Indianapolis’ sad News

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By: Lucia Moses

Indianapolis’ sad News
Central Newspapers Inc. to pull the plug Oct. 1


Staffers at The Indianapolis Star and News breathed a sad sigh of relief last week. Executives announced what had been a long time coming: the evening News, after years of hemorrhaging circulation, is closing. The move reflects readers’ increasing preference for a morning paper and mirrors a pattern of dwindling p.m. papers nationwide.
Star/News president and publisher Dale Duncan says he hopes the announcement will end staffers’ uncertainty about the News’ future. He says a commemorative edition is planned for the last day of publication, Oct. 1.
“I never expected to be involved in the closing of a newspaper,” Duncan says. “It’s sad, because it has been in business 130 years, at one time the biggest paper in town.”
Those days are long over. Average daily circulation for the News has fallen to 33,175, or about 12% of the Star/News’ overall circulations, down from 111,000 a decade ago. Advertising is sold as a package in both papers and can’t be broken down, but circulation revenues at the News skidded 13.4% in 1998, while its sister paper gained 0.8%.
Duncan and executive editor Frank Caperton say fewer stay-at-home moms and blue-collar workers on night shifts, plus the morning paper’s ability to deliver its edition earlier and the growing influence of evening TV news, contributed to the decline.
“It is a sad day,” Caperton says. “We made a valiant effort to swim against the tides of history.”
The supply of afternoon papers has been drying up as papers have converted to the morning cycle, and Central Newspapers Inc., parent of the Star/News, is no stranger to the trend. In 1997, it shuttered the afternoon Phoenix Gazette after circulation dropped below 10% of the market and merged its staff with that of The Arizona Republic, its other morning-cycle flagship. In 1996, the company merged its Muncie, Ind., Star and Evening Press when the latter had 30% of their combined circulation.
The News closing will result in the loss of about 20 newsroom positions, mainly through severance offers to staffers with 20-plus years, and 12 transportation jobs. Other areas will see shift reductions. Some people will fill about eight newsroom slots that were intentionally left open.
Central, headquartered in Phoenix, expects to take a one-time, pretax charge of about $1.25 million, or 2 cents per share, in the third quarter, while saving $3 million to $3.5 million a year after the closing. Central’s stock closed at 421/2, up 3/4, the day after the announcement.
John Miller, analyst with Ariel Capital Management in Chicago, a money-management firm that holds 10.2% of Central’s stock, says that, from an investor’s standpoint, he applauds the decision to close the News. “There aren’t too many afternoon papers, and circulation has been down at an alarming rate. This is a very smart management team, and they realized the economics of the afternoon paper were no longer attractive.”
Management gathered employees the morning of July 13 to break the news. Staffers, many of whom were resigned to the eventual closing, said they were heavy-hearted, but not surprised.
“I feel sad for the industry as a whole,” says Welton W. Harris, who wrote for the News for most of his 30-year career at the papers. “P.m. papers across the country, like the passenger pigeon, are just disappearing.”
Founded in 1869, the News became part of Eugene C. Pulliam’s Central Newspapers in 1948. The News moved into the Star’s building in 1949, but the two competed fiercely with separate staffs until 1995. The staffs then merged, although the News maintained an independent editorial page and separate copy desk. On Saturdays, readers get a joint edition with both editorial pages; only the Star publishes Sundays.
Caperton says the News editorial page will be discontinued and the Star will pick up some features from the News.
Pulliam died in 1975, but observers have said his heirs, who control the paper, were attached to the News. For that reason, there was a strong feeling that Central wouldn’t pull the plug as long as Eugene S. Pulliam, longtime publisher of the papers, was alive.
Over the years, there were attempts to resuscitate the ailing patient. But that ended with the 1995 merger, and the News stopped offering subscriber discounts last year. When Pulliam died in January, staffers suspected it was just a matter of time before the p.m. went to its final resting place.
“It’s been on life support for a long time,” says Marc Allan, president of Local 70 of the Communications Workers of America/Newspaper Guild, one of several unions at the Star/News. “I imagine there’s some relief that it’s finally over.”
And while many saw the closing as inevitable, Allan says he thought the News might have had a shot if it changed to a tabloid format, while Harris wondered if moving the printing press out of downtown would have helped the evening edition deliver earlier. Duncan says the Star/News is evaluating a plan to move the presses from downtown to a site on the north side of town.
Meanwhile, the Star is eking out small circulation gains, and recently added design, health, and faith sections in hopes of continuing the growth. News subscribers will receive the Star after Oct. 1, and the Star will likely offer circulation incentives, acknowledging continued loyalty to the News, Duncan says.
For some readers, while they may be a minority, losing the evening edition will come hard. Says longtime reader Sallie E. Gould, 74, “The News always seemed to have a little higher tone to it, and the columns were a little more interesting. They went into things more thoroughly, it seemed.”
Gould doubts she’ll rush to buy the morning paper. “The only reason would be for obits. I think I’ll have a Chicago Tribune delivered, and probably The New York Times on the weekend. She pauses, then adds, “My son lives across the street. Maybe I’ll just have him bring his over after work.”
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