Tag Archives: Indianapolis Star

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.

 

Word Choices Can Feed Bias

A recent headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “McCormick Calls for LBGTQ Strings on Private School Voucher Money.”  (Jennifer McCormick is Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

Strings? Or standards?

The statement by McCormick–with which I entirely agree–was prompted by a local controversy over actions taken by Roncalli High School. Roncalli is an Indianapolis Catholic High School that placed one of its guidance counselors on administrative leave after discovering that she was in a same-sex marriage. The school has evidently threatened to terminate her unless she dissolves her marriage.

Roncalli has received more than $6.5 million in public money over the past five years through Indiana’s most-expansive-in-the-nation school voucher program.

The issue is simple: should public dollars–which come from all Hoosiers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers–support schools that discriminate against some of those Hoosiers?

I would argue that taxpayer dollars ought not support private–and especially religious– schools at all, but that is an argument for another day. In any event, I found the Star’s headline offensive. By characterizing McCormick’s proposed standards for receipt of public dollars as “strings,” it strongly suggested that an unnecessarily picky bureaucracy was trying to make it difficult for religious schools to participate in Indiana’s voucher program. It utterly trivialized a very important issue, which is the use of public money to subsidize discrimination.

As usual, Doug Masson has a more temperate–and eloquent– response to the story, and to the issue.

The issue of inclusiveness appears to be a reference to Roncalli’s decision to terminate a long-time, well-regarded guidance counselor when the school was made aware (or forced to acknowledge) that the counselor had a spouse of the same sex. Roncalli is a private school but it’s funded — in part — with public money. The question becomes whether public money should come with conditions and, if so, what conditions should be attached. Obviously, it should and does come with conditions. Voucher money can’t just go anywhere. The voucher school has to look and act more or less like a school. If it was, for example, a tavern that labeled itself a “school,” then Rep. Behning would likely change his position. He says:

If parents have a problem with the school’s practices, employment or otherwise, Behning said they can send their child elsewhere. In that case their tuition will follow, whether it’s paid by the parent or by the state. “Parents are the ones that should be making those decisions,” he said, “rather than the government.”

Rep. Behning is obviously being a little disingenuous here. The government simply wouldn’t let parents make the tavern decision. So, as the joke goes, we’re just haggling over the price. Is discrimination on that basis against an otherwise well-qualified employee because she has a same-sex spouse something we’re willing to fund or not? I obviously fall on the “not” side of that question, and it sounds like Dr. McCormick does as well. My guess is that the General Assembly will be perfectly willing to continue subsidizing Roncalli, notwithstanding its employment practices. (Because, remember, my view of the three goals of the General Assembly when it comes to school vouchers: 1) Hurt the teacher’s unions; 2) direct education money to friends & well-wishers; and 3) subsidize religious education.)

Before education reformers write me to protest that we need “alternatives” and “choice” and “innovations,” let me suggest that they research the difference between Charter schools, which are public and subject to the Constitution, and schools receiving vouchers, which are private and aren’t.

As usual, I agree completely with Doug’s analysis. (I do think he’s too kind to Rep. Behning…”disingenuous” isn’t the word I’d have chosen.)

Another word I wouldn’t have chosen is “strings.” As the saying goes, one person’s “red tape” is the next person’s accountability.

A Civic Help-Wanted Ad

For those unfamiliar with the term, copy editors are the people hired by newspapers and magazines to make the copy “clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.”  According to the Free Dictionary, copy editors should ensure that a story “says what it means, and means what it says.”

Typically, copy editing involves correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, terminology, jargon, and semantics.

A number of us who inexplicably continue to subscribe to the Indianapolis Star have remarked on the increased number of spelling and grammar errors that have escaped a copy editor’s notice over the past couple of years. (As a former High School English teacher, these errors affect me like nails on a blackboard.)

However annoying the obvious reduction in, or absence of, copy editing, that problem pales in importance beside the much more consequential reduction in the reporting of actual news,and especially the absence of government oversight. Coverage of City Hall and the Statehouse are virtually non-existent; the absence of reporters with institutional memory, investigative instincts and the time to do more than superficial reports on such issues as do surface leaves citizens without any reliable way to evaluate the performance of our government officials and agencies.

The most recent example (and by no means the worst) has been the coverage of Secretary of State Connie Lawson’s attribution of mistakes found on multiple voter registration forms to fraud, ostensibly by an organization focused upon registering African-American voters.

I have no idea whether Lawson’s claims are well-founded or politically motivated.(She was, after all, a co-sponsor of Indiana’s Voter ID law, which aimed to solve a nonexistent problem.) What’s worse, however, is the fact that until the third or fourth story about the controversy, I had no idea what she was alleging. The articles were so badly written that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the issue was–nor could several friends who’d also read it. And when a follow-up story did clarify the nature of the controversy, it was presented as “she said”/”he said.” There was no indication that reporters had made any effort to independently assess the validity of the competing assertions.

If you are wondering what triggered this particular post, it was the Star’s recent announcement that it is once again trimming its editorial staff (i.e. reporters), and moving what is left of its pitifully inadequate copyediting out-of-state. (I wonder how an out-of-state copy editor would make the Lawson story, which depends upon a basic understanding of Indiana law and practice “clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.”)

Ever since Gannett acquired the Star, the quality–and more importantly, the scope– of its reporting has declined. The paper was never a shining beacon of journalism, but it did employ actual reporters, it did cover state and local government, it did report on something other than sports, entertainment and the opening of new bars.

If there’s an entrepreneur out there who wants to find a currently unserved market, Indianapolis could really use a credible newspaper. (Online is fine.)

My Students Continue to Teach Me…

I’ve posted previously about teaching an undergraduate class in Media and Public Policy. I have also posted–frequently–about the loss of real journalism in our current media environment.

Abbreviated version: we are positively marinating in information, but losing the “journalism of verification” required by a democratic society.

When we came to the point in the semester when students share their research with the class, one presentation compared our local newspaper’s coverage of the just-concluded municipal election with that same paper’s coverage of the municipal elections held in 1991. In both years, the only offices on the ballot were the local ones; In Indiana, we elect Mayors and Councilors in “off” years, when neither statewide nor federal candidates are on the ballot. Also in both years, there was no incumbent running.

The numbers are telling.

In 1991, the  Indianapolis Star ran 63 articles focused upon general election coverage. This year, it ran 11. In 1991, there were 36 articles devoted to the issues involved in the mayoral and council races; this year, there were 16. In 1991, there were 26 articles explaining the electoral process; this year, 11. Stories devoted solely to the City-County Council races declined from 14 to 5.

Even coverage of election results declined; in 1991, there were 15 articles, this year, 6.

The one category in which there was an increase in coverage? Elections unrelated to Indiana. That category went from 56 stories in 1991 to 101 this year.

The editorial staff layoffs that have characterized newspaper operations in the intervening years have clearly played a part in the decline of local coverage: there were 32 different reporters with bylines covering the 1991 election; this year, there were 14.

Local newspapers aren’t just neglecting to cover City Hall. They aren’t even reporting on the (far easier and accessible) “horse race.”

Which leaves us with some questions: where are citizens supposed to get the credible, verified information we need? How are we supposed to keep local government accountable?

Disappointing News

There are so many real problems in today’s world that it seems extremely petty to complain about this, but I see that The Indianapolis Star is negotiating with the Simon Company to move into the space previously occupied by Nordstrom.

The City has worked long and hard to get a critical mass of retailing in the downtown core. An adequate retail presence is necessary if we are to continue the residential rebirth downtown: these uses are co-dependent. We need enough people who live downtown to support retail uses, and we need retail uses that are convenient in order to attract downtown residents.

We’ve already lost the site of the former Borders to a bank. Now we are losing the Nordstrom site– a prime retail location that many hoped would be filled by a Macy’s or similar shopping destination.

When I first worked downtown, I was a lawyer at what was then considered a large firm (52). There were perhaps two places to have lunch; there was nowhere to shop. When I first moved downtown, there was no grocery. (What is now Marsh and was O’Malia’s was then an old and decrepit Sears Roebuck, with blue metal siding.) City officials and not-for-profit organizations have worked hard over the ensuing years to revive the core of our city, to attract a broad mix of uses, and to make it a place people want to live in and visit.

It’s worrisome enough that the soaring crime rate is once again making people hesitant to attend downtown events. If we lose the things that attract people downtown, that’s a double whammy.

This is just one location–albeit an important one–and obviously, Simon can do what it wants with its own property.  But it’s disappointing–another lost opportunity at a time when Indianapolis lacks the political and civic leadership that over the years turned “Naptown” into a great place to live.