MUTZ: Star can survive media market chaos

September 15, 2012

John MutzOnce upon a time, three daily newspapers operated in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Times, a Scripps-Howard paper, was first to stop its presses, in 1965, a victim of competition and the advent of aggressive electronic news sources. The Indianapolis News ceased publication in 1999. Its owner, which also owned the Indianapolis Star, had combined the papers in the same building and printed them on the same presses to be more efficient.

As the trend toward merger, consolidation and outright failure of many metropolitan dailies continues, the director of the Annenberg School at the University of California believes the only print newspapers that will survive are the large national papers like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Jeffrey Cole, the school’s director of the Center for the Digital Future, notes at the other extreme, it is likely local weeklies may also continue to serve their communities.

In recent years, venerable dailies such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed their doors, each after more than a century of continuous publication. The Detroit Free Press now has a print version only on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Many others are bringing their costs in line with revenue, even though advertising has declined drastically. Most newspapers have cut the size of their print editions and have cut distribution of regional editions. Many others have substantially cut the size of news staff. Some analysts suggest the papers are buying time until they can develop a sustainable business model that makes it possible to field a pool of reporters who can cover the important local beats.

Here in Indianapolis, the Star’s new publisher, Karen Crotchfelt, has announced a monthly subscription price that covers both the printed version of the paper and the online version. The price went up from $19.50 per month to $23, but you must buy both versions as a package if you want a printed copy delivered to your home. The online-only version is $12 per month. This means the paper is following a practice used by a few national news organizations in charging for online news rather than making it available without charge on the Internet.

As a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, I have a bias for the printed newspaper. Few things are as enjoyable as curling up with a paper and a black cup of coffee. However, I know how important a newspaper of general circulation is to the vitality of a metropolitan city like Indianapolis. If you want coverage of truly local priorities, school boards, City-County Council meetings, cultural organizations, not-for-profits, etc., it is only the local paper that has a staff to provide coverage.

We are fortunate that the Star is now owned by Gannett Co., creator of USA Today, a truly creative version of a national daily newspaper that is likely to survive in the media market chaos. Crotchfelt recently told an Indianapolis chamber board meeting that she has set a goal for 95 percent of the current print circulation to convert to the new package. In other Gannett markets, more than 90 percent of subscribers have converted.

This means the Star is transforming to a hybrid of a printed paper and an online news source that is as comprehensive and complete as the traditional newspapers of the past.

My hope is that our community will embrace these experiments. The availability of news from a respected source is just as important to Indianapolis as the Colts, the Pacers or the symphony. I’m not suggesting we ask the Capital Improvement Board to provide a subsidy like we did for the sports teams, but it’s important to know what’s at stake.•

• Mutz has held leadership positions including lieutenant governor and president of Lilly Endowment and PSI Energy. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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