Tag Archives: local newspapers

Journalism One More Time

Timothy Snyder is one of the many pundits who issue Substack letters; I was unfamiliar with him when I came across his letter titled “Life as a Lie.”

The essay is lengthy, and focuses primarily upon the political effects of what we’ve come to call “Big Lies.” It is well worth reading, and pondering just where we are politically in the wake of Trump’s lies, both big and small, but I was particularly struck by his description of one of  the consequences of the current disarray in–and arguably, inadequacies of– contemporary journalism.

The essay was essentially about the social  importance of truth, and as Snyder writes,

…Perhaps most fundamentally, truth needs everyday champions. In every case I have mentioned — Putin’s war in Ukraine beginning in 2014, Trump’s 2016 campaign, Santos’s 2022 campaign — we simply lacked the foreign correspondents or investigative journalists. The only pre-election coverage of Santos’s lies was in a local newspaper, which contradicted his claims to great wealth. No larger medium picked it up in time. If we had more newspapers, and if we had more reporters, this story would likely have developed, and Santos would likely not have been elected.

This is the underlying sadness in the media brouhaha about Santos. Once a few facts were revealed (in a New York Times story on December 19), the television talk shows and social media could unleash a firestorm of indignation. But that was too late. The point of journalism is not to be outraged afterwards, but to prevent outrages from happening. It is not our role as citizens to be angry after an election. It is our role to vote calmly on the basis of what we should know. And we just don’t know what we should.

The problem is not that media are not alert. The problem is that the correct media are ceasing to exist. Talk shows can only talk about what someone else investigates. The internet can repeat, but it cannot report. We speak about the news all day, but pay almost no one to get out and report it. This rewards people who lie as a way of life. Every political career demands investigation at its beginnings, and most American counties lack a daily newspaper. That is where we are, and it has to change.

That last paragraph says it all. 

We are awash in commentary and in “news” sites that simply aggregate reports generated by others. The electronic media–radio and television news–take many of their cues from those same newspaper stories. What we have lost, with the closure of more than 2000 newspapers over the past few years, is the actual investigative coverage that makes commentary and aggregation possible. That loss is especially acute at the local level, but as Snyder writes, it is also visible in the shrinking number of foreign correspondents and overseas bureaus.

My husband and I generally watch the national evening news on NBC, and we used to joke that whenever the anchor introduced a story from another country, we would next see Richard Engel. We concluded that he was the only foreign correspondent NBC had, since he popped up in country after country, and we speculated about the number of frequent flyer miles he must have amassed.

Back in 2015, The Columbia Journalism Review reported that

Between 1998 and 2011, at least 20 US newspapers and other media outlets eliminated all their foreign bureaus, according to American Journalism Review (ajr). Elsewhere, the number and size of those bureaus of have shrunk dramatically.

Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. Today, due to the continued shrinkage in what used to be called the “journalism of verification,” citizens face two confounding problems: much of what we need to know is not being reported, and–thanks to the exponential growth of purveyors of spin, propaganda and conspiracies–we aren’t sure what portion of what we are reading is credible or true.

The uncertainty this breeds is, in my opinion, one of the reasons for our current political tribalism. In the absence of thoughtful, adequate and credible reporting, Americans have chosen to trust the party they consider most likely to be trustworthy (or at least, committed to the same general goals and values they hold).

This may all shake out in the end, as various entities experiment with innovative business models. I certainly hope so.

But in the interim–and we can only hope it is just an interim–local news deserts and inadequate coverage of matters beyond our borders impoverish democratic deliberation and impede sound decision-making.

We can’t have democratic governance without adequate, reliable information.

They’re Inextricably Connected…

Back in August, I came across a poignant, first-person essay in CounterPunch, a site I rarely access. (A reader may have sent it to me.) The essay was from a longtime journalist and professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington who was mourning the demise of Bloomington’s long-time newspaper.

The author, Steven Higgs, wrote that the fall of the Herald-Times newspaper after  61 years had been 30-plus years in the making.

It’s a local story that mirrors the decline of daily newspapers nationwide and, along with it, American democracy. As I’ve long lectured to journalism students and anyone who would listen, it’s no coincidence that our democracy and journalism paralleled each other’s descent into the void, into these desperate times.

You simply can’t have the former without the latter.


When he began his career, his “beat” was county government. That included coverage of meeting of the County Commissioners, County Council, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. He writes that he attended “every meeting from gavel to gavel and writing comprehensive meeting covers on each,” and that the newspaper had reporters who did the same for city government, schools and the state legislature.

Citizens of Bloomington and the surrounding areas were fully informed about what their government entities were proposing and doing. As a result, among other things, aroused citizens

* Killed outright a preposterous, experimental PCB incinerator that was supported by Westinghouse Electric Corp., our Mayor and City Council, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. EPA;

* Transformed a Hoosier National Forest Land Management Plan that would have clearcut 81% of the forest and constructed 100 miles of ORV trails into the most ecologically sensitive forest plan in the nation; and

* Scuttled a plan by greedy local doctors to turn our hospital for profit.

In other words, the paper had been fulfilling the mission of journalism–giving citizens actionable information about their communities, information that allowed them to participate in democratic decision-making.

Then, as he recounts, the mission changed. Journalism was reconceived as purely a consumer product. He quoted the publisher of the Orange County Register saying “the paper no longer called its audience readers. They referred to them as customers.”

Then, of course, came the Internet.  And Craig’s List, the site that decimated the classified ad business nationwide.

It’s not that their concerns weren’t legitimate. But their initial responses were galling. For example, the H-T hired a consultant from the University of Missouri to deprogram the newsroom through a program called New Directions for News.

First, she sat a room full of professional journalists cross-legged on the floor, gave us pads and markers, and told us, “Forget everything you know about journalism.” Then she had us write down answers to questions like: “Ten things teenage girls would like to see on the front page of the newspaper.” “Ten things senior citizens would like to see on the front page.” Ad infinitum.

The decline was inevitable:

At its peak, the H-T had 38 newsroom full-time equivalents (FTEs). In 2019, when the paper sold to GateHouse Media, that number had dropped to 29.

In less than a year, GateHouse merged with Gannett. Three years later, FTEs dropped to about a third of its peak – to about a dozen.

Gatehouse and Gannett were–and are–what I would call “scavengers.” They have stripped newsrooms of knowledgable journalists, sold off real estate and other assets, and displayed zero interest in informing the sort of public debate that nourishes democratic governance. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star, which–absent some scandal or announcement– no longer covers local government, opting instead to focus on sports and entertainment.)

At the once-excellent Herald-Times, the story was the same.

On Aug. 12, three weeks after putting the building up for sale, Gannett laid off two more H-T reporters – one of my best and favorite former students among them – as part of the corporation’s latest cutbacksnationwide.

The Monday before the layoffs, Gannett CEO Michael Reed purchased $1.22 million of company stock for himself, according to an Aug. 13 article in the New Jersey Globe.

In today’s America, it is still possible to get national news, and from a wide variety of perspectives. But in community after community, local newspapers have either shut down entirely (over 2000 of them in the past several years) or become “ghost” papers like the Indianapolis Star- –papers with newsroom staffing so dramatically pared back that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities.

As a result, local residents no longer share a common understanding of what is happening in their communities, and no longer have the kind of verified, in-depth information that makes democratic decision-making possible.

Unfortunately, as Higgs said, you can’t have democracy without real journalism.


Fact, Analysis, Opinion

I’ve repeatedly used this platform to complain about the deficits of what have been called “ghost” newspapers, like the remnants of our local Indianapolis Star. Unlike the 2000+ papers that have simply disappeared over the past several years, ghost papers still exist, but in a form that is no longer adequate to the needs of the community. Here in Indianapolis, the Star (never a particularly good newspaper) no longer bothers to inform the public about the various agencies of local or state government; it devotes its reduced reporting resources mainly to sports and entertainment, with occasional forays into “human interest” stories. As a result, significantly fewer people look to the Star as a common source of information for residents of central Indiana.

(I’m happy to note that the Star’s deficiency has sparked creation of a new nonprofit covering the Statehouse: the Indiana Capital Chronicle. May they prosper!)

The loss of local newspapers hasn’t just deprived us of local news. It has also deprived us of analyses of that news, columns and letters to the editor expressing a variety of opinions over the meaning and significance of the matters being conveyed.

The Star is a Gannett paper (which explains a lot about its sorry state), and it turns out that Gannett isn’t simply uninterested in providing local communities with needed information.A reader recently sent me a column (snatched from behind a paywall) outlining Gannett’s recent decision to minimize inclusion of analysis and opinion.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, recently recommended changes to its affiliates’ opinion pages. There will be fewer syndicated columnists and letters to the editor and no more editorials that, in Gannett’s words, “tell voters what to think.” Gannett’s directive noted that editorials and opinion columns are among the most frequent reasons that readers give for canceling their subscriptions, and many of the chain’s opinion pages across the country are poised to cut back production or fold up shop in response.

It is certainly the case that devoting editorial pages to opinions focused on national events adds to our current American polarization. But as the writer noted, space devoted to opinions on local matters has the opposite effect–it brings readers’ attention back to the local community and strengthens local connections. He insists–I believe correctly–that Gannett and other newspaper owners should “reinvest in what makes an opinion page work: amplifying local voices, presenting a diverse array of opinions in a respectful way, and serving as their community’s public forum.”

A local newspaper’s main advantage in today’s sprawling media marketplace is its geographic focus: Nobody covers a community as thoroughly as its newspaper, even today. The opinion page is an essential part of that coverage because it seeks out and organizes a diverse array of community perspectives. It is the least “professional” part of the newspaper: a place where you can learn about the issues facing neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials in their own words. Unlike the neighborhood Facebook and NextDoor groups that so often fill in local news deserts, where the brashest and most extreme voices rise to the top, an opinion page is edited according to journalistic ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, and fact-checking.

Opinion columns and vetted letters to the editor aren’t the sort of “opinions” that litter Facebook and Twitter–posts that are all too often little more than insults and/or invective.

Good opinion writing is analytical–it is based upon the factual reporting, but goes beyond the surface to explore the significance of the reported facts and opine about their likely meaning and possible consequences. Opinion writers almost always come with a bias or point of view, and good opinion writers are explicit about their ideological commitments, but they also come with background in the subject-matter that allows them to illuminate what the bare recitation of “who what where when and why” cannot.

There’s a reason they are sometimes called “think pieces.”

The author of the column from which I’ve pulled these quotes–a journalism professor–points out that effective columnists are trained in the art of observation. And as he says, a talent for connecting storytelling with current events makes an impression on readers that the bare recitation of facts usually doesn’t.

Studies show that op-eds can have enduring persuasive effects — a rare finding in studies of the media — and can set the political agenda for citizens and elected officials alike. Local columnists can use their reputation and intellectual freedom to explore deep, complex, and oft-ignored community histories or serve as respected watchdogs to protect consumers and citizens.

The evisceration or outright loss of local newspapers over the past couple of decades has deprived us of a critically important asset–a forum informing us about our local government, business and community–and now, of informed opinion probing their significance.



What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….


The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.