A Tale of Newspapers Past

It has become a commonplace for those of us who live in Indianapolis to complain about the lack of substance in the Star. I was recently rude enough–and it was rude and I shouldn’t have said it–to complain to Matt Tully about the lack of coverage of city hall. His defense was that the paper had covered the Litebox and Duke Energy scandals. True–but what about the multiple issues that haven’t been covered (or uncovered). After all, when a major daily paper has exactly four investigative reporters, there’s a limit to what they can do.

As I often (too often??) remind people, when I was in city hall, there were three full-time reporters and a couple of stringers covering city government. The Hudnut Administration would never have gotten the “pass” that Ballard (and Peterson) have. When I edited a book about the Goldsmith Administration, contributors got most of their information from contemporaneous newspaper accounts.

I thought about this again this morning, because our daughter Kelly told me she’d been going through some memorabilia–old newspapers she’d kept as reminders of important events–and was shocked by the difference between those old issues and the current, pale imitation that Gannett puts out. Not only was the paper physically larger, it was packed with information about city and county government, news of the state and nation.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As Kelly pointed out, it isn’t so bad with respect to national news, because we can access the New York Times and many other sources of national news online. But there is no local substitute for credible, fact-checked reporting. We have some thoughtful local bloggers who bring issues to our attention, but they aren’t reporters, and don’t pretend to be. So there’s a lot going on in our city that we don’t know about; there are details about the things we do know that would change our opinion of them (cases in point: the Broad Ripple garage evident boondoggle, the parking meter giveaway). Mentioning something is not the same as reporting on it. Reprinting or rephrasing a press release isn’t reporting.

I’m glad the Star reported on the Litebox fiasco and Duke Energy’s ethical lapses. But patting the paper on the back for two good stories is like giving your teenager a pass for five F’s because he got one A.


  1. Figuring out the revenue model to get reporters paid has got to happen, somehow. People paid for that kind of in depth news coverage in the past, and we’d pay for it again if they can figure out how to package and market it.

    At this point the general public’s love affair with “user generated content” (crude partisan screaming) is well over; it’s time for the Gannett to stop believing that’s an actual source of news as well.

  2. Never thought I would say it but I have more than once. “I miss the Pulliams”. Serious local reporting. Pulitzer prizes and reporters who had more than two weeks experience. And they could write. Did you try to read Erika Smith’s commentary on the program at Franklin College? A bunch of soundbites strung together with no backup information.

    Gannett’s revenue model has nothing to do with readers, it is only based on ad inches. The writing is just filler between revenue. Buy our paper for the coupons, any news we might actually include is a bonus.

  3. Sheila, you said “Mentioning something is not the same as reporting on it. Reprinting or rephrasing a press release isn’t reporting.”

    Do you think that some of this may originate from the staunch criticism of partisanism in the media? (The Indianapolis Star does not really have a big competition in the greater Indy area; I do not think taking a side would hurt their readership. But I do think that might be a partial explanation for the actions of the Star.)

    I do agree that what passes for news in ‘local’ media outlets, not just in Indianapolis, can be considered uninformative and even laughable at times.

  4. There’s a speech on the Internet from a journalist who gave an overview on the topic. I believe he was speaking in D.C. and had worked in Baltimore.

    The economics that brought the demise of competitive manufacturing also make it tough to pay journalists. Former privately owned newspapers are now largely public, and beholden to pleasing stockholders instead of upholding journalistic standards. There are environmental pressures and associated pricing for newsprint editions, the decline in the competitiveness of our educational system and associated dearth of an emphasis on civics (well and deservedly haranged by our hostess), and maybe most of all the technological evolution of electronic information distribution.

    If my eldest daughter is looked upon as quaint because she listens to music on a portable CD player instead of an iPod or MP3 player, I can imagine how backward she would appear to be reading about local politics in a newspaper.

    The scariest notion to me is even if we bulk adapt to “reading the paper” on computer or Kindle, or even if mainstream media were to suddenly reacquired the former ethic of covering and reporting both sides of important stories, how many people are left that care to be informed?

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