A decades-long Sunday morning tradition ended this month as The Grand Ledge Independent printed and delivered its last weekly edition after being published in some form since 1938.
“Every Sunday it was there, at the end of the driveway,” said Grand Ledge Councilmember Brett Gillespie. “It was a constant, although the local focus had slowly been lost over the last years.”
The paper was among the last of the Lansing Community Newspapers to cease operations since Gannett, the largest newspaper company in America and owner of the Lansing State Journal, purchased them nearly two decades ago. LCN comprised a dozen weeklies: Lansing Community News, Delta Waverly Community News, Dewitt Bath Preview, Charlotte Shopping Guide, Williamston Enterprise, The Towne Courier in East Lansing, Eaton Rapids Community News, Grand Ledge Independent, Portland Review, Holt Community News, Clinton County News and Ingham County News. At one time, they delivered hyper-local reporting on local government, the school board, local sports, entertainment and more.
John Ellsworth has been communications director for the Grand Ledge Schools for a decade. Before that, he was social studies teacher in the district for 20 years. For 10 of those years, he was a football coach.
“When I first came to the community, the paper was very much a cheerleader for the community,” he said. “They knew the players, the coaches, the community. They were in school board meetings and talking to the community. They were part of the community. They were always key to telling our stories.”
But after Gannett purchased the paper, the commitment to staffing dwindled. Ellsworth and Gillespie watched as the hyperlocal focus slipped further and further away, ending up as a wrap-around of news that had already been published in the LSJ days or weeks before.
The slow dissolve was one Ellsworth watched while he was still in the classroom. As a social studies teacher, he used publication-provided subscription discounts to provide newspapers in his classrooms.
“Current events are an important part of social studies,” he said. “But those went away. It was a huge mistake by the newspaper industry at the time. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are fighting for who can have their vending machines in the schools. They’re not even selling soda, but they want that brand in there. The newspapers lost that opportunity and it hurt them.”
The Michigan Press Association said that since 2019, 42 weekly newspapers have closed in the state. Another five were merged with another publication and lost their brand identities as part of the merger process. There are 47 weekly newspapers operating in the state today.
Mike Blinder, publisher of the journalism trade publication Editor & Publisher, traces the decline of print newspapers to their failure to embrace the internet until it was too late.
“We had the websites, we were just too lazy to build the Craigslists, the cars dot coms or the dot coms of the future,” he said.
As a result, many classified advertisements, which were a key revenue stream, ended up free to consumers on multiple platforms that were supported by advertising. Papers took another blow when the 2008 Great Recession prompted real estate agents and employers to switch to the internet as well.
In the last few years, grocery stores, big box stores and others have abandoned printing weekly circulars to be inserted in Sunday newspapers and weeklies in favor of the internet. Kroger, the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, is the latest to move to digital.
“We were a distribution method for decades for coupons, offers and deals,” Blinder said. “When that eventually moved to a digital world, we didn’t own that business.”
Finally, readers can find local content online for free because Facebook and other social media platforms “exploit” the work of local media without appropriate compensation, Blinder said. Blinder contended that those platforms should pay for the use of journalism content in the same manner as musicians are compensated through royalties for their work by radio stations and clubs.
Until that happens, however, the money for supporting journalism is being siphoned off and not being reinvested. That, he noted, has led to a dramatic sell-off by legacy owners of news outlets in the last two decades. Some sold to Gannett, which began with one family-owned newspaper in 1923. Others sold to other newspaper companies. But in the last two decades, investors with no longtime ties to journalism have become owners of hundreds of papers. In 2019, New Media Investment Group purchased Gannett and merged it into Gatehouse Media under the name Gannett.
The company is focused on being a profit center, Blinder said. It “has no interest in maintaining the journalistic integrity of those titles, but rather just exploiting whatever value they can of the real estate property and advertising potential. They’re day trading.”
This dissolution of local media has Blinder and others worried about the future of American democracy.
“When there is a news desert, research shows that there’s no final check on power,” Blinder said. “The city starts to have corruption.”
That, he said, leads to a thirst to understand what is happening in a community. “Then the people become thirsty for news and they’ll drink from any hopes they can get, which becomes social media and blogging and garbage,” he said.
What will move to fill the vacuum for hyperlocal news may be an independent news website, such as EastLansingInfo.org which is a nonprofit, grant-funded model, or the government providing more direct-to-consumer information, as Grand Ledge Schools are doing.
Dirk Milliman grew up in the newspaper industry. His family owned small weekly newspapers throughout Michigan, including the now-defunct Towne Courier, Ingham County News and Williamston Enterprise. He sees the death of the weeklies as a threat as well.
Said Milliman, “It’s really a dangerous place for citizens when there’s nobody reporting on the activities of their governments.
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