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CRAWFORDSVILLE, Indiana – Many major cities are having difficulty holding on to one viable daily newspaper. Places such as Oakland, Calif; Birmingham, Ala.; and New Orleans have all seen their dailies disappear over the past few years, as news-hungry readers ditch print for phones or tablets in increasing numbers. Industry prognosticators have all but written the eulogy for print.
But some towns are delaying the funeral while hanging onto to not just one, but two daily papers. And it’s not in the places you might think.
Trenton, New Jersey, still has two dailies, as does Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, tucked away in the Keystone State’s coal country. But perhaps nowhere is finding two battling papers more startling than Crawfordsville, Indiana, population approximately 15,000.
Crawfordsville is a community that tilts conservative. On a recent day a prominent sign on the main road through downtown promoted an upcoming Tea Party meeting at the local library. The downtown features a mix of mom-and-pop eateries, antique stores and offices. While parts seem struggling, the downtown core has fared better than other Midwestern cities its size. It’s against this backdrop that an unlikely newspaper battle is occurring.
While precise statistics are not kept of how many two-newspaper towns still exist, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute thinks Crawfordsville could be the smallest.
“I don't know for sure, but Crawfordsville, Indiana, sounds like a good bet. It is very hard to make a go of two papers in most towns,” said Edmonds, a media and business analyst with the Poynter Institute. Ski resort Aspen, Colorado, has a population of 7,000 and two dailies, but its population triples during the winter.
Daily newspapers are either disappearing or scaling back publication. According to the Pew Research Center, there are around 300 fewer daily papers scattered across the country today than in 1990. That statistic doesn’t tell the full story, though, because many newspapers that are still publishing often do so by gutting staff, shrinking news coverage or even cutting the physical size of the paper. A metropolitan paper today looks very different than it did 20 years ago.
The most recent “annual census” from the American Society of Newspaper Editors showed that 36,700 full-time daily-newspaper journalists are employed at just less than 1,400 newspapers. That's a 1,300-person decrease from 38,000 in 2012. In 1996, just before websites began to encroach upon print, the ASNE reported 54,000 employed in newsrooms across the country. Some newsroom purges make headlines, such as in 2013 when the Chicago Sun-Times eliminated their entire 28-person photo staff. But most newsroom reductions happen quietly and unceremoniously.
‘I don't know for sure, but Crawfordsville, Indiana, sounds like a good bet [as the largest such locale]. It is very hard to make a go of two papers in most towns.’
In Crawfordsville, the Journal Review, owned by Alabama-based Smith Newspapers Inc. and The Paper, controlled by a consortium of local investors, compete daily for the readers of Montgomery County, Indiana. It’s a throwback to how most cities and towns were a century ago, when it was common for there to be two, three or even four broadsheets. The Journal Review would appear to have the upper hand with its 6,425 copies, while The Paper prints 2,563 copies, according to the Mondo Times circulation database.
The tussle for Crawfordsville actually has its roots 100 miles away in suburban Indianapolis. The Paper’s very existence is a protest against the corporatization and consolidation that has dominated American newspapers for the past half century.
“When Gannett bought the Indianapolis Star, they also bought my hometown paper, The Noblesville Ledger, and then they killed it,” said Tim Timmons, publisher of The Paper.
Gannett acquired Indiana’s largest newspaper in 2000. Soon after, Gannett shuttered many smaller suburban papers that were part of the purchase, including The Noblesville Ledger.
At the time, Timmons was an executive with a regional newspaper chain based in northern Indiana. He could see the newspaper business changing and didn’t like what he saw. Seeing an opportunity in his hometown, he bought a near moribund weekly, The Noblesville Times, and transformed it into a competitive daily. Four years later, a friend suggested they round up a group of investors and bring the same concept to Crawfordsville. They followed through, and readied to compete toe-to-toe with an already established daily. In 2004, The Paper opened for business.
“The Paper’s focus is on names and faces. That has been their focus, where the Journal Review is more traditional in meeting coverage and what council and commissions are doing,” said Howard Hewitt, the Director of Digital Media at Wabash University in Crawfordsville. Hewitt was editor of the Journal Review when Smith Newspapers purchased the paper in late 1999.
As in any newspaper war, emotions can run high. Hewitt surmises The Paper’s aim all along has been to drive the Journal Review under. “The Paper was opened with the intent of trying to divide the market and drive down the price of the Journal Review, and then buy it and consolidate it, and turn it into a one-newspaper city. And to date they have both managed to exist, probably to the surprise of many people,” Hewitt said.
Meanwhile, Timmons says his newspaper is just exploiting a gap in the “hyper-local” market.
“The people at the Journal Review are good folks, I have no ill will. But if you look at our paper, there is no Associated Press copy, it’s all local,” Timmons said.
And indeed it is. In a recent edition, there were little vignettes like this two-sentence ode on the front page: “The Paper appreciates all our customers. Today, we’d like to personally thank Harlan Vaught of Ladoga for subscribing!”
On page two, a tiny “BIRTHDAY” box announces: “Erin Schronce turns 17 today. She’s the daughter of James and Kathie Schronce of Crawfordsville.”
“We recognize if someone wants to know how the Mounties did in softball last night, there aren’t many sources,” Timmons said, referring to a local high school sports moniker. He also touts The Paper’s online edition, daily email blast, 3-minute daily webcast, and a rooftop weather station that gathers real-time weather data from downtown Crawfordsville.
While Timmons said The Paper is in the black now, there were times when the newspaper’s future seemed anything but certain, as it struggled to launch and coped with the impact of the Great Recession. “In September 2008, Lehman Brothers went under and the recession hit us hard. Our numbers plummeted. It was awful, but no one gave up. By the end of 2009 we had made up all the difference, and we have been in the black ever since,” Timmons said.
While The Paper has been the scrappy upstart, the Journal Review has history and corporate coffers on its side.
Barry Lewis is in the unique position of having worked for both newspapers. He currently works as the code inspector and communicators director for the city of Crawfordsville. While the Journal Review did not respond to requests for comment for this story, Lewis considers himself friendly to the city’s oldest paper.
“For the most part, the Journal Review does not see The Paper as a real threat,” Lewis said, adding that he thinks The Paper has sharpened the Journal Review’s coverage.“ I think The Paper actually helped the Journal Review start paying more attention to the local issues. The Journal Review is now almost what The Paper started out to be. They have really changed its concentration on county stories,” Lewis said.
But he is skeptical about Crawfordsville being able to hang onto two papers indefinitely.
“Actually I am very surprised both papers have survived. The Journal Review has been around for 100 years, so it is established and will stick around. The Paper has expanded into other communities, and I think that has helped them sustain. Most people don't read both papers. I feel like most people basically view The Paper as a shopper. While that might not be what the owners want, it might be what has saved them,” Lewis said.
Actually I am very surprised both papers have survived. The 'Journal Review' has been around for 100 years, so it is established and will stick around. 'The Paper' has expanded into other communities, and I think that has helped them sustain.
communicators director, city of Crawfordsville
Jack Lule is the chair at Lehigh University’s Weinstock Center for Journalism and wrote his masters thesis about two-newspaper towns. He looks at the situation in Crawfordsville as part of larger trends roiling the print newspaper business.
“Two-newspaper towns survive for a good reason: despite all the possibilities of digital media, local coverage still is handled best by local newspapers. People have all sorts of access to news on Washington politics, the latest airline disaster, Mideast tensions and other national and international stories. But local politics, obituaries, sports, concerts, street closings and news stories on that level still are reported only by the local newspaper,” Lule said.
Two-newspaper towns have been dying a slow death for a half-century as reading habits and demographics changed. Richard Nixon even signed the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1970 that removed monopoly prohibitions and allowed two dailies in a city to combine printing and advertising operations to cut costs, while maintaining separate competitive newsrooms. These were known as Joint Operating Agreements, but they seemed to only slow the inevitable demise of two-newspaper towns.Of the 28 markets where JOAs were instituted, only 6 survive today.
Lule said national trends work against the long-term survival of two newspapers in towns like Crawfordsville.
“Demographics have something to do with small city, two-newspaper towns. Smaller cities have older populations than expensive, fast-paced big cities. And older people hang onto their love and habit of the newspaper. But that is not a recipe for long-term success,” Lule said.
So is there something about Crawfordsville that enables it to do what has failed in so many other papers?
Sam Horner’s family has owned and operated Horner Automotive since 1933. Horner spends his advertising dollars with both newspapers. He believes the Crawfordsville market has been able to support two papers primarily because residents tend to fiercely support local businesses.“Crawfordsville is a very proud, old community that, there are a lot of families that have been here for a long time and they dig in and support older businesses and that tends to get passed on to the next generation,” Horner said.
The local Chamber of Commerce, like many businesses, has taken a neutral stance in the newspaper war. “Both papers have been corporate sponsors of the Chamber. Our main goal is to help them grow. Both seem to fill their niche in our community,” said Steve House, President of the Crawfordsville/Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.
Deantha Wright-Thornburg runs spay and neuter clinics in the county, and she has also advertised with both papers. “I think this town can support two papers. I think it is a positive for Crawfordsville,” Thornburg said.
Hewitt, of Wabash University, has his own thoughts about Crawfordsville’s two-newspaper success.
Crawfordsville clings to Interstate 74, a busy corridor connecting the Quad Cities at the Iowa-Illinois border with Cincinnati. The city is an hour northwest of Indianapolis, far enough to be outside of The Star’s daily coverage reach. “The city benefits from having a small prominent liberal arts college; we are on an interstate and that helps sustain business,” Hewitt said.
Crawfordsville has three major grocery stores, a multi-screen cinema and a diverse industrial base.
“Crawfordsville is not going to go up and blow away,” Hewitt said. Neither, it seems, are its two dueling newspapers.