The response to yesterday’s announcement of more layoffs at the Star has been significant, and almost uniformly mournful. Comments on Facebook, responses to posts on this and other blogs, and on the Star’s own site have generally reflected the fact that communities all over the country are in the process of losing something valuable, and that these latest cuts are simply one more step toward the inevitable loss of news geared to the general public.
At risk of sounding like the old person I am, I remember growing up in an environment where local papers focused on (largely local) government, along with local crime and information about area schools, public improvements and the like. Pretty much everyone read the paper. The reporting wasn’t necessarily great or insightful, but it had usually been fact-checked and proof-read. Those of us who needed more depth in areas of interest supplemented that basic news source with more specialized publications, but even when we disputed the accuracy of this or that report in the newspaper, we all shared that “baseline.” Newspapers provided a common starting point for further inquiry and conversation. The demise of a common source of information may well be one reason why Americans increasingly inhabit different realities.
Even more consequential, I think, has been the loss of investigation and context, as the remaining reporters are increasingly required to produce more stories more quickly. For the past several years, observers have bemoaned the transformation of reporting into stenography. Instead of simply reporting that official A said X and official B denied that X was true, reporters used to investigate the matter at issue, and tell readers who was telling the truth and who wasn’t.
Let me use a couple of local examples to show how important that last step is.
In our local Mayoral campaign, Mayor Ballard says that crime in Indianapolis is down. His challenger, Melina Kennedy, says it isn’t. How many of us are in a position to access crime statistics, ascertain the credibility of the source, and decide who is correct?
When the Ballard Administration negotiated a fifty-year agreement allowing ACS to manage the city’s parking meters, the agreement passed the City-County Council by a single vote. Ryan Vaughn, the Council President, voted for the deal; had he recused himself, it wouldn’t have passed. Vaughn is a lawyer with Barnes Thornburg, the firm that represents ACS. The Star dutifully reported the accusations by several people that this vote was improper–that Vaughn had a conflict of interest and should not have voted on the matter. And it dutifully reported Vaughn’s (convoluted) “explanation” of why there was no conflict. That was it. No analysis; no checking with the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission or ethics experts from the local law school. Just “he said, she said.”
For that matter, Indianapolis citizens would have benefited from actual reporting on the terms of the contract, the relationships between ACS and local political figures, and its performance elsewhere. We would have benefited from knowing how many other municipalities manage their own parking and how many don’t, and how the income realized differs under the two scenarios.
The press used to give us that sort of information. It allowed us to draw our own conclusions, to make informed decisions about public policy, and decide which politicians to support. It hasn’t performed that service for quite a while, and things clearly aren’t going to get better any time soon.