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  • IntroductionThe Shredding of Midwestern Newspapers
  • Jon K. Lauck

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend in Illinois who noted that she could not find anyone to talk to at the newspaper in Springfield, the state capital. All the reporters and editors were gone that day and the paper was just running Associated Press wire stories in its pages. In the year 2000, by contrast, there were seventy people in the newsroom of the Springfield State Journal-Register, including several librarians and news clerks and an editorial cartoonist and an art director. It even had a multi-person news bureau over at the capitol to specifically cover politics and policy. In earlier decades, in short, it was easy to find someone at the newspaper to talk to on the phone about breaking news or some other pressing matter. In 2007, the State Journal-Register was purchased by GateHouse Media, which promised "hyperlocal" coverage of city and regional events, but that is not what happened. The newspaper has instead been "decimated by staff cuts."1 There are now fewer than ten reporters and editors in the newsroom and that includes two sports reporters and a photographer. The printing press was sold for scrap. GateHouse also sold the once-impressive downtown offices of the State Journal-Register, which, in a bit of ominous symbolism, are being transformed into the county morgue.

The disintegration of the newspaper in Springfield, Illinois is not an uncommon story in the Midwest. Consider Omaha. In 1889, the Omaha World bought the Omaha Herald, creating one of the powerhouses of midwestern journalism. As late as 2015, there were over 200 journalists in the newsroom of the Omaha World-Herald. In 2018 the number dropped to 118 and in 2020 it dropped to 62. Last month, Lee Enterprises, owner of the Omaha World-Herald, announced that the World-Herald's newsroom would again be cut, which will leave about 40 survivors. That means the Omaha newspaper has lost 80% of its reporting strength since 2015. The loss of reporters and the news stories they wrote is surely linked to the loss of readers, who liked the local and regional news that used to fill the pages of the Omaha newspaper. In 1980 the Sunday circulation of the World-Herald [End Page 1] was 302,000 and the weekday circulation was 236,000; now the Sunday circulation is about 40,000.

The story is similar in other midwestern cities. In Indianapolis in 2000, the Indianapolis Star had over 300 people in its newsroom. Now it has less than 50, a diminishment of 85% of the newspaper's one-time reporting strength. The circulation of the Star was 411,000 on Sunday in 1990; now it is 66,000. In the 1970s, the circulation of the Sunday Des Moines Register was 535,000 and the weekday edition was 250,000. In 2020, these numbers had dropped to an anemic 53,000 and 35,000. In the early 1980s, the circulation of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was 501,000 on Sundays and 497,000 on weekdays and, until recent decades, Cleveland was also served by the Cleveland News and The Cleveland Press. But the latter newspapers shut down, the last one in 1982, and, as of May 2019, The Plain Dealer had dropped to 171,404 readers on Sunday and 94,838 readers on weekdays. In 1986, the Detroit Free Press delivered 657,000 newspapers on weekdays; now its weekday circulation, limited to Thursdays and Fridays, is about 80,000. In 2006, there were over 300 people working in the Detroit Free Press newsroom; now it is about 100. The Sunday circulation of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was 402,000 in 2010; in 2018 it was 130,000. Now it is 48,000. The Post-Dispatch had 340 people in its newsroom in 2006; now it has about 75. It sold its prominent six-story building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and which had housed its operations since the 1950s, and moved into rented office space. The circulation of the Sunday edition of the Kansas City Star was 380,000 in 2002...