Bloomington Independent’s Future Iffy

Owner looking for a buyer

The eventual return of the Bloomington Independent depends on attracting investors as well as holding on to existing advertisers, Craig Hitchcock, publisher and CEO of parent company Yesse! Communications, says.

Hitchcock tells AAN News he is discussing the sale of the paper to an unnamed East Coast media chain.

In a letter to readers on the paper’s Web site after the late December decision to halt operations, Hitchcock stipulated that the plan to reopen by March was contingent on maintaining current advertisers and attracting institutional advertisers, such as banks and hospitals, which he invited to contact him.

“If we can come back sooner, that would be great,” he says.

“I’m saddened by the whole thing,” says Bill Craig, the paper’s founder. “Those of us who put our hard work into getting this started are certainly saddened by its demise, if indeed it is gone.”

Craig, who has not been involved in day-to-day operations at the Independent for three years, declines to comment on the bankruptcy proceedings because he is in litigation with Yesse! as a stockholder.

Originally a five-paper chain, Yesse! sold The Octopus, of Champagne-Urbana, Ill., to Saga Communications in September and closed Icon, of Iowa City, Iowa, in January 2001.

“We determined we really wanted to concentrate and go forward in mid-sized markets,” Hitchcock says. That decision left the company with the Bloomington Independent, the Illinois Times in Springfield, Ill., and Impact Weekly in Dayton, Ohio.

Cutting loose the two struggling papers wasn’t enough to bring the company around in 2001.

“Our resources this year have certainly been limited,” Hitchcock says. “I’ve been funding it (Yesse!) out of my own pockets, which aren’t that deep.”

Yesse!’s move to standardize sales and marketing strategies at its remaining papers created some contention among staffers.

“The main problem with Yesse! is that they want to run a chain of alternative weeklies as if it’s a McDonald’s,” says Cynthia Wolfe, former managing editor at the Independent.

Wolfe contends that college town Bloomington is ideal for an alternative weekly – a sentiment that Hitchcock shares – and says Yesse! failed to understand the town’s diverse population and community needs.

“I had felt like I was doing a balancing act between what our mission was to the community and Yesse!’s content template,” she says.

Hitchcock disagrees.

“If we were a chain that wasn’t sensitive to the local market and didn’t care about the local market, we would have left it two years ago,” he says, adding that the paper has “never been profitable.”

Despite a lack of strong competition in the town (there’s one daily, the Herald-Times, and Indiana University produces a campus daily), the Independent wasn’t able to bring in the revenue Hitchcock anticipated.

“You expect to make as much as half your revenue in the second half of the year,” he says. “We didn’t get the boost we expected to get in a prime selling season.”

Hitchcock cites 2001’s already weak economy and the slump following Sept. 11 for ultimately closing the doors at the Independent.

Yesse! Communications filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2001, but Hitchcock indicated the company’s papers are separate holdings and not included in the restructuring.

The staff of the Independent was laid off following the closing, which came while the Dec. 27 issue was in production, an issue that never was printed. It remains unclear whether some or all of the staff will return should the paper reopen. Hitchcock says several key staff members have said they would return.

Seth Wharton is a freelance writer in New York City.

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