News as a Public Good

I know I harp a lot on the deficiencies of contemporary media. That’s because I worry a lot about the consequences of those deficiencies.

I was reminded of the importance of good journalism the other day, during a discussion in my Media and Public Policy class. The reading assignment was an article by Paul Starr, a highly respected scholar, titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption).” Starr began by describing news as a “public good,” noting that newspapers have “been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm system,” and–in response to those who point to the internet as a sufficient replacement–pointed out that a significant proportion of actual news found on the internet originates with and is aggregated from newspaper reporting.

Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it is subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny.

Starr worries that more and more of American life will “occur in the shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”

That last sentence really struck home–in more ways than one. Not only is it true generally, it is especially true that we don’t know what we don’t know about local and state government.

When I was in City Hall, in the late 1970s, there were four full-time reporters covering Indianapolis government–and they had all been there long enough to acquire what we call institutional memory. They knew what questions to ask, and who was responsible for what. Today, the Star has two opinion columnists who write about local governance issues, augmented by occasional reports by actual reporters. If any reporter has an exclusive city “beat,” it isn’t apparent from the coverage.

My class considered a number of City initiatives that received far too little attention, from the  50 year Parking Meter contract, to the Broad Ripple Garage financing, to the “recycling” contract with Covanta.  These projects were reported, but without the detail and context that would have permitted citizens to understand and evaluate them.

The same superficiality characterizes coverage of the Governor’s office. Reporting on the Governor’s decision not to apply for an 80 million dollar grant to support preschools was a perfect example: supporters of that decision claimed–among other things– that “the research” shows preschool interventions aren’t valuable; critics countered that this was a deliberate mischaracterization. If reporters investigated the research to see who was telling the truth, I missed it.

As far as reporting on the Statehouse, we finally did learn about Eric Turner–but only after his behavior was so egregious it couldn’t be ignored. More circumspect misconduct goes unreported.

And of course, we don’t know what we don’t know.

We don’t need paper newspapers, but we desperately need journalism.


  1. I spent 13 years as a broadcast news Journalist. I bailed in 1983 when I saw the collapse of real Journalism coming fast, and I wasn’t going to be a part of a major social problem. With the demise of the “Fairness Doctrine” and equal time provision in FCC rules, broadcast news is essentially worthless. It’s all about a station making money and to hell with the public good.

    This is what we’ve degenerated to.

  2. As usual, Sheila has used her highly developed and professional journalism skills to clearly outline the problem that we have. The problem being the shortage of highly developed and professional journalists. She does it in service of democracy and patriotism, but we need the return of more highly developed and professional journalists, those who used to do it for money, full time. The reason that they went away is that modern capitalists insist the more of the revenue generated is owed to those who own the means, and less to those who labor to produce the products that generate the revenue. Of course that lowers the value of the product and, at the end of the day, consumers walk away from it.

    The Internet steps in as a partial solution in that it allows people like Sheila to build and distribute the product with few means, but people laboring out of civic responsibility are limited compared to those who get paid to do it full time. The editor function is all but eliminated.

    That’s the problem. How are we going to solve it?

    Many are struggling with that now. There are models on the Internet of attempts to blend commercial with professional and responsible but my sense is that no viable general model has yet emerged. Yet being the operative word.

    In my opinion a competitor for that is and has been Google. But they bring good and bad and most of the good has come from the two founders. Some day they’ll join Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Tom Steyer as patrons of humanity and be replaced by those who love commercial but hate professional.

    So, we struggle. We’ve torn down what worked in the past before even designing, much less building, the future.

    Are we stupid or what?

  3. At least part of the solution is the recognition by individuals and society that there’s no such thing as free journalism. You can have one or the other but not both.

  4. I have been a history buff for many years. I discovered in the College back in the early 1970’s a huge library of Micro-Fiche. The Micro-Fiche included the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, London Times and New York Times among others. I found it fascinating to go back in time to say the day before Pearl Harbor and see what was being reported. The Sports page might have included a near blow by blow description of one of Joe Louis fights. The articles in the papers were huge and very well written. Newspapers were where the details were on the news events. This not to say the newspapers did not have a bias.

    I dropped my subscription to The Star when they decided a story on exorcism deserved to be on the front page. The Star has been cut and paste, press release journalism for decades masking itself as news. You will not read an article in The Star critical of the Crony-Capitalism running rampant in Indianapolis.

    Harrison Ullman was a true giant and a role model for real Journalism. He correctly labeled the Political System in Indiana as Bayh-Smith (Evan Bayh and Steve Goldsmith). The passing of Ullman left a huge hole in journalism. Nuvo once a powerful voice exposing the establishment is no more. I suspected something was changing at Nuvo when they dropped the political cartoon Tom Tomorrow.

    Rep. Eric Turner’s back door deal as you say did come to light. Hard to believe not a single reporter from the Star or TV Media did not know of Turner’s behind closed door dealings only after the barn door was closed. The Media never pressured Bosma the Republican Leader of the House to explain why he was so clueless about Turner’s Scheme.

  5. Speaking of TV News…. For years now much of the TV News has been under the control of the entertainment divisions. Infotainment. They cannot even get the basics right in INdy. I hear reports who are “waiting ON Mr Smith” . That must be very uncomfortable for Mr Smith. Reporters can get heavy. Good grief.

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