News that the Herald-Times newspaper building was going on the auction block didn’t exactly land here in Bloomington, Indiana. like a blinding left hook. The end of a 61-year stint in the iconic limestone building south of town has been 30-plus years in the making, far longer than most realize.
It’s a local story that mirrors the decline of daily newspapers nationwide and, along with it, American democracy. As I’ve long lectured to journalism students and anyone who would listen, it’s no coincidence that our democracy and journalism paralleled each other’s descent into the void, into these desperate times.
You simply can’t have the former without the latter.
My newspaper career began in 1985, in what turned out to be the twilight years of civic journalism.
My first H-T beat was county government. My job included writing meeting previews for our County Commissioners, County Council, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, attending every meeting from gavel to gavel and writing comprehensive meeting covers on each.
We had reporters who did the same for city government, schools and the state legislature.
Home to Indiana University, Bloomington is a college town of 85,000 today, and, according to newspaper formulae used in my day there, the H-T essentially saturated the community. Local citizens were informed about the workings of their governmental entities.
And local democracy worked. Democrats have ruled since 1971, but we always had Republicans in office and frequently had ad hoc third parties challenging them both. During my tenure from 1985-96, story projects we reported:
* Killed outright a preposterous, experimental PCB incinerator that was supported by Westinghouse Electric Corp., our Mayor and City Council, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. EPA;
* Transformed a Hoosier National Forest Land Management Plan that would have clearcut 81% of the forest and constructed 100 miles of ORV trails into the most ecologically sensitive forest plan in the nation; and
* Scuttled a plan by greedy local doctors to turn our hospital for profit.
An informed public would have it no other way.
The first hint this golden era was waning occurred ca 1988, when I was teaching at the IU School of Journalism, and we featured a presentation by the Orange County Register publisher to an auditorium full of intro reporting students. He said the paper no longer called its audience readers. They referred to them as customers.
Spurred by the Great Internet Panic of the Late 20th Century, newspaper publishers nationwide freaked. Craig’s List threatened their ad revenues — classified and display. The Net’s potential as a distribution format for news threatened the very format they depended upon. Etc.
It’s not that their concerns weren’t legitimate. But their initial responses were galling. For example, the H-T hired a consultant from the University of Missouri to deprogram the newsroom through a program called New Directions for News.
First, she sat a room full of professional journalists cross-legged on the floor, gave us pads and markers, and told us, “Forget everything you know about journalism.” Then she had us write down answers to questions like: “Ten things teenage girls would like to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Ten things senior citizens would like to see on the front page.” Ad infinitum.
The first new direction was a half page of news replaced by a weather map. The space for hard news diminished. Features took precedence. A friend observed, “What’s New Directions for News? More front-page pictures of kids on waterslides?”
As happened in newsrooms across the country in the late 80s and early 90s, these new directions led to internal strife at the Herald-Times. No one resigned or was fired, as happened at other papers. But staff meetings and newsroom cubicles became scenes of contentious debate.
I got into newspapers to inform the public on issues of importance – dangerous incinerators, exploitative forest plans, profiteering health care – and challenge those who make decisions on such issues. Through New Directions, I knew the industry was leaving me behind and left in 1996.
The decline was inevitable and implacable, though it took far longer than I expected.
Reflective of the engaged Bloomington community, the Herald-Times’s Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame editor, staff and publisher pursued steady, yeoman efforts through a quarter century to retain a civic journalism focus, to emphasize the news media’s watchdog and education roles as much as possible. But subscribers, revenue and the staff needed for democratic journalism inexorably declined.
At its peak, the H-T had 38 newsroom full-time equivalents (FTEs). In 2019, when the paper sold to GateHouse Media, that number had dropped to 29.
In less than a year, GateHouse merged with Gannett. Three years later, FTEs dropped to about a third of its peak – to about a dozen.
Parallel with the newspaper’s fall and resulting lack of accountability for our political leaders, Bloomington – a city run by Democrats continuously since 1971 – transformed into a fertile feeding ground for corporate predation.
IU Inc. and local real estate interests drive local politics. Out-of-state developers, construction and property management companies ravage our infrastructure and bleed our students and residents alike.
Before I left the H-T in 1996, a local developer bought a downtown building, evicted the artsy crowd that lived there, renovated the apartments and raised the rents. In response, affordable housing became a community obsession.
Shortly thereafter, a local developer told me: “Goddammit, Higgs, I can’t do anything in Bloomington. I have to go to Martinsville to make any money.”
As the H-T slipped, market-driven luxury student housing supplanted affordable housing as our city’s driving force. Studies now routinely show Bloomington is the most expensive city in Indiana to live in.
Luxury student housing means cheap-ass, eyesore apartments rented for obscene sums.
For examples, an apartment complex called Evolve Bloomington had to relocate students just weeks after opening because of mold. A recently renovated hotel called Vivo Living Bloomington rents Petite Suites with 258 square feet – roughly 16’ by 16’ – for $995.
In the process, they drive up the cost of housing and living for everyone else. A former manager at a New York-style deli told me the eatery closed after two unsuccessful years seeking employees.
“Restaurant workers can’t afford to live in Bloomington,” he told me.
On Aug. 12, three weeks after putting the building up for sale, Gannett laid off two more H-T reporters – one of my best and favorite former students among them – as part of the corporation’s latest cutbacksnationwide.
The Monday before the layoffs, Gannett CEO Michael Reed purchased $1.22 million of company stock for himself, according to an Aug. 13 article in the New Jersey Globe.
That prompted a 21st Century New Directions retort from Joseph Jaafari, a reporter at the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic.
“Why are we suffering for poor business ownership?” he tweeted. “This dude is reaping millions off the backs of our labor, threatening us with layoffs, then betting money on the expected gains from us gone. This is cold-hearted and an immoral business practice at the hands of a dirty CEO.”