A year of change threatens the future of journalism

The Statehouse File

Two years ago, Indiana had 70 daily newspapers. Now there are fewer than 50, and over the last year, 13 paid circulation newspapers in the state closed their doors.

The world may be opening back up with mask mandates going away and COVID-19 vaccines becoming more available, but some people are still finding their footing after a year of change left their professional lives in turmoil.

Photo by Mike van Schoonderwalt from Pexels.

Forty-one-year-old Paul Wilcoxen was the editor of The Mount Vernon Democrat for under a year when his publisher made the two-hour drive to their main office to tell him their June 24 edition, just one week away, would be their last one.

“I was sad because I had not been there a year yet,” Wilcoxen said. “I just felt like I was getting my footing in. You know, whenever you go to a small-town community like Mount Vernon, and this isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes it takes people a little time to feel you out to see if they can trust you.”

He said after the paper closed, he used this built-up trust and the list of contacts he made while working with the community to move forward toward achieving a new goal.

“I was upset and sad, but I was already thinking about what I was going to do next.” Wilcoxen said. “With this closing of this door, it opened an opportunity for me to do what I really wanted to do, start my own publication.”

The first edition of his very own online publication, The Mount Vernon Independent, came out a month later on July 22. It was a PDF version of a paper that got sent right to his subscribers’ inboxes, free.

“I felt like I had the support at the time, the people wanted this,” Wilcoxen said.

In early October, Wilcoxen contracted COVID-19 from his wife, who tested positive while working in a nursing home. He also contracted pneumonia and ended up in the hospital for six days. He said for three to four weeks following his hospitalization, he was so drained he couldn’t bring himself to do anything.

After putting out 10 issues of his own publication, he ultimately decided to call it quits in order to make his own wellbeing a priority.

“The thing I didn’t anticipate out of all this is the mental toll of what COVID did,” Wilcoxen said. “I don’t want to blame COVID, but I got to this point where I just didn’t want to do anything.”

He compared his struggles to losing a loved one and then trying to get into dating too soon afterward.

“I was just mentally not over it, and I really can’t say I have overcome it yet,” Wilcoxen said. “It still kind of bothers me a bit.”

He said he was struggling with the loss of his job because it wasn’t his fault. It was completely out of his hands.

“I would just sit there and be like, I have no desire to do this,” Wilcoxen said. “I have got no motivation, I have no want to do this, and that really kind of surprised me because even when I started this career 20 years ago, I was like, I want to do something on my own.”

Rich Jackson was the senior executive editor at The Herald Times in Bloomington when COVID-19 swooped in to take another victim. His position came to an abrupt end after just nine months when he was laid off due to a merger with Gannett. The new outfit forced the paper to cut $300 million in costs across all its papers.

“I don’t think we understand enough about being shocked,” Jackson said. “You are in shock for months at a time when a tragedy happens, and it is a tragedy when you lose a job.”

With no events happening because of the pandemic, there weren’t many stories to write and hardly any money coming in from advertising.

He said The Herald Times even made all COVID coverage free online because informing the public was more important than making money.

“I knew when I was told I had to leave, I had some savings and a small, small, small payout from the company,” Jackson said. “I knew it was going to take a long time to find a job, and I knew I needed to live as cheaply as I possibly could.”

Jackson also spoke to the mental health aspect of working during a pandemic prior to being laid off as well as the aftermath.

“Financially, it has been horrible, but one odd side effect is that the mental health for people in newsrooms has really suffered because it is already a difficult job,” Jackson said. “One of the joys of being a journalist is having one another in the newsroom. People working from home didn’t have that.”

He said he often made calls to people when he was still working just to cheer them up and support them emotionally.

“The biggest challenge is to remember what we do and why we do it,” Jackson said. “It is our job to tell people not just what’s going on but offer solutions for how to deal with what is going on. So, you have to keep in mind what you went into the business for.”

Across the nation, small community newspapers are being forced to close their doors for a multitude of reasons, but the need for local news is still high.

“I think there is no less demand for excellent local journalism,” said Stephen Key, the executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. “The younger generations still have a desire for local news and a desire to be involved and see that justice is done and that governments are doing stuff for the people. This younger generation are voracious news consumers.”

He expressed his concern for communities that lack watchdog journalists because they are at a disadvantage by not knowing what is going on in their communities.

This is further explained in a recent study, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by Paul Gao, an associate professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame.

In the study, municipal bond yield data was analyzed before and after a county experienced a newspaper closure, meaning these communities no longer were provided reported information on their government.

It was found that offering yields in counties without local newspapers were 1.5 basis points lower than the average offering yield, while they were three basis points higher than average prior to losing the local paper.

“These preliminary results indicate that newspaper closures have a significant effect on long-run municipal bond yields compared to other bonds issued in the same state and year,” the report stated.

However, the study also looked into population growth rates, employment and total wages for both counties that did and did not experience newspaper closures.

“The growth rates for closure and no-closure counties are fairly comparable, suggesting that newspaper closures are not strongly associated with deteriorating economic conditions during our sample period,” the report stated.

The study also found that long-run municipal borrowing costs were higher and the loss of newspaper coverage in an area was detrimental to revenue-generating local projects.

This means that without a watchdog informing the public about what is going on, governments are able to get away with more.

“There is no way an average citizen could attend all those meetings and be able to let other people know what’s happening and what decisions are being made,” Key said. “So, when a newspaper closes down, there is a void that hurts the entire community.”

He discussed the issues small newspapers are facing, including the need for a new economic model.

He said newspapers are going to have to adjust their economic model and look toward readers for revenue. He also mentioned the need to pass new legislation like Australia’s News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which ensures media outlets get compensated for the content they generate when entities like Facebook and Google share it on their platforms.

Legislation like this has been proposed in the U.S. in the past but never seemed to get much traction; however, after a recent negotiation between Australian publishers and Facebook, a new bill was introduced with seemingly strong support on March 10.

Key discussed the evolution the business is going through in terms of the delivery of news.

“More and more readers are going to be expecting their journalism to be delivered to them in a digital fashion as opposed to print,” Key said. “Part of that is the speed of delivery. I can get you a tweet or a posting on the internet almost instantaneously of when the event is happening.”

But even with moving newspapers to an online format, there are a whole new set of obstacles that threaten community journalism.

“It’s just such a different experience,” Mary Ann Crayton, an avid reader of The Chesterton Tribune prior to its closure in December 2020, said. “First of all, lots of older people like me, I’m 78, won’t look at it online, so I think there would be a large number of people, like a whole generation, that will completely lose out on community news because of that.

“Our town was very reliant on them for the town council meetings, all of our governmental meetings, so that people know what’s going on in the community and what’s going on with all the laws and all that.”

She also spoke about how the community paper is what lets you get to know the people who live nearby.

“They cover the celebrations in town, and anniversaries, and births, and that’s how we know when families are having babies, when someone dies in the family, and so on,” Crayton said. “You’ve watched these kids grow up, you’ve looked at their grades, all the sports they were in, and then you see where they are going to college, and a few years later, you see they got married and are going to have kids of their own, so it really ties the community together.”

She said getting her news online is still effective but said she is the kind of person who simply likes a hard copy.

“The whole ritual of going out to the mailbox every afternoon to get the newspaper is really very nice,” Crayton said.

This shift in delivery also threatens younger generations of journalists who are just trying to find their way in the industry when things are constantly evolving before their eyes.

“It worries me for the future,” said Kalijah Hessig, a freshman journalism major at Franklin College. “It kind of puts a hindrance on what we define as journalism now. I mean, what they prepared us for 20 years ago is different from what they are preparing us for now. You really have to learn how to adapt.”

In a recent unscientific poll of news consumers, sampling 225 people, 17.8% of 18- to 80-year-olds said they would prefer a print version of the paper versus a digital copy. That percentage increases to 40.5% when you look at just those over 40.

Reasons for preferring print to digital ranged from being more user friendly to the ease of reading to being able to cut out news clippings as keepsakes.

Those who said they preferred digital news over the hard copy used reasons such as convenience, being eco-friendly, and the fact that it is typically free or very cheap.

So, what does this mean for the future of journalism?

“It’s scary for me because I am not quite sure what my future is going to hold once I’m out in the actual field,” Hessig said. “But I guess I will just try to grow with the times and adapt to the situation and circumstances and do what I can.”

Being able to adapt and change with the times might be viewed as easy for a student just starting his time in the career, but for those who have been in the business for 20-plus years, that may be a more daunting task.

“I worry that this is probably going to be an ongoing problem for some people and some media outlets,” Wilcoxen said. “But there is always going to be a need for media and getting information out there and telling stories.”

Jackson expressed his concern for the future should communities continue to lose their papers.

“If a newspaper goes, you are going to lose recorded history,” Jackson said. “In a hundred years, no one is going to know what the hell happened today. Every historian I know, the first thing they do is check the daily newspaper when they want to see what the times were like.”

Journalism students everywhere are having to make decisions on what their area of interest is based on the current climate of the journalistic environment.

“People who work in print journalism, they might not get their jobs back after this is all over just because the trend is leading away from newspapers,” Hessig said.

This is the struggle Wilcoxen is facing right now. He is currently a stay-at-home dad after losing his job due to COVID-19. He has yet to secure a new job, and at one point, he even told his wife he just wanted McDonald’s to give him a job.

“You get to a point where it feels like nobody wants you anymore,” Wilcoxen said.

Fortunately, Jackson is having a little more luck. He is currently the general manager and editor of two small weeklies in northern Wisconsin, near his hometown.

“I feel pretty happy and settled,” Jackson said. “[The newspapers] are actually doing very well; it’s an odd circumstance because this is a tourist area.”

His two newspapers in Hayward and Spooner cover a high tourism area where people are vacationing while working from home.

“We do something very important in journalism and, even as difficult as this is, I think people need that information now more than ever,” Jackson said.

Brynna Sentel is a recent graduate of Franklin College.

By Brynna Sentel