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?


  1. To answer your first question :: this is where political parties need to reactivate themselves. The civil service reforms (can you say ‘license branch’ changes?) pretty well did away with them, but now journalism has passed, they need to get busy. It costs money, for sure, but they can surely raise it somehow — can’t they?

  2. The focus on profits has killed the news media. It’s all about advertising revenues at the expense of information, debate and discussion. Accountants are in charge of the news rooms.

  3. Sheila; did your student research uncover that we had both the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News in 1991 and ignore the News data, both newspapers were locally owned and operated by Eugene Pulliam? Is it of importance that Steve Goldsmith was running for Mayor (yes, I know, you are sick of my mentioning that name) and was married to Margaret Pulliam, granddaughter of Eugene Pulliam? Was any comparison made between Goldsmith and his opposition’s amount of publicity?

    During this November local election, the Indianapolis News is long gone and the Indianapolis Star is owned and operated by Gannett. Section One each day is a slim edition with rare in-depth reporting about anything local…including local elections, and we must depend on the sample edition of USA Today (also owned by Gannett) for their Reader’s Digest version of national and world news.

    “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?”

    To answer your first question; we must spend time researching Google, FactCheck, Wikipedia, actual government sites, what personal and business histories are available, et al, we can find on those sites and others…then hope it is credible, verifiable information and search further. In other words; we are to do the research for facts which journalists used to do as being their job.

    In case no one has noticed…we are no longer supposed to have accountable local government or we wouldn’t still be wallowing in the RFRA manure pile created by Pence. They use diversionary tactics and slip questionable issues, laws, bills and ordinances past our noses and we are sometimes notified after the fact.

    The Covanta Plant is a prime example, providing little detail as to the possibility of the operation actually working and who is getting rich from this deal, the contract slipped through the system sans an appropriate application of the Waste Disposal Statute. The Land Bank is on the front page of the Star again today with worsening conditions regarding their procedures – or lack of procedures – resulting in an escalating number of abandoned houses and buildings creating deterioration of entire neighborhoods overtaken by criminal activity. They are occasionally mentioned to placate those of us who remember the issues. The in-depth study ordered by Mayor Hudnut in May 1991 and ending in an all day conference in August 1991, contained much valuable information which was discarded when Goldsmith moved into the Mayor’s Office in January 1992.

    Your student submitted an interesting and informative report regarding the two election years but it was incomplete. The Indianapolis News was a viable source of information in 1991. No answers to old problems and we find ourselves today asking new questions about the same old problems that plague this city plus new issues we couldn’t even imagine in 1991.

    To the rear, march!

  4. JoAnn,

    Terrific point. I’m now reminded of the fact that Annette Strauss was elected Mayor of Dallas in the early 90’s with the help of her son-in-law who was the Editor of the Dallas Morning News.

    It was suicidal to fight her before or after she was elected. Between the two of them they were in complete control. I’m lucky I got out of there alive.

  5. Great points JoAnn!

    Steve Smith – I agree that political parties need to reactivate themselves. However, most of us don’t have the money or the time to truly get involved. We are too busy just trying to survive. Thus, the wealthy and powerful business interests have taken control of our politics and our country and then continue to rake in even more money and power through their manipulation of the masses via the media outlets.

  6. Let’s go back to the Paine-Dickens-Marx-Lincoln era of pamphleteering. To the argument that we should not do so for lack of editorial control, I note that editorial control is lacking in the mainstream press in any event, as in electronic media (see Fox “News”), or that editorial control is itself controlled from on high to glamorize a particular point of view (see Wall Street Journal). Perhaps pamphlets distributed door to door and on street kiosks could explain, for instance, just what it might mean to elect a Republican candidate to the presidency (think Cruz or Paul or some other Ayn Rand advocate) so that he or she could appoint lawyers from Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase to the Supreme Court, thus assuring even earlier total corporate control of America than expected (unless we are totally controlled by corporations already and I haven’t recognized it through their maze of propaganda in re Adam Smith, “free markets,” competitive pricing and other such mythology designed to mislead).

    We have a lot more things to worry about than the Donald’s follicles or Carly’s facials, like how do we as homo saps (as my old IU World Politics professor insisted on calling us) survive in an atomic age, psychotic leadership around the globe, poisoned soil, water and air? Even minimum wage adjustments and a return of unions as a countervailing force to corporate power won’t solve such problems, though essential to preserve the interim peace on our road to wherever we are going.

    We need a dose of the spirit which moved the politically energetic Thomas Paine to write his celebrated pamphlet, “Common Sense,” a quality which (parenthetically) seems to be in short supply as of late in an era of making up one’s facts, or worse, self-entitlement to an opinion on facts. I, for instance, believe that the law of gravity works irrespective of one’s opinion as to whether it does or not (contra: per Sarah and Rush, both eminent climatologists, global warming does not exist and facts proving the contrary are flawed or faked).

    We have had Nobel Prizes awarded to economists lately that deal with “asymmetry of information” between buyer and seller. I think that concept of asymmetry of information and/or how it is massaged to obtain a specific result among the unwary has application here.
    If print and electronic media and the internet don’t and won’t tell the unvarnished truth to Americana, then perhaps it’s time to deliver pamphleteering to the masses on their doorsteps, sidewalk and transportation terminal kiosks, under windshield wipers in commercial parking areas etc. There has to be some means of breaking the corporate grip and slant on both the news and public issues of the day. If readers have any better ideas, I am open to suggestion as a pragmatist. Whatever works. We, the ruthlessly propagandized, need help.

  7. Here’s another perspective. We were offered another option. The Internet. It was free as it offered several unique opportunities for advertisers. Enough of us took advantage of it that newspapers became poor businesses.

    They will go out of business the only question is when.

    So the big we created this and will have to live with our creation. Can we?

    Well it requires more critical thinking on our part. We are slowly learning how.

    But, take Sheila’s blog as an example. Pretty useful in my opinion. More so than current newspapers. And most of her thoughts are supported by what she gets from the Internet.

    Are there enough Sheila’s? There never has been regardless of the media era.

    What we’re short of is rapid enough adaptation.

  8. The local radio is much the same. As a Baby Boomer I grew up in the Chicago area. We had a plethora of stations the big ones like 50,000 watt WGN, WLS, etc. Then we had a whole group of smaller ones all were unique. It was like a smorgasbord, different music classical, gospel, rock n roll and Mo-Town. The news was skewed to reporting on local issues. The Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times dominated the print but there was also the smaller local papers that filled in with local neighborhood news. It went beyond quantity, it was also quality. The Reporters in the Chicago area regularly challenged Daley the Elder.

    When I moved here to Indianapolis in late 1975 I was struck by the tameness of the Media compared to Chicago as it related to politics. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the coagulation and conglomeration of the Media was given a free reign.

    Howard Zinn in his book, A People’s History of the United States, commented – the Telecommunications Act of 1996…enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information…The Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano commented…”Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.” You recall Howard Zinn’s book was the one Mitch Daniels did not want read by young Hoosiers. Then Governor Daniels wrote to the state’s top education officials: “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history.”

    I would add also it is not how many articles the Star wrote comparing 1991 to 2015, it is quality. The Star in IMHO is now serves the same purpose Pravda did in the Soviet Union. You will not find any articles in the Star on the rampant Crony-Capitalism and Corporate Welfare.

  9. Great info.
    Here in my village in Europe, they had a local election in October and had a FREE newspaper sent to all the homes with information about each candidate, their party and their policy positions. We get two weekly papers in our mailbox (too bad I don’t know the language yet or I’d read them). This election newspaper was in addition to the other two. I’m sure that the advertising dollars spent on these free newspapers every week covers the cost of delivery and to each and every home, every single week. Why can’t America figure this out? Oh wait, America isn’t a socialist country, right? Or is it that the media here is not owned by 6 companies nationwide like the American media either, right?

  10. Your students have quantified what Indy STAR readers have felt for some time. The STAR and USA Today are both slim on news. I’m old enough to remember the Indianapolis Times. When I was in college and had little money, I still subscribed to the Times and couldn’t wait until it arrived every afternoon. The STAR was never as good after the Times closed shop, but the biggest decline in quantity and quality has come under Gannett.

    Newspapers everywhere are struggling with the 24 hour news cycle on electronic media and the internet, and they particularly struggle to attract young readers. I’d be interested to know if any of your students subscribe to a newspaper anywhere and ‘can’t wait’ to read it.

  11. Not a newspaper, Nancy Papas, but The Nation magazine comes weekly to my home. The oldest news publication in the U.S.; began publishing in 1865, shortly after the Civil War. I also remember the Indianapolis Times and preferred it; Eugene Pullium published right-leaning news and the Times made for good competition. What other city the size of Indianapolis has one daily newspaper to depend on? The November 4-11 issue of Nuvo is packed with local news and interesting articles…much more than the Star. If they provided home delivery, I would subscribe.

  12. Pete,

    “Are there enough Sheila’s? There never has been regardless of the media era.
    What we’re short of is rapid enough adaptation.?

    You’re so right. We lack ADAPTIVE leadership.

    To understand the problem better, I would suggest purchasing “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Press (Boston), 2009.

    The political problems we are facing in the U.S. are not technical, but fundamental. It takes what some call: A “Blue Ocean” organization led by Adaptive leadership to effectively handle the transition.

    Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, N.A.A.C.P. or the Southern Poverty Law Center are locked into the old status quo. None of the three have the ability to ADAPT to the changes in the body politic.

  13. I grew up in Louisville. I remember the Courier Journal and Louisville Times as great newspapers. They took on serious topics and researched them thoroughly and gave their readers that they could understand and use. There was a political cartoonist, Hugh Haynie, that was a master at condensing a topic and providing a reader’s perspective on it – not necessarily his own. In those days the CJ and Times won Pulitzers; they were reporters and journalists. The Times closed (I guess for budgetary reasons) and now Gannett owns CJ and it is on the same trajectory as the Star, slow death.

  14. @daleb,

    Fear not that the Louisville Courier-Journal is an ugly step-sister to real journalism. I abandoned the Courier-Journal several years ago as my go-to print journalism home and have adopted the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting as my go-to website for the ‘real’ news from Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern Ohio.

  15. Louie – Thanks for putting in writing my reasons for dumping my subscription to the Indianapolis Star fifteen years ago. Another reason is having to drag the trash out to the curb each week.
    Then the glut of tele-sales calls with lame incentives to take the Star, if not daily, at least Thursdays through Sundays.
    No, I would not help to make the Star palatable to weekend corporate advertisers.
    Is Gannett being subsidized to keep the presses rolling?
    Trees are being chopped down to produce this pulp fiction.

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