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The rapid decline of the Herald-Times
Limited local news coverage does not bode well for a city or county government that is responsive to the people's needs
For years, the very first thing I would do when opening up the newspaper is turn to the opinion page. So I was a bit taken aback last month when there was no opinion page published on Monday in the Herald-Times. I thought it was an oversight at first, and then realized it was intentional. That was just the beginning:
So we are reducing the frequency of the page to four days a week. Going forward, there will be no opinion page on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday.
For generations, the local newspaper - especially the letters to the editor section - has been a valuable community forum. That has largely been replaced by social media, a trend accelerated by the Herald-Times' foolish decisions about the system used for comments. The H-T replaced an excellent system with a vastly inferior one in 2013. Then they made things much worse in 2017 with a switch to Facebook's comment system, which was often buggy and unreliable. The H-T is still lucky to have an active comment section, but it is nowhere near as active as it was a decade ago.
A few days later, the Herald-Times announced another significant reduction in service:
The Bloomington newspaper will cease home delivery on Saturdays but instead will provide subscribers with a full digital replica of the paper that day
The physical size of the print edition has shrunk, and the once-robust local coverage - which was once the primary focus of the Herald-Times - has fallen off. The fact that the print edition is now printed in Indianapolis has made news deadlines much earlier in the evening, meaning that people who read the physical copy exclusively do not get things like local high school or Indiana University sports results for a couple days. The cuts we have seen over the last decade, with even deeper cuts over the last year, make me wonder if there will be a local newspaper at all ten years from now. Maybe it will not even last that long.
It is easy to lack sympathy for the struggles of the Herald-Times, because of many, many examples of biased news coverage and sometimes outright lies published over the years. But this actually does represent a problem. Where the decline of local journalism really matters is coverage of local government. I have been extremely critical of the H-T over the years, but if the paper ceased to exist there would be a significant hole in the public's knowledge of what local government is doing.
The reality is that very few people have the time or interest to sit and watch local government meetings. If people are not watching, and there is limited local news coverage, that does not bode well for a city or county government that is responsive to the people's needs, not to mention abiding by good ethical standards. This is made worse by one-party dominance over local government since 2005.
This opens up opportunities to cover local government by alternatives to the legacy news media. We see this now with the B Square Beacon, and the number of alternatives could grow. It is now more important for each voter to educate himself than ever before, especially since local government has much more impact on our lives than anything the federal government is doing. It is easier than ever for private citizens to keep track of local government, watching meetings on Zoom in the comfort of our own homes. Will the decline of the legacy news media actually be a benefit to the people of Bloomington and Monroe County?