Tag Archives: local news

Good News About News

For the past several years, I have shared my growing concerns about America’s information landscape. One of those concerns revolves around the fragmentation–and increasing partisanship–of national coverage, a process that has contributed to our polarization and corresponding retreat into those often-impenetrable “bubbles.”

The “Fox-ification” of national media sources has been widely covered. But there’s been another less recognized and very unfortunate effect of today’s still-robust (albeit often less credible) national news coverage: thanks to the collapse of local news, Americans have been living in a nationalized  information environment.

I’m not going to repeat the gloomy statistics about local news “deserts.” We’ve all seen them–and worse, experienced them. Thousands of local newspapers have simply disappeared, and others–owned by large, profit-hungry corporations like Gannett–richly deserve the appellation of “ghost newspapers.”

The lack of local coverage has had very negative consequences. It rather obviously facilitates political and governmental corruption–after all, if no one is looking…But the negative consequences go far beyond the shenanigans of local and state poo-bahs. The lack of a common source of information erodes the bonds of community, the sense that those of us who occupy a particular geographic subdivision have both common concerns and sources of pride–that we are “in it” together.

Which is why I have been so gratified to see several new entrants into our local news desert, and why I was absolutely thrilled when I heard, at a recent gathering, that yet another is on the horizon.

As the Statehouse File  (a Franklin College product) reported:

Local news coverage is beginning to thrive in Indiana with several online news organizations taking root and a new newsroom to be opened by the end of the year.

VOX Indy and Chalkbeat Indiana hosted a panel Tuesday in Indianapolis that highlighted these changes in Indiana’s news market while discussing the future of local news.

The panel discussed nonprofit outlets emerging in Indiana and what this emergence portends for media consumers. As panelist Karen Fusion put it,

“I believe, and national research shows, that journalists and local news help connect people to their communities and help support our democracy,” said Fuson. “With such a significant decline in journalists, I believe information that we all need to live our day to day lives is not being provided to us. And so that, in my mind, is a crisis impacting our democracy.”

I am particularly enthusiastic about the planned Local News Initiative and the promise–noted by all the panelists–of collaboration among these recent and planned media outlets. The Local News Initiative (which will probably launch under a different name)  plans to go live later this year. It’s a new nonprofit–it was formed by a coalition of locally based organizations working with the American Journalism Project, and its mission is to provide residents with accessible local news that reflects the community’s needs. Indiana organizations and philanthropies raised $10 million to create it.

The need for the Initiative was shown in a comprehensive study done by the American Journalism Project. The study found that ‘more than 1,000 Hoosiers across 79 counties said they needed more unbiased, fact based information about their communities’ according to the Indiana Local News Initiative site.

The goal of the American Journalism Project is to fill gaps in local news by launching nonprofit organizations, facilitating investments in partner news organizations and fostering collaboration between local news outlets.

Fuson said the Indiana Local News Initiative is committed to making communities feel heard. This means implementing the feedback Hoosiers give by creating a news room that represents the population, having reporters out in the community on a regular basis and including residents wherever possible.

The commitment of the philanthropic community evidences a (somewhat belated) recognition of the absolutely vital role that local news plays in the building of healthy communities. The emphasis on collaboration between outlets (including the IndyStar, WISH-TV, WFYI, the Recorder, Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism, Chalkbeat Indiana, Hoosier State Press Association, The Indiana Citizen and several others) is especially important, because building genuine community requires people who are occupying the same reality–and that requires swimming in the same information pool.

My inner Pollyanna (yes, I do have one!) came away from that presentation looking at the bright side of the wrenching changes that have doomed so many local “legacy” news organizations. These new media providers don’t need to buy paper or enormously expensive printing presses, don’t have distribution costs, and apparently won’t require advertising dollars to support their newsrooms. They can focus their resources on reporting.

Maybe flowers will bloom in the desert after all….


Fantastic News

One of the recurring themes of this daily blog (okay, perhaps “recurring rants” would be more accurate) has been my insistence on the importance of local journalism. When a community loses a credible source of local news, it experiences a number of very negative consequences–the most obvious of which is a loss of democracy, thanks to the lack of information needed to cast informed votes.

I thought about that when a reader of this blog sent me a report that began with the following introductory paragraph:

The Houston Chronicle is shining a bright light on some of the shadiest real estate dealsthat enrich charter school operators. What could be better than to get a charter, buy property, rent it to the charter at rates of their choosing, get the property made tax-exempt, and make a bundle using taxpayer dollars? In some charter schools, the superintendent owns the properties and pays himself rent.

Here in Indianapolis, local television stations have repeatedly been running an ad asserting the “unfairness” of charter school funding that is lower than that of public schools, and our legislative overlords are currently working hard to send more of our tax dollars to voucher and charter schools–schools that even Republican legislators admit lack accountability.

Misbehaviors like those the Houston newspaper uncovered are unlikely to be uncovered by our local “ghost newspaper,” the Indianapolis Star. Never a particularly good newspaper, Gannett has turned it into a pathetic shadow of even its undistinguished past.

Little by little, however, new efforts to improve local coverage have been emerging. I have begun quoting from the Indiana Capital Chronicle, which focuses primarily on the disaster that is our legislature, and I have pointed to outlets covering other matters of local concern. But the IBJ has now reported what I consider fantastic news. ( behind a paywall)

The Indiana Local News Initiative announced its launch Wednesday as a not-for-profit media organization planning to create newsrooms in Indianapolis and Gary.

With more than $10 million raised and the participation of civic leaders such as Penske Entertainment Corp. CEO Mark Miles and Women’s Fund of Central Indiana President Tamara Winfrey-Harris, the Indiana Local News Initiative said it intends to report nonpartisan information at no cost to its audience.

“This is public service journalism,” said Karen Ferguson Fuson, former publisher of The Indianapolis Star, who is serving as board chair of the new organization. “It’s ‘What do I need to engage in citizenship and democracy?’ ‘What do I need to live on a day-to-day basis?’”

The project started with a concern about protecting democracy.  The steering committee began with the premise that a free press is critical to a free democracy, and research has confirmed Indiana’s “big gap” in coverage of local,” boots-on-the-ground community journalism.”

In addition to the 25 staff members to be hired for the Indianapolis newsroom, the  Initiative will include funding for two new positions at The Indianapolis Recorder.

The Initiative will collaborate with existing media companies; its  roster includes The Indianapolis Star, WISH-TV, WFYI Public Media and the Recorder. IBJ has not signed on as a partner.

While Indy is among a shrinking number of markets that still has multiple news outlets with talented journalists, the sizes of many of these outlets are a fraction of what they were before, and a fraction of the size necessary to cover all of the things central Indiana residents say they want,” Ferguson Fuson said.

The Lumina Foundation, one of the Indiana Local News Initiative’s partners, is providing support to TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website authored by Franklin College journalism students, to make its content available for free to members of the Hoosier State Press Association. The website previously required newsrooms to pay a fee.

Funders include the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Herbert Simon Family Foundation, Myrta Pulliam, Lumina Foundation, John Mutz, Michael Arnolt, the Robert R. and Gayle T. Meyer Family Fund, Gene D’Adamo, Joyce Foundation, the Indianapolis Foundation and the American Journalism Project.

The Indiana Local News Initiative plans to train and pay residents, known as “Indianapolis Documenters,” to attend public meetings and publish the results. The Documenters Network, overseen by not-for-profit media organization City Bureau, presently operates in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and Cleveland….

The Indiana Local News Initiative is the latest media startup in Indianapolis, where not-for-profit The Capital Chronicle debuted last July and State Affairs Indiana debuted in December. Last August, digital media company Axios announced plans to launch a daily email newsletter in Indianapolis.

These efforts to combat our news desert are incredibly heartening. When people receive credible, trustworthy news and inhabit the same information environment, they not only become informed voters–they once again become members of the same community.

I’m a happy camper!


The Death Of Local News

A recent story in the Statehouse File began with an all-too-familiar report.

Two years ago, Indiana had 70 daily newspapers. Now there are fewer than 50, and over the last year, 13 paid circulation newspapers in the state closed their doors.

The story relayed the personal experience of editors and others at the papers that closed, and went on enumerate the consequences for local communities that have lost their newspapers–either entirely, or by “ghosting” in the wake of acquisitions by companies like Gannett (now part of the even more rapacious Gatehouse).

Citizens who have lost what we used to call “watchdog journalism” are significantly disadvantaged by not knowing what is going on in their communities. Studies show losses in community cohesion, voter turnout and civic participation. Taxpayers take a hit, too– a recent study, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” showed that newspaper closures were followed by higher costs of issuing bonds. (Presumably, bond purchasers anticipate a higher degree of risk when no one is watching the store.)

It isn’t just Indiana. The Guardian recently considered the threat to journalism’s future posed by the degree to which hedge funds are snapping up distressed properties.

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, few businesses may emerge so transformed as local and regional newspapers.

More than 70 local newsrooms have closed over the past 15 months, with hundreds of media jobs lost, as the already difficult financial conditions in the industry intensified during the crisis. By some estimates, a staggering 2,100 local newspapers, or one in four, have closed in the US since 2005.

But into the carnage a new breed of owner has emerged: one that has industry veterans and media observers deeply worried about the future of journalism in America and its ability to act as part of a functioning democracy.

According to a recent analysis, hedge funds or private equity firms now control half of US daily newspapers, including some of the largest newspaper groups in the country: Tribune, McClatchy and MediaNews Group.

Needless to say, these hedge funds have zero commitment to journalism. Their entire focus is on the bottom line and the return on their investments. Groups like Alden Capital have earned a reputation for ruthlessness by dramatically cutting editorial staff and selling off assets to boost profits.

As the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review has noted,

The debate we need to have is do we value these newspapers as an investment like a car dealership or a pawn shop, or do they have a different function in the community? I argue that they do, and they’re important to the way we function every day, but local communities need to buy into that idea.

If professional, verifiable news gathering is lost, a significant percentage of the American public will be left to the not-so-tender-mercies of the Breitbarts and their leftwing analogs.  Aside from bias, these outlets add to the increasing nationalization of news and politics–they aren’t replacing the local newspapers we’ve lost.

It will be interesting to see what happens in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the  New York Times reports that– following the “ghosting” of the Standard Times, the local paper, employees decided to create an alternative. They created a digital paper, The New Bedford Light.

The Light, which has no print edition, is free to readers. It does not accept advertising, relying on donations, grants and sponsorships from local businesses. It plans deep community involvement, including media literacy workshops for residents who might become contributors.

It is largely following a playbook for digital nonprofit news sites prepared by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a group that guides start-ups and emphasizes editorial independence and financial transparency.

According to the Times, similar nonprofit news sites are appearing across the country. There are hundreds now online, and more than 50 have gone up in the last two years.

None, to the best of my knowledge, have emerged in Indiana.

For those of us who are determined to figure out what’s going on in our city and state, there are  reliable, specialized sources we can consult. What we don’t have, however, is a “one-stop” source that doesn’t just give us the news we are looking for, but the answers to  questions it wouldn’t occur to us to ask–and an explanation of why we should care.

What we also don’t have are substantial numbers of citizens who read the same headlines and stories, and as a result, occupy the same reality.

As we are seeing with the Big Lie, it’s one thing to argue about what a particular fact means; it’s another matter altogether to argue about a “fact” you’ve invented. The first argument strengthens democracy; the second one justifies democracy’s abandonment.




The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.