The Chesterton Tribune printed what was believed to be its final edition last year, ending a 136-year run for Northwest Indiana’s longest continuously running newspaper.
Then something remarkable happened, at least in the dire world of local papers.
The Tribune was resurrected in March, by Don Hurd, an Indiana native single-handedly irrigating a patch of America’s news desert.
Hurd, 64, who delivered newspapers as a boy then spent a career in newspaper advertising, started acquiring local papers in 2011. He now publishes 21 in Indiana, including several that had closed.
“Long and short, I just love this business,” Hurd told me over the phone last week.
“Whenever I hear of a community that’s supposedly losing their newspaper it really pains me when that happens so I do whatever I can,” he said. “I try to look for opportunities that are out there and make sure the community has got a local newspaper they can be proud of, and serve their needs.”
I’ve written about ways to help news outlets survive as the market evolves and they pursue new business models.
But ultimately what’s needed to sustain America’s free-press system is a multitude of local owners willing and able to support journalism in every city and county.
That’s happening in large cities, where wealthy, civic-minded investors are trying to preserve flagship newspapers.
As Hurd bought The Chesterton Tribune, a handful of billionaires pursued another Tribune an hour’s drive away. They banded together in an ongoing effort to acquire the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and seven other dailies owned by Tribune Publishing. Otherwise the papers will be fully acquired by a hedge fund known for slashing spending.
Growing support for top-tier dailies is tremendous.
But committed local investors are also needed at smaller newspapers providing most of the local reporting in their communities. They are fading county by county, state by state. At least 60 such newsrooms closed during the pandemic, according to a Poynter Institute tally.
Small papers like Hurd’s aren’t likely to expose a corrupt presidency and definitely need more journalists. But the local news ecosystem, which informs voters and builds community, needs minnows as well as whales.
Besides, something is better than nothing.
Hurd’s company, Hoosier Media Group, aims to have 25 papers soon. It employs about 60 people, around 16 of whom are newsroom employees.
Hurd said it’s profitable, partly because of his formula.
That includes running lean, drawing on the parent company’s administration and consolidating printing. He also converted a struggling daily to a twice-weekly.
The papers cover what Hurd calls “refrigerator journalism,” with stories about things like Little League games that people clip and hang on the fridge.
“We are hyper, hyperlocal newspapers — we’re all about local names, local faces,” he said.
What about holding officials accountable?
“We don’t shy away from that either,” Hurd said. “We wouldn’t be good stewards of the newspaper and protect our integrity if we didn’t address something in the community. We don’t candy coat something, we’re not all fluff.”
That isn’t always easy for small-town publishers. But a pugnacious streak emerged when I pressed Hurd on this topic.
“I’m a pretty large fellow, I’ve taken several licks over the years, that’s all part of it,” he said. “I still walk down the street with my head held up high because I know we’re putting out a good product.”
Penelope Abernathy, a journalism professor who produced landmark research documenting the spread of news deserts while at the University of North Carolina, said there are minimum criteria needed to be considered a functioning newspaper.
The project found 2,100 papers, a fourth of the national total, closed between 2004 and 2020. It checked to see survivors are “doing more than just a cut and paste of the police blotter.”
Abernathy also referred to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2012 list of critical information needs of local communities.
My hope is that Hurd and others who save local papers add more journalists as they stabilize. Communities should also demand more coverage as they prosper; news deserts will need more than trickles.
A bipartisan proposal in Congress, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, would help. It calls for tax credits for employing reporters, to both sustain outlets and incentivize investment in reporting.
Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said Hurd’s papers are doing real journalism.
One indication is that his editors regularly call Key, who provides legal support to members, for advice on obtaining public records or the legality of officials meeting behind closed doors.
“From what I’ve seen, they aren’t just covering all the good news and whatever news releases come in the door, they are practicing journalism,” Key said.
Hurd is benefiting from a resurgence of interest in local news during the pandemic, Key said.
On the other hand, Indiana lost 13 newspapers to closures or mergers during the pandemic and its difficult business conditions. That was after the state lost 23% of its newspapers the previous 15 years, per the news deserts project.
Hurd remains optimistic, partly because he doesn’t answer to remote investors with quarterly targets.
“Being the sole owner, I can do what I need to do in order to put out a good product,” he said. “Eventually if you do that, it’s like the old baseball movie, ‘if you build it, they will come’ — I feel the same way with our newspapers. We put out a good product, people will support it.”
Hurd also said something that I think captures why voters, and the entire nation, benefit from local publishers committed to serving them with journalism:
“If you stick your head in the sand, the only thing that’s showing is your ass,” he said. ” You do what’s right in the community. It’s not always roses, but at least people can make a decision.”