Press in Evansville and the Star Press in Muncie have depleted to the point where their editions feature much copy traded with each other, and of course, less news about events happening in the subscribers’ communities.”
The long battle

It’s been a long battle. Will Higgins, who was sidelined by the IndyStar late last year, wrote in NUVO’s 20th anniversary edition about the paper’s early “situation dire” when he was editor there, to the point where he had to let go 13 of 26 news employees. “The newspaper industry is in flux at the moment,” Higgins wrote in 2010. “But it’s nothing compared to the stress of the early NUVO days. A brand new industry came our way – the phone sex pioneers, with their 1-900 numbers, cheesy entrepreneurs who preyed on the lonely, the sex-starved. They needed a place to advertise. We had a brief internal debate – very brief, actually – and took their money. “And we survived,” Higgins wrote. “Then we started to thrive. A sense of confidence came over us. We would publish next week, and the next and the next. Now NUVO is a given. I’m proud of my role in the struggle. And what a struggle.”

A struggle that ended last week, ironically, on the 30th anniversary of the world wide web.

When Howey Politics began publishing in 1994, there were probably 20 to 25 political columnists writing regularly across the state, from Rich James at the Post-Tribune to Dick Robinson at the Terre Haute Tribune-Star and Dale Moss and Mary Dieter with the Louisville Courier-Journal. Those ranks have shrunk to just a handful, myself and Jack Colwell in the South Bend Tribune, Marc Chase of the NWI Times, economist Morton Marcus in about 20 newspapers, Mark Bennett in Terre Haute, John Krull with the Statehouse File, and the IBJ Forefront section, which has restored Mary Beth Schneider back to the ranks. HPI publishes James and Michael Hicks, yet another IndyStar refugee. These are the writers who, as they used to say, “know where the bodies are buried.” We connect topical events of the day to the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the ‘00s.

The thin gray line
This is the thin gray line. With Matt Tully’s passing (and no replacement at the IndyStar mallpaper), as well as Amos Brown at the Indianapolis Recorder (with no prominent voice emerging there), with the end of the IndyStar’s daily editorial page, and with newsrooms shrinking to the point where a newspaper in a 200,000 population county no longer has a court reporter or covers trials (think of the news we’re not getting just on that front), Indiana is not too far away from losing the link between the past, present and future. In previous eras, young reporters and editors would replenish the ranks. Today, IU folded its journalism program. Current J programs send more graduates into flackdom as opposed to reporting and editing.

Politicians are already moving beyond the press. Pence declared for governor not with a press conference in 2011, but with a Facebook video. His brother, U.S. Rep. Greg Pence, and U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth don’t field media calls.

When you ponder the collapse of the press, imagine how the methamphetamine or opioid crises might have been discovered and mitigated well before the public health data screamed us beginning in 2014? Well before the social costs mount into the tens of billions of dollars. We’ve gone through a generation of rare public corruption scandal at the Statehouse. But once the Bob Segalls and Rafael Sanchezs of the world are sidelined (and what’s happened to newspapers is about to happen to local network affiliates), once the watchdogs are put down, it’s only a matter of time before corruption and acute political polarization follow.

Shepard asks the inevitable question: What are news consumers to do? He answers, “We can help the larger situation by paying attention to places where the news is actually improving. A stalwart that qualifies as broadcast and digital is Gerry Dick’s Inside Indiana Business. The show on public broadcasting works alongside regular web postings. Supporters include law firms, banks and the Indiana Chamber. A formulation is being built by Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations, now led by Mark Newman. IPBS has added news staff to provide coverage offered through 17 stations serving most of the state’s markets. 

“We’re also benefiting from stronger contributions from many broadcasters and Chalkbeat, and by players like Ed Feigenbaum, Brian Howey and Abdul-Hakim Shabazz,” Shepard observes.

Golden era ends

Jack Colwell, who began reporting for the South Bend Tribune in the early 1960s, told HPI, “There is no going back to the Golden Era of newspaper journalism. Yet, there is desperate need for solid journalism to provide the facts vital for voters in a democracy and to alert the public to ignored crises and wrongdoing.”

Colwell asks, “The answer? We search. We still have no answer. The first step is to draw attention to the problem and support real news, whether online, on TV or still in some places on the printed page.”

Some talk of establishing not-for-profit journalism foundations, such as The Texas Tribune, the MinnPost in Minnesota and Voice of San as a way of keeping a watchdog in place. Morton Marcus wonders about government-funded journalism, mentioning the BBC model and not so much Gov. Pence’s “JustIN” state run news agency that some saw as a Fox News lite state propaganda site.

That day at Claude & Annie’s came in a bygone era. Pence’s boss, President Trump, has relegated much of us to “fake news” and “enemies of the people” while presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway talks of “alternative facts.”  What we can’t fully understand or appreciate is with the watchdog in full retreat, when will there be a day of reckoning and how disruptive will it be?