How to do Local

One of the ways in which newspapers are responding to the challenges of the internet age is by concentrating on coverage of their own communities. Dubbed “localism” or sometimes “hyperlocalism,” the approach makes a lot of sense: let readers get their national and international news from the New York Times, the Guardian, and other sources easily accessed through the web, and concentrate on providing information about one’s own home town.

The Indianapolis Star –like many other papers–has announced that it will concentrate on local coverage, “stories you can’t get elsewhere.”

This approach will only work, however, if the newspaper does actual reporting. Local coverage is not simply printing press releases sent in by new restaurants that are opening. It isn’t just “galleries” of local homes and their decor. It certainly isn’t the same links to stories about the Super Bowl and how to lose weight that appear on the newspaper’s website for a week.

Earlier this year, I discontinued subscribing to the Star. After 50 years. What would make me change that decision, and re-subscribe, would be genuine local coverage: school board meetings. Library board decisions. Real, in-depth coverage of the Mayor and City Council.

During the last year, the Ballard Administration and its partisans on the City-County Council engaged in deal-making that may or may not have been improper. The Star hasn’t covered most of it. Even when they have, the coverage has been superficial–“he said, she said, I guess that’s all, folks.” The IBJ recently reported that the city was building a parking garage in Broad Ripple, paying for its construction with our tax dollars and then handing it over to a developer who formerly worked for the Mayor. The developer will be entitled to all the profits. I’d like to know how the administration justifies this transaction, but I saw no reporting about it at all in the Star. (Maybe I missed it, but if so, it certainly wasn’t highlighted.)

I saw little detail about the fifty-year parking meter deal–certainly not the analysis provided by local blogger Paul Ogden or regional urban expert the Urbanophile.  Even when the paper did report on the Litebox fiasco, there was little reporting on the process that led the city to ignore huge red flags and hype an obvious con man.

These are just the deals we know about; in the absence of real reporting, how much more do we know nothing about?

The bottom line is that concentrating on local coverage can indeed save local news media–but it can’t save them the bother or expense of hiring and training real reporters. Giving us genuine news we can use to evaluate local institutions and politicians requires investigative reporting by trained journalists.

Going back to the days when small-town newspapers printed the school cafeteria menus won’t cut it.


  1. As someone who still receives the Star, I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to read the incredibly superficial “reporting” on major transactions involving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, where the coverage truly begins with the assumption that this is a good deal and then presents as “analysis” press-release-type material from the Mayor. We see the same thing on coverage of “budget” issue… if the numbers at the bottom of the spreadsheet show “balance,” it must be balanced — no analysis of “how” it was balanced and whether other budgetary stink bombs await us in the future. I honestly don’t know if it is an issue of the reporters lacking sophistication or simply being stretched too thin, but it ends up being a mega-phone for office-holders, rather than a “check” on potential abuse of power. While I agree that the Star still hasn’t focused on the process and poor decisionmaking that led the Mayor and Governor to tout the LITEBOX con man, it did at least ultimately dig into those details.

  2. I am guessing the newspapers don’t push too hard for this information because they don’t want to have to report it, and endanger their govt. relations.

    We all know that newspapers are struggling financially right now, but one of the biggest moneymakers for newspapers are the legal notices required by various state laws. These notices could be performed much more effectively by creating a free local website (say These notices could be searchable by name, location, etc and would be a vast improvement from what we currently have (and much cheaper, too). The expense reduction for the county and city governments would greatly improve their financial status, (not to mention estates and others required to post legal notice.

    The only reason I can think of that the requirement for publication of notice in the newspaper hasn’t been already removed is because of the goodwill newspapers have. Imagine what happens if the newspapers start trying to expose public oficials? That goodwill goes away, leaving the newspapers exposed.

  3. I’m giving thanks for trustworthy folks like Sheila Kennedy who does the kind of in-depth reporting and analysis the STAR and other local media SHOULD be doing.

  4. Ha! I finally had a chance to read this. Funny that it echos what I said to Matt last night. I love my Sunday mornings with my cup of coffee and the Sunday Star. Matt’s investigative reporting and local coverage are what keep me feeling like I live in a fantastic community with people who genuinely care and want to make this city the best place possbile. If I want to get riled up I watch Olbermann. If I want depth and insight I look to the newspaper to provide the facts and details that are too frequently left out by pundits who live and breath sensationalism.

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