Private equity firm’s bid for Gannett is bad news for IndyStar, Indianapolis

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Every city needs a great daily newspaper. And so it has been frustrating to watch over the years as Gannett Co. has reduced the staff at The Indianapolis Star, which it purchased in 2000.

Round after round of layoffs has decimated the newsroom. In 2007, The Star boasted some 230 employees. By 2011, that number had fallen to 136. Today, the paper’s website lists a staff of fewer than 90 people.

Just this month, six longtime newsroom employees took early-retirement buyout packages offered by Gannett as part of a nationwide effort to reduce its headcount. Editorial cartoonist Gary Varvel, reporters Mark Alesia and Will Higgins, and editors Greg Weaver, Tom Leyden and Leisa Richardson said goodbye—a huge collective loss of talent and experience.

That’s not to imply there’s not great work going at The Star. Despite the reductions in staff, the paper continues to do important stories that hold public officials and private actors accountable.

Look no further than The Star’s incredible work uncovering sexual abuse within the USA Gymnastics network. The results of that investigation continue to reverberate nationally through amateur and college sports.

This fall, IndyStar reporters Tony Cook and Chris Sikich exposed problems at the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, where employees had received grants intended for struggling veterans. The story led to the resignation of the agency’s director and new rules for the Military Relief Fund.

Those are just two of myriad examples of the way The Indianapolis Star continues to play a key role in our community.

And so IBJ is alarmed to learn that Digital First Media—a company known for making drastic cuts at its newspapers—has made a $1.36 billion, unsolicited offer to buy Gannett. If approved, the sale could impact not only The Star but also newspapers in Lafayette, Muncie, Evansville and Richmond as well as regional papers in Louisville and Cincinnati that serve Indiana readers.

Digital First, backed by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, already owns more than 200 publications, including the Orange County Register and Denver Post. Dramatic cuts at the latter led to protests last year by journalists and a local editorial that said, “if Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”

Even Denver Mayor Michael Hanock urged Digital First to sell the Post, saying “For a New York hedge fund to treat our paper like a mere balance sheet entry and not an institution that is a critical part of our civic fabric, is terribly short-sighted.”

It’s not clear what Digital First might do with IndyStar if it is successful purchasing Gannett. The Star appears to be far leaner than the Post was when Digital First started cutting.

And we certainly don’t think Gannett has the answers to what ails daily newspapers. But Digital First doesn’t appear interested in even finding an answer. It seems content to wring whatever profits it can out of the newspapers it can get its hands on while it can.

We urge Gannett shareholders to rebuff this bid and then double down on finding ways to keep community newspapers vital. While Digital First knows all about extracting short-term profits, IndyStar and other Gannett papers deserve an owner focused on positioning the publications to be vital—and profitable—parts of their communities for decades to come.•

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