And Close To Home…

A reader recently sent me a story from the Brownsburg Sentinel that illustrates the importance of local media–and at the same time, suggests its limitations in an age where so many of us have lost the very concept of  community and citizenship . Evidently, Americans are fixated on national news and/or America’s vicious culture wars, or–in the alternative–are unconcerned about their local governments, or are amusing themselves on social media…

The Sentinel covered two consecutive meetings of the Brownsburg Town Council, the second of which included the Council’s dissolution of the Brownsburg Park Board–a board that had served the residents of Brownsburg since 1959.

Prior to the first of those two meetings, the Council had published an agenda including the dissolution item; the day before the meeting, it eliminated that item from the agenda.

Town Council President Travis Tschaenn also refused questions from a resident on the ownership and modification of the council agenda. He had the resident escorted away from lectern and temporarily removed from the venue by a Brownsburg Police officer.

According to the Sentinel, the Parks board was informed of the impending dissolution late on the Friday prior to the Council meeting. The Sentinel also reported that approximately $368,000 in grant funding, intended for the construction of a local Park, would be jeopardized should the park board be dissolved.

The newspaper also reported on a lack of any evidence that Travis Tschaenn or anyone on the Council had conducted an investigation into the short and long term financial impact of such a dissolution, and that Tschaenn has refused to respond to multiple inquires  or to otherwise explain his conduct in this matter.

In the second of the two Council meetings, with virtually no discussion or fanfare, the Brownsburg Parks Board was dissolved.

Because the story at the link was formatted differently than most online newspapers (it included a number of videos posted to You Tube), I was curious to learn more about the Sentinel. An email exchange with the editor/publisher led to a lunch and fascinating conversation.

It turns out that the Sentinel began publication a couple of years after another local newspaper was discontinued (the publisher of that weekly newspaper died.) It is essentially the “hobby” of its current editor/publisher, David Weyant, and reaches several thousand of the some 50,000 residents in and around Brownsburg.

Weyant said he could only speculate about the motivation for eliminating the local Parks Board.  (The “official” reason–too much unnecessary bureaucracy–didn’t pass the smell test.) An Indianapolis development company is said to have its eye on a well-located parcel currently being used as a park…but there is no confirmatory evidence of that theory.

What isn’t speculative was the lack of public participation in the process, despite the coverage provided by the Sentinel.

Weyant told me that some ten years ago, during a fight over proposed annexation, hundreds of local residents had appeared and participated at public hearings. By the time the Council turned its attention to the Parks Board, most members of the community had stopped showing interest in the only ways that matter–appearing and speaking at public meetings and/or communicating directly with the officials entitled to vote on an issue.

Only three members of the public appeared at the Council meeting at which the Parks Board was dissolved.

Weyant shook his head, opining that local residents seemed to think they were exercising their civic responsibilities by venting on social media. Ten years ago,  he noted, social media was barely a thing–just beginning to emerge.

Needless to say, a diatribe delivered on Facebook or WhatsApp is equivalent to spitting in the wind; it certainly doesn’t constitute civic engagement and absent an avalanche of anger  that prompts actual engagement, it is extremely unlikely to change the minds or behaviors of public officials.

I would have expected more government/citizen interaction in a small community where people know each other and are likely to know their elected officials personally, especially because the community does have a local newspaper, however limited its reach.

Obviously, I was wrong–the information conveyed by a local newspaper is necessary, but evidently not sufficient.

It will be interesting–and probably depressing–to see what the Brownsburg City Council does with the land and funding sources it now directly controls without the “hassle” of an intervening source of checks and balances.

If it turns out that local folks don’t like those subsequent actions, maybe they can blame their diminishing exercise of democratic civic engagement on social media.

Bread and circuses…..


What We Need To Know–And HOW We Need To Know It

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a couple of abiding preoccupations. Civic literacy is one, and an allied anxiety is the loss of local journalism.

Please understand: when social scientists and bloggers bewail the death spiral of America’s newspapers, we aren’t talking about physical paper. We are talking about a lack of journalism. If reporters are covering local news adequately, digital delivery doesn’t equate to loss–and the continuing presence of a print edition is not evidence that journalism is occurring.

I’m hardly the only person expressing considerable concern over the emerging consequences of this loss. A friend recently shared with me some preliminary findings from a study of Indiana journalism currently being funded by folks who are equally worried. It’s proprietary, so I can’t share it, but I can share one set of observations that I think sum up what might accurately be called our local news deserts.

The researchers identified six areas of coverage that most people would consider important: crime, governance, economic development, environment and public health, business and education. They then surveyed the local media in order to identify what was currently being covered in each of those areas–and followed up by interviewing a number of residents, people who live in the area served (or not) by that media. In those interviews, they asked people what sorts of information they think they need in each category.

You will not be surprised to learn that there was not a good fit between what people feel they need to know and the information they are actually getting.

In the category of government, for example, the research found “intermittent enterprise coverage” and “sporadic, stenography-style local and county coverage” that is often simply repetitive of public announcements. The announcements themselves received little scrutiny, and even that occurred only in certain areas. They found that statehouse coverage was “fragmented” and “not well distributed.” (My own description would have been considerably more critical…)

When they asked people to identify information that would make them more informed voters and citizens–they evidently got an earful. People wanted “more accessible, relevant explanations” of what is going on in all levels of governance; reporting, for example, on the planning processes that determine how millions of dollars of federal assistance will be applied, as well as much more information about government budgeting in general. And not surprisingly, people wanted more investigative reporting that would uncover and highlight corruption.

Across all of the categories, the research found a lack of context, and a lack of explanatory material connecting the dots between decisions made and the probable or demonstrated effects of those decisions on individuals and communities. Words like “unscrutinized” and phrases like “no follow-up” were frequent in the description of current coverage.

There is a lot to criticize about the media environment in which we find ourselves. Right now, Americans have access to a large number of sources covering national governance and politics. Several of those sources are solid and informative–others are closer to propaganda outlets–but adequate, even insightful news coverage of government at the federal level is available. The hole–the empty space–is local, and the research tells us that the consequences of that vacuum are both negative and serious.

A recent article from Governing detailed some of those consequences.

Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs and increased pollution.

“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive and current director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland, in response to the most recent Plain Dealer layoffs. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”

To which I would add my recurring concern that, in the absence of a common, widely-read source of local news, it is all too easy for neighbors to occupy wildly different realities–to live in what are effectively different communities.

One out of five Americans currently lives in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local media coverage, and that doesn’t even count the many areas with “ghost” newspapers like the Indianapolis Star.

We desperately need a rebirth of local journalism, so I am rooting for the success of the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital upstart launched by a Baltimore businessman, that will be dedicated to local coverage of the city. He must agree with me about the importance of local news–he has committed $50 million of his own fortune to the enterprise.

Lots of us will be watching. With bated breath.


Can We Grow Up?

I wrote my most recent IBJ column the weekend before the election, not knowing the results, or the sorts of national policies likely to be pursued over the next four years. I addressed the looming crises of state and local government funding.

Having relied upon the polling, I was significantly more optimistic than I have been since. But even assuming the restoration of more traditional and far less corrupt approaches to governance, the victors—at all levels–will be constrained by the prevailing, dishonest political culture.

At the state level, there’s quite a bit of variance in those cultures; nationally, and no matter which party has been in charge, it has been characterized by an immature focus on immediate gratification. Members of Congress have been fixated on policies that will be perceived as positive by their bases in the “here and now”—policies that will benefit them personally when the next election rolls around. When Republicans are in control, we can see the result in such things as huge subsidies for fossil fuels (despite their environmental impact); and so far, no matter who is in charge, there has been unforgivable neglect of infrastructure (let the next guy worry about the highways, bridges and national electrical grid).

Long term, as the political saying goes, is until the next election.The pandemic presents officials with an urgent challenge to this national disinclination to connect the dots, to recognize that enlightened self-interest must be both informed and defined long-term.

Nowhere is this challenge more dire than in America’s cities and states, where tax revenues are in the toilet.

Local governments depend heavily on sales taxes, but Americans aren’t spending as usual—which means they aren’t generating sales taxes. (Transit authorities are facing similar problems.) Businesses are hurting badly, translating into lower income taxes in jurisdictions that impose them. Dramatically declining income is forcing local governments to curtail vital services, lay off employees and postpone critical infrastructure repairs.

As Ryan Cooper pointed out in a recent article in The Week, the federal government could rescue states, cities and transit authorities with only a small fraction of the money that has been spent on rescuing businesses and individuals so far. That would help the national economy by keeping public employees in their jobs, and by maintaining those “socialist” public services that everyone relies on to some degree. As Cooper says, when local governments have to gut their budgets, potholes proliferate, garbage piles up, water mains break, already inadequate transit becomes worse. When state and city workers are laid off, they become part of the unprecedented burden being placed on our already insufficient social safety nets.

Despite the Child-in-Chief’s sneering disinclination to help “mismanaged blue cities,” the current crisis is a result of the pandemic, not incompetent governance. And as Cooper points out, this crisis isn’t limited to Democratic jurisdictions. Wyoming is evidently facing a budget deficit of a quarter-billion dollars, even after making severe cuts to public services. State governments in general are facing budgetary woes that are worse than at any time since the Great Depression.

If the federal government fails to help, we will see the effects for a generation or more. Three hundred and fifty thousand teachers were laid off in September alone. Bus drivers, sanitation workers, DMV clerks, road repair crews, public health nurses, food safety inspectors and thousands of others are truly essential workers; they make the country function.

Liberal and conservative economists alike confirm that austerity during a depression is the definition of insanity.  Failure to shore up city and state finances, like failure to pass another pandemic relief bill, will be far more costly long-term.

To pursue austerity now would be childish– the epitome of penny wise and pound foolish. But don’t count on Republicans in the Senate to understand that–or to act on it if they do.


Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.


The Nationalization Of Politics

Over at, Dan Hopkins makes one of those observations that seems so obvious once you’ve read it…

Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics. As he notes, the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem  fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?

He attributes much of the change to the transformation of American media markets, and how that transformation has affected voters’ knowledge and participation levels.

According to Hopkins, Americans are increasingly turning away from media outlets that provide state and local coverage, substituting Fox News or MSNBC or other sources providing national coverage for their hometown newspapers and television news reports.

The effects are felt in turnout numbers:

It’s not exactly news that turnout for state and local races is lower than turnout for presidential races. But this pattern’s very familiarity may have obscured just how surprising it is. After all, states and localities take primary responsibility for schools, transportation and criminal justice, three policy areas that can have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives. And if people were motivated to vote primarily by the idea that their vote might decide the outcome, they would be far more likely to cast a ballot in a small local elections, where their odds of being the decisive vote are much higher, than in a national one.

In a federalist system, it is always noteworthy when national politics draw a disproportionate level of attention — and all the more so when the gap between national politics and state and local politics has been growing sharply. That’s exactly what has been happening in the past few decades: Voter turnout for president has remained roughly constant while turnout for state and local races has fallen.

Hopkins is correct in noting that, since 1980, Americans have increasingly turned to national media to learn about politics.  Where I find his analysis wanting, however, is his attribution of that change to a perceived advantage that these national content providers have over what he calls “older, spatially bound media sources.”

I think Hopkins misses a far more compelling explanation: local news has become dramatically less newsworthy, when it has survived at all.

Television news has always been more superficial than newspaper reporting–it also has depended on local newspapers more than most viewers appreciate. And we’ve lost local newspaper journalism.

Not long before the Internet became ubiquitous, major chains like Gannett were busily buying up local newspapers. When Internet competition cut dramatically into the profits generated by those local papers (Craig’s List alone cost them billions annually in classified advertising revenue), those papers became far less profitable. Many were still saddled with the debt incurred when they purchased the local papers, many of which had been bought at a premium justified by pre-Internet profit margins.

Most papers responded as our local newspaper did– by drastically cutting editorial staff.  Today, our daily paper has little to no news content other than sports and entertainment. No one is regularly covering the statehouse or city hall. There are no beat reporters assigned to school board meetings, or city-county council meetings, and on the rare occasion when a reporter is sent to cover some government activity, he or she lacks the background knowledge needed to ask the pertinent questions, or to really understand what is going on.

State and local government has become less visible and accountable because we have no local journalists devoted to making making them visible or holding them accountable. (And speaking of accountability–a recent study conducted by a Notre Dame professor has confirmed a direct correlation between a rise in the cost of local government and the loss of local newspapers.)

We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.