Indianapolis 500  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2004

Indianapolis 500   

The Indianapolis Star hasn’t really had 500 editors in recent years, although it might seem that way to the whipsawed staff. The paper has dealt with fallout from a tumultuous merger, undergone an ownership change and witnessed a revolving door of newsroom managers. Now a new leadership team is inspiring hopes of better times ahead.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Related reading:
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In late November, Indianapolis Star Editor Dennis Ryerson gathered his entire newsroom staff in the 500-seat auditorium of the Indiana War Memorial building. The main purpose of the meeting was to get people thinking about the often gloomy subject of the future of newspapers. Michael Smith from the Media Management Center at Northwestern University was there to talk about research on young people and their news habits.

But what really got people's attention were the ukuleles.

To kick things off, the Key Strummers, a local troupe of grade-school kids who play ukuleles--with other strings, a few kazoos and percussion instruments thrown in--belted out "(Back Home Again in) Indiana" for the staff. The reaction was one of smiles and cheers and, yes, some eye rolling--newsrooms are cynical crowds, after all--but the not-so-subtle message, that the Star needed to reflect a sense of place, was not lost.

"We are not the Kansas City Star, we're the Indianapolis Star," Ryerson says. "We're not the Anniston Star, we're the Indianapolis Star." He wanted to send a reminder that "hey folks, we're back home again in Indiana, and I don't want us to forget that because that's what we're serving."

Business writer Bill W. Hornaday says Ryerson expressed something that was unlike anything he had heard in his two-and-a-half years with the paper. "A lot of times in the past, it's been said that we need to be more like the Chicago Tribune" or some other newspaper, Hornaday says. "In my eyes, nobody can be the Chicago Tribune other than the Chicago Tribune. And Dennis was the first person to say we need to be the best Indianapolis Star that we can be."

A number of current and former staffers say the paper has long struggled to find a distinct voice, not to mention respect in the newspaper industry. "The national view of the Star," muses Hornaday, "I'm not sure that there's a good one or a bad one; I'm not sure there is one."

Ryerson, who took the reins of the paper in March 2003, doesn't want the Star to be among the many also-rans of second-tier papers. He says he wants the Star to be a destination paper. He wants the industry to take note of what they're doing in Indiana. He wants to turn heads. To get there, he has to repair a newspaper that has been demoralized by rapid-fire changes, decimated by departures and damaged by the harsh and abrasive style of a number of past managers.

The Star, once so stable a place--perhaps too stable; as one staffer says, "there were people who came here to die"--has gone through every change in the newspaper book in less than 10 years. In 1995, the staffs of the Star and the afternoon News merged, and in 1999, the News went under. In the years in between and shortly thereafter, the combined staff was reorganized and reorganized and reorganized. Former staffer Paula Jarrett says she applied for her job five times in seven years. Since 1999, the paper has had four executive editors, four managing editors and a number of rotating assistant managing editors. The turnover at the top has been so great that staffers will pause in the middle of an interview to ask, "Who the heck was the editor then?"

In August 2000, the Star went from being a family-owned paper, with all its charms and eccentricities, to being the third-largest property in the biggest newspaper chain in the country. The Pulliams, owners of the Star, the Arizona Republic and a handful of small papers, sold its company, Central Newspapers, to Gannett.

But perhaps the most personal change for the newsroom has been the loss of colleagues: Ninety-seven of approximately 275 staffers have left since 2000. That number, from Guild President Marc Allan, includes people who have retired, died or moved on to better papers. It includes others who aren't missed much. But among the rest are great journalists, good friends and simply able bodies who vanished, some without jobs.

For some, the blame for this exodus can be laid nowhere but at the feet of Gannett. It's difficult not to fault the company in charge. But the consensus gleaned from interviews with 36 current and former staffers is that this is not a story about how Gannett slashed a newspaper. It's a story of how revolving-door management hurts and hinders a paper, and how the wrong people--or no people--in positions of newsroomdom power can drive staffers out the door and inflict a lot of pain and suffering. For the current staff, it is also, hopefully, a story about how the right management team--or one that just sticks around for a while--can bring stability, a solid vision and journalistic growth, even to the Indianapolis Star.

It's not that the paper, which almost everyone agrees has long been an underachiever, hasn't improved in some ways in the past four or five years. Every editor brought new ideas and a desire to make the Star better. But with each change of command, each restructuring, there have been stops and starts---the paper in some ways has been spinning its wheels.

Janet Williams, the assistant managing editor/projects, says there were several times when there was a lot of opportunity at the paper, moments when it seemed it would break through to that elusive "next level." The Star would be almost there and then something would happen, causing everybody to retreat, she says, like a turtle ducking back into its shell.

Says projects reporter Bill Theobald: The paper has been "in the process of becoming for eight years, and I think the staff is eager to get the hell on with it."

Williams, Theobald and a number of other staffers say they are very optimistic about the new regime--others are cautiously so, or, at the very least, encouraged. No one interviewed for this story had a bad thing to say about either Ryerson or his new managing editor, Pam Fine. The praise from some, for both their people skills and their news judgment, has been effusive.

Ryerson says there have been "great improvements" at the Star in the past four years. "But I think we just have to work harder to behave like the size newspaper we are in terms of hiring good people, in terms of providing stories that reflect a sense of place, in terms of providing strong leadership, in terms of a gutsier enterprise report, accountability journalism, stronger writing, all of those things," he says. "We've got work to do. And I love the challenge."

Under independent ownership, the morning Star and afternoon News were good places to work, an extended family in many respects. They were also lackluster newspapers that, like so many old family-owned papers, were subject to owners' whims. Longtime staffers talk about the time in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy gave a great speech in Indianapolis after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The papers reported on it in a brief. Eugene Pulliam Sr. hated Bobby Kennedy.

Columnist Ruth Holladay, who joined the Star in 1978, recalls that once you were hired, you were a lifer. "If you had a job, your kid had a job," she says. The standards weren't high--there were no performance reviews until the '90s--but the staff always had a good time, she says.

Even in 1990, when Theobald was hired, he found that "if you wanted to do good work, no one got in your way. If you didn't want to work too hard, not much was really said."

And good work was done. The Star won two Pulitzer Prizes: one in 1991 for an investigative series on medical malpractice, another in 1975 for uncovering police corruption. (Back in 1932, the News won a Pulitzer for public service for a campaign to eliminate waste in city management.)

Staffers fondly recall the days when the News and the Star were highly competitive, when reporters from the rival papers disliked one another and fought hard for scoops. In 1995, though, the staffs of the two papers merged. They continued to put out two papers until 1999, when the bleeding of the News' circulation had finally become too severe. The afternoon paper was shuttered. There were a few buyouts, but no layoffs. Bureaus were created north, south and west of the city, and some staffers were sent there. Eliminating duplication and mixing Star people who didn't much care for News people, and vice versa, proved to be delicate tasks.

Frank Caperton had been managing editor of the News, then the Star, and ultimately executive editor of the merged papers. In '95, Caperton says, "we didn't have joint anything," other than maybe the library. "We had to put the two staffs together in a way that would make sense and that would use the talents of the staffs we had. I'm confident that some were not particularly happy with that."

Follow-up reorganizations of the newsroom continued, with many staffers repeatedly reapplying for their jobs. On January 20, 1999, Publisher Eugene S. Pulliam died, and a number of significant changes followed: Dale Duncan became publisher; the News officially ceased publication on October 1; and in mid-December Caperton retired.

Duncan installed Tim Franklin, the former associate managing editor of business at the Chicago Tribune, as the Star's editor. Franklin an Indiana native, then 39, was fiery and brash, and he wanted to make the Star into something big. On his first day in January 2000, he stood on top of a desk in the middle of the newsroom and announced that the Star would become one of the best papers of its size in the country. At the time, the newsroom had just entered its latest reincarnation--a "newsroom without walls," organized around teams. Franklin says he gave that system about three months to see if it was working and concluded it wasn't.

And so another reorganization: One hundred people switched jobs. Franklin also opened a bureau in Detroit, hiring a reporter from the Free Press to write about the auto industry, a big employer in Indiana. Franklin spent money--a lot of it, certainly a lot more than anyone was used to--sending people to cover presidential primaries, a large contingent to cover the Indiana Pacers' trip to the NBA finals, reporters on foreign assignments for simply great stories.

With all of his spending and his "think big" attitude, Franklin won a lot of fans in the Star newsroom. Judith Cebula, the Star's former religion writer who left last June, went to Jerusalem when the Pope was there in 2000. She wrote about Muslims, Jews, evangelical Christians--19 stories in 10 days. She doesn't think any of that would have happened under previous editors. "That's why that year was sort of amazing. It was weird," Cebula says. " 'What do you mean, you're trusting me? What do you mean, we can do this? What do you mean, yes?' " She and other staffers describe it as "the Prague Spring." But it wasn't that way for everybody. "There were some other people who got burned," Cebula says.

Some felt that Franklin's tenure was the beginning of an era in which longtime staffers were shunned. Former City Editor Paula Jarrett, who abruptly left the paper without a job in June 2002, says of Franklin's and the subsequent regime: "They didn't really value the opinions of the people who had been there before. If you were an employee of the Star, when your new managers got there, you were suspect. You were treated as though you had less value than anyone new they would hire."

John O'Neill, who joined the Star 17 years ago and is now the paper's consumer columnist, says he knows there was a period in which people felt they were being told they weren't any good. "I don't think that's an entirely accurate point of view," he says. "I think people are particularly sensitive after so much turmoil." But, he says, it would be nice if whoever is in charge prefaces, "We're going to do X," with, "I know you've all worked hard and done good work in the past, and we're going to get better." Says O'Neill, "That happens occasionally, and it's happening more now." Under Ryerson and Fine, it "seems to be a much more appreciative atmosphere."

Franklin says whenever an editor makes changes, as he did, there are some who may see it as a criticism, but "I never meant to denigrate the work that had been done there before."

Whatever angst and hope existed under Franklin never got a chance to play out. Eight months after he started, Gannett's purchase of Central Newspapers for $2.6 billion was complete. Barbara Henry, president and publisher of the Des Moines Register, was named the new publisher. No one expected Tim Franklin to stay. He didn't. On December 1, he left for the editor's post at the Tribune Co.'s Orlando Sentinel. Franklin now holds that job at Tribune's Baltimore Sun.

Both Franklin and Henry say that she tried to convince him to stay, and while he understands the timing raises questions, Franklin says he didn't leave because of Gannett. "It wasn't a case of me running from something; it was a case of me running to something," Franklin says. "The something was to go back to a company that I spent almost my entire career with and to work for a publisher who had a great reputation... I wasn't shopping for a job. They called me about this."

There was much trepidation in the Star newsroom about what the sale to Gannett would mean. Staffers say there were "preemptive" departures, those who had heard from friends in the news business that they wouldn't like life under Gannett and decided to get out early. Others welcomed a more structured, professional environment that they thought would come with big company ownership.

Gannett brought consistent standards, rules, an extensive ethics policy. The Star had not been promoted much at all under the Pulliams. Gannett invested heavily in promotion, and circulation between September 2000 and September 2003 increased by about 2,000 daily to 249,891, and by 8,000 on Sunday to 370,680, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers. Assistant Managing Editor Williams says Gannett has invested money in the newsroom, purchasing cell phones for reporters instead of relying on "pool" phones, for instance, and in training, something that didn't happen under the Pulliams.

There are aspects of family ownership that are missed. Traditions such as $100 Christmas bonuses and sterling silver cups given to staffers when they had a child were nixed, and the Fourth Estate, a park for employees with a swimming pool, softball field and picnic areas, was closed under Gannett. (Henry says the company invested in fixing the pool but later closed the park because of lack of use. She hadn't heard of the silver cup perk. And while the Christmas bonus was cut, the company added benefits such as increased tuition assistance, and life insurance and health benefits for domestic partners, she says.)

The Guild was not used to dealing with a large corporation. The most recent contract negotiations began in 2000. O'Neill, who was on the negotiating committee, says the Guild proposed that, since this was the beginning of a new ownership, the two sides should get to know each other for a while and continue under the existing contract. "That didn't fly," he says.

The negotiations were "an exhausting, depressing process," he says, and it wasn't until January 2002 that a new contract was worked out. The guaranteed raises went down every year with this contract, he says, but "it was the best we could do."

Negotiations were nasty at times under the Pulliam ownership, but the two sides knew each other, knew their families. "It wasn't like it was friendly," O'Neill says, "but it was a little bit different."

In January 2001, Terry Eberle became the Star's next editor. He had previously led Gannett's News-Press, an 80,000-circulation paper in Fort Myers, Florida. Just as Franklin had to deal with a not-quite-finished reorganization after the merger, Eberle encountered Franklin's not-fully-implemented plans.

George Stuteville, the Star's Washington, D.C., correspondent, was ordered to close up shop there after the sale to Gannett. Franklin had a vision of putting good writers in three Indiana cities to bring regional voices to the paper, and Stuteville was on board to be the guy in Bloomington, home of Indiana University. The other two bureaus never got off the ground. Stuteville says Eberle's first words to him were, "I still can't figure out what the hell you're supposed to be doing in Bloomington."

Stuteville gave it a shot anyway. "I basically turned on my portable computer and operated with a cell phone that they paid for and drove a van that they provided me, and I tried to invent a bureau that no one had any interest in whatsoever."

After September 11, the newsroom needed help, so Stuteville started driving the 55 miles to Indianapolis. That was the end of the ill-fated Bloomington bureau. In June 2002, Stuteville became another one of the departures. (He says he left after 20 years with the paper to return to his wife and home in the Washington area. He also says it was "increasingly clear to me that older people were basically being forced out, that the working environment was, in my opinion, being deliberately set up to make things as uncomfortable as possible and create the biggest amount of staff turnover and change as possible.")

While a few former staffers spoke poorly of Eberle, most say he was a good guy in a bad situation. He was presiding over an increasingly dysfunctional newsroom. He inherited a managing editor, Calvin Stovall, who had been hired late in Franklin's tenure from Gannett's Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Stovall, say staffers, was absent a lot, and his family never made the move to Indiana. In late August 2001, Stovall left for the managing editor's job at Wilmington, Delaware's News Journal. The ME slot was empty for almost a year. Richard Luna, previously the managing editor at the 55,000-circulation Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, filled it in July 2002.

A number of staffers say it was clear that Eberle and Publisher Barbara Henry did not see eye to eye. When I asked Henry what Eberle's contribution to the Star was, she mentioned stories that uncovered a legislative slush fund in the state government that were written under his watch, and then added: "He came from Florida and decided to go back to Florida." Eberle did not return calls seeking comment.

There were some managers left over from Franklin's reign and others brought in by Eberle who many say had harsh, abrasive management styles. When Stuteville returned to the newsroom in September 2001, he says, "you would have had to have gone to a prison camp to find an unhappier place." He adds that this was not a problem to be blamed on Gannett. "What you had was a set of dysfunctional, overbearing people in newsroom leadership positions." (All have since left.)

Columnist Ruth Holladay says the leadership went from one extreme to another--the looseness of the Pulliam era to a hyper mode. "The atmosphere got punitive," she says. There were editors who cared deeply, she says, "but they didn't have management skills."

The Star "had people who wanted to bully people around the newsroom," she adds. Now, under Ryerson, she says, the atmosphere is "180 degrees different." People are joking and laughing. "I saw Pam Fine speak to a couple of reporters who hadn't had a [top] editor speak to them in two years," Holladay says.

As management expert Marcus Buckingham says, people join companies but leave their bosses (see "Down with Top-down," August/September). For the Star, it was no different.

In a number of cases, the pain some experienced was greater than it needed to be, says Theobald. It was "excruciating as a human being and as a journalist to be in a place where people were hurting this much," he says.

The situation bred insecurity, distrust and fear. And there was uncertainty stemming from the constant turnover at the top. "The ass kissers didn't know whose ass to kiss," says Joe Gelarden, a reporter, now in the west bureau, who joined the paper in 1968 after returning to Indiana from Vietnam.

With each new wave of management, staffers say they had to prove themselves yet again and attempt to establish the trust that is so important in journalism. "Fine seems like a pro; Ryerson seems like a pro, and I have great hope," Gelarden says. "But right now, nobody knows them, nobody trusts them." A lot of times reporters need to put their necks on the line, he says. "And will they support you? That's the question. So you've got a lot of people doing safe stories."

An editor would leave; some months later, the managing editor would leave. "When you have that," says John Fritze, a City Hall reporter who joined the paper in 2000, "it's hard to get everybody on the same page and thinking in the same direction. It was always sort of staggered... That made it hard for everyone to have the same focus and vision for the place." The silver lining with the current incarnation, he says, is that the top positions are being filled around the same time. "It seems like this time, unlike last time, everyone had been involved with putting those folks there... There are still divides [on news judgment], but I have a pretty good idea of what's expected."

Fritze was one of the staffers who was supposed to be embedded in a military unit during the war in Iraq. The paper bought flak jackets but never sent a reporter to the war zone.

Fritze, who says he was disappointed but not bitter about it, says the editors' idea was that "we want to embed but we don't want to embed with a unit from Omaha; we want to embed with an Indiana unit." The Department of Defense wasn't set up to handle that request. In the end Fritze was embedded with an Indiana unit, waiting to be deployed to Iraq. But those troops, who specialize in running detention camps, instead were sent to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and major combat operations in Iraq ended.

"It wasn't like we were stalled on the money," says Fritze. "We ordered the most expensive flak jackets, the most expensive equipment... I just think we got started on it too late."

The planning also happened as Eberle was leaving and Ryerson was coming.

Staffers say they were surprised when they learned Eberle was taking another job. One day, Theobald recalls, the editor didn't come in to the office. He was in Melbourne, Florida, being introduced as the new editor of Florida Today, another Gannett paper, circulation 82,000. In Indianapolis, Managing Editor Richard Luna told the already weary newsroom that Eberle had gone on to pursue other opportunities. The first comment from a staffer, Theobald says, came in an irritated, plaintive tone: "Are we going to have to buy him a present?"

Then the questions started, filled with emotion. "That was the moment I felt the most proud of the staff," Theobald says, "because they stood up and said, 'Hey, what about us?' "

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