Weekday copies of the Lansing State Journal as thick as 80 pages weren’t uncommon in 2001.
Last Friday’s paper was only 20 pages and featured just two local news stories from two local news reporters on its front page. The rest of the news and feature content — aside from a couple of sports stories — was written from Detroit, Washington and elsewhere.
And with fewer local stories from fewer local reporters being printed in smaller newspapers on smaller pages for a smaller audience, some local journalism experts (and former State Journal staffers) are skeptical over whether the company can keep churning out its newspapers at the same pace for much longer and voicing concern about the future of local news — both in Lansing and beyond.
Hirten should know. A career-long Gannett journalist, the company let him go to save money, after which he joined City Pulse as associate publisher until he retired to Florida a few years ago.
There’s a strong connection often noted between a well-informed community and the availability of reliable local news. And the pages of the State Journal — at least for some time — have served as one of Lansing’s leading sources for staying abreast of local happenings.
But like at most daily newspapers across the country, the era of widespread circulation of daily print news from the State Journal appears to be on track for continued declines, Hirten said.
“This used to be a dominant institution, but one shortsighted decision after another has made this a significantly different news organization than it used to be,” Hirten told City Pulse. “In 1999, we had almost 400 people working across the company. It’s not the same. It can’t be.”
For every digital edition reader gained since 2009, the State Journal tracked a loss of eight and 10 print newspaper readers, depending on the day of the week — unlikely enough to keep pace with the wide newspaper readership tracked during the heyday of its print journalism.
“Gannett is deeply committed to local journalism and to our employees. Despite the headwinds our entire industry faces, we are working steadfastly to ensure the future of local journalism and continue to keep our communities informed, including Greater Lansing,” they wrote in an email.
But those headwinds can be fierce. Researchers estimate that 2,200 printed newspapers closed their doors in the last 15 years while advertising revenues — the lifeblood of traditional print journalism — have also declined by billions of dollars. According to the Pew Research Center, that has also led to about half as many jobs for local journalists between 2008 and 2018 and a nationwide halving of average print circulation for most daily newspapers across the country. Research paints the State Journal as one of about 1,200 daily newspapers still alive in the U.S. today. But compared to national averages that showcase about a 50% reduction in daily print circulation, reports for the State Journal show its circulation was hit far harder than other papers.
And Hirten isn’t the only media expert to notice that ongoing local news tailspin in Lansing.
“The State Journal had a pretty substantive staff and was regularly covering local governments in the area. It seemed to have a pretty vibrant public affairs coverage plan. I used to feel like it had the resources to cover the area, and the evidence I’m seeing now is that they don’t really have the resources they need to cover the area particularly well,” said Perry Parks, an associate journalism professor at Michigan State University. “I think it all started with that vicious cycle in the ‘90s with the advent of the internet and digital media and has been accelerating ever since.”
Founded as “The Lansing Republican” in 1855 before a merger made it “The State Journal” in 1911, Lansing residents have long turned to its only surviving daily paper for previews of events and new businesses; watchdog coverage of crime, politics and municipal government; feature stories, photos and investigative reports showcasing the good (and the bad) from across the community; touching obituaries; detailed results of high school and college athletics; an editorial page — all areas that have seen some noticeable declines, even before Hirten parted ways with the company in 2013.
Gannett, then still en route to becoming the largest media company in the U.S., bought the newspaper in 1971, and it became the Lansing State Journal in 1980. Under Hirten’s watch and corporate direction, more than 70 of its employees were reportedly laid off in 2008 and 2009 amid efforts to cut costs amid declining print revenues and rising interest in web-based content.
Before relied much on its website, Hirten said the State Journal tracked a “massive” profit margin of about 39%. And with that much money coming in during the early aughts, he said the company missed several opportunities to make more investments in improving the “reader experience.”
A younger generation of readers has grown accustomed to free access to its daily news.
“As newspapers started covering less and being less visible in places, then people also saw less value in the newspaper. All this content started going up for free online, and most people making simple economic decisions are going to opt for free content as opposed to content that they have to pay for,” Perry explained. “It’s a vicious cycle, and the trend seems rather apparent: I don’t see anything structurally, or in terms of new innovation, that would reverse a trend away from continued decline of daily print newspaper circulation. It’s really a sad thing to see happen.”
Hirten specifically recounted a meeting with Gannett officials in the late 2000s in which he said they quickly dismissed his concerns about pushing print deadlines earlier in the afternoon, which then threatened to make the following morning’s papers less timely with less relevant stories. Back then, he said he could stop the presses to run a last-minute story at 11 p.m.
Nowadays, news stories for the next day must typically be filed by about 4:30 p.m. or they won’t usually make the deadline for the morning, former State Journal staffers explained to City Pulse.
“I was completely shut down on that conversation,” Hirten said. “They said: ‘Keep that to yourself. That’s not the issue.’ But it was the issue, and it was certainly an issue for the editor. I don’t know what the future holds now, but I’m not particularly optimistic. The larger problem is what those changes have done to really impact the old level of in depth local news coverage.”
In 2014 and 2015, the State Journal closed its Delta Township printing plant (which reportedly eliminated another 27 full-time and 76 part-time jobs) and moved out of its longtime office on Lenawee Street in favor of a smaller and cheaper space on the third floor of the Knapp’s Centre, which company officials then billed as a move to help transition to a “digital-first” organization. Meanwhile, Gannett split itself into two companies in 2015 so that the former newspaper division was forced to sink or swim separate from the far more lucrative broadcast properties.
Four years later, Gatehouse Media — widely regarded as even more bottom-line oriented than Gannett —acquired Gannett, keeping the name, to create the largest single newspaper publishing company in the U.S., which reportedly owns about one in six newspapers nationwide. To make the merger work, Gannett also took on a $1.8 billion private equity loan.
It’s unclear whether layoffs there continued past 2015, but some State Journal employees were also reportedly required to take a week off without pay every month last year to help cut costs.
John K. Hartman, professor emeritus and member of the Journalism Hall of Fame at Central Michigan University, has written two books, “The USA Today Way,” and “The USA Today Way 2 The Future” about Gannett’s flagship national publication. Hartman, who teaches journalism at Tiffin University, said he has tracked similar declines at Gannett’s daily paper in Columbus, Ohio.
He also offered a bleak outlook on the journalism industry in general, noting that younger generations — particularly those under age 50 — have simply lost interest in current events.
And he thinks Gannett’s continued fight to stay relevant may be one that is battled out online.
He added: “I don’t like saying this as someone who devoted much of his professional life to training newspaper reporters, but I don’t have much hope. As newspapers lose staff with a smaller circulation, they carry less impact. They get so small and so inconsequential that, ultimately, they’re just not a political force anymore. That creates a less informed populace.”
Researchers have found that about half of the counties in the United States are left with a local newspaper of any kind — and only a third of them have a newspaper that still prints every day. More than 200 counties have been left with no newspaper whatsoever, creating poorly informed pockets of the country that media experts have labeled “news deserts.”
The Columbia Journalism Review defines those regions as a community “with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.” The State Journal’s continued existence as a daily newspaper is the only thing keeping Ingham County from being flagged as a news desert in its online map. map. Besides City Pulse, Ingham County has several weeklies, but most are owned and operated by Gannett and feature truncated versions of stories that first appeared in the daily Journal.
While Perry has noticed a decreased depth in news at the State Journal, he said other news organizations have stepped up to carry the load locally — allowing the region to dodge the risk of a total news drought, regardless of the newspapers’ fate.
“I would be reluctant to say that Greater Lansing is a news desert or right on the precipice of it. You have existing news organizations here that are capable of responding to major news that also has the infrastructure to cover elections. I don’t think we’re seeing too great of a job covering elections, but we still see some coverage,” he said. “This is also a relatively successful television market. I’m not satisfied with the local news coverage that we have here, but there are many places where it’s a lot worse. You may need to go look for it, but local news is still here.”
Last April, Gannett suspended quarterly dividends for its stockholders and announced it had no intention to ever reinstate them while its outstanding loan debt hovered around $1.1 billion — even after portions of its original 11.5% interest rate had been recently refinanced.
Finance reports noted that the company sold off nearly $200 million in assets — all of which was used to repay its outstanding debt. Among its stated priorities for 2021: Accelerate digital growth, “optimize” print operations and prioritize investments to support a digital-first vision.
“As a publisher of locally based print and online media, we face a number of challenges, including risks that the growing shift within the publishing industry from traditional print media to digital may compromise our ability to generate sufficient advertising revenues,” the report noted. “Our advertising and marketing services revenues and circulation revenues may further decline if we are unable to compete effectively with other companies in the local media industry.”
Hirten and Hartman said they think it may be “too late” for the State Journal (and others like it) to regain lost momentum from dwindling print circulation rates tracked over the last 20 years. Perry isn’t making any predictions, but he offered a similarly grim outlook for daily print products.
“A lot of today’s journalism students don’t define journalism the way it has been defined over the last few decades. They’re coming in with a new understanding that the industry is changing. Opportunities are still exploding. They’re just not traditional print opportunities,” Perry added.
What’s next for the State Journal in print? It’s unlikely to disappear overnight; it will be more of a series of amputations, if it follows patterns elsewhere, including Michigan. Home delivery is one likely early target for cutting back: Lansing still has home delivery seven days a week, unlike Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor, among other Michigan cities. Beyond that, Gannett could cut publication to fewer than seven days a week, with Tuesdays and Saturdays usually the days that will go first because of fewer sales. Printing is typically a newspaper’s second biggest expense, after personnel, and an added incentive to cut is the skyrocketing cost of newsprint in 2021.
Legislative gauze designed to stop the bleeding of the local news industry has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives as part of President Joseph Biden’s $2.2 billion Build Back Better measure. It includes $1.67 billion for annual tax incentives of up to $25,000 per reporter to local outlets. If it passes the Senate, Gannett could reportedly collect up to $37.5 million in payroll tax credits next year — and tens of millions more for the next three years.
Others have raised eyebrows over giving federal funds to independent news organizations. As The New York Times noted, government assistance for news organizations is relatively uncommon. Aside from discounted mail rates for newspaper distribution, requirements that legal notices be published in local newspapers and an influx of Paycheck Protection Program cash, it’s rare for news organizations to accept a federal lifeline.
And even if it passes, some experts think the cash is unlikely to reverse long-term damage to local news — only delay industry decay and perhaps allow the last holdouts to hang on longer.
“It seems much more like a stopgap or bubblegum measure,” Perry added. “We don’t want state-sponsored media either, so I”m not sure exactly what a couple years of a federal subsidy would accomplish. Maybe it’ll keep some organizations on their feet long enough to figure something out but daily newspapers, at this point, just don’t seem to be commercially viable.”
Added Hartman: “That might help pay off Gannett’s debt. It won’t cause them to improve their product unfortunately. It’s not going to change the underlying difficulties that legacy news media outlets are experiencing right now. Maybe it’ll keep some of these papers afloat for a few years. Either way, we’re still seeing a downward spiral — a change in attitudes, a lack of interest in civics, a lack of interest in journalism and a lack of interest in providing revenue for local news.”
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