The Outstater: What the #&*%@ Happened to the Star?

December 15, 2015

THE CONCERN that a shift in the form of media ownership would change the nature of Indiana’s public discussion is realized in the Indianapolis Star. The newspaper, since its purchase by a widely held national corporation, has gone from a trusted statewide arbiter of that discussion to a myopic collection of digital headlines lecturing Hoosiers on their failings as citizens.

In his book, “Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism,” William McGowan argues that it has had little to do with Internet competition. He blames the press’s abandonment of “armed neutrality in the face of doctrines,” as the philosopher William James phrased it.

A sample of news and opinion headlines on the website one recent day hints at how far the Star has drifted from the prescription of Mr. James:

“As Trump Spews Racism, Andre Carson’s Words Help”
“Indy Holds Vigil Against Gun Violence”
“Faith Leaders, Syrian Refugees Voice Hope for Tolerance”
“LGBT: What Kind of State Will Indiana Be?”
“Yes, Government Built That”
“Does LGBT Discrimination Exist?”
“Pence Needs to Decide on Civil Rights”
“On Gun Laws, the Sensible Majority Must Speak Up”
“The Colts Have Become a Joke”

This reflects the edgy topical preferences of young journalists, certainly, for newsrooms always have filled with the Matt Tulleys and the Suzette Hackneys, held more or less in check by adult supervision. This criticism is more serious, first outlined in an article for the winter 2003 issue of The Indiana Policy Review and continued in a full issue dedicated to the subject a few years later.

The metropolitan newspaper, in choosing to become an advocate rather than an objective resource (less profitable), ceases to provide readers with the information they need to interpret and predict political threat, to analyze what powerful forces inside and outside of government are about — an obligation that justifies the extraordinary protection and advantages that mass media enjoy under the First Amendment. The late Bob Bartley, legendary editor of the Wall Street Journal, described a continuing situation:

“The opinion of the press corps tends toward consensus because of an astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions. This self-selection is hardened by peer group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers.”

Such a medium, one in which political correctness prevents staff from helping the subscriber prepare for the twists and turns of life, whether in sports or immigration policy, isn’t worth much. And again, by becoming advocates, modern metropolitan papers abandoned the role of prescient observers and became birdcage flooring.

A measure of how harmful this has been to the newspapers themselves, even considering some success becoming Internet hip, is to compare their business performance with smaller hometown newspapers. The media editor of Forbes recently spotlighted the investment opportunity in hyper-local community newspapers. Market research finds such papers are more carefully read and the content more trusted. In short, they are the better buy.

And some believe that the type of ownership matters as much as the size of the company. The corporate manager is not a hometown proprietor. The later is careful to weigh all types of criticism and comment as he or she goes about their day. The manager, not so much.

Please know that corporate newspaper executives are invariably competent. Most are pretty regular people — good parents, cordial neighbors and so forth. They are big community boosters. It’s just that they don’t own the property. They will not live out their days amid their readers. They do not expect their children to carry on a tradition.

Indeed, they don’t much give a whit other than fulfilling their corporation’s “community outreach” requirements for the annual bonus, or so argues Sig Gissler in his “What Happens When Gannett Takes Over.”

“Chains keep transferring middle and upper managers,” he quotes a former editor as saying. “No one stays anywhere long enough to understand his or her town, let alone develop an affection for it. And you simply cannot cover a town if you don’t know it, understand it, and, probably, love it.”

The Star, owned by the Pulliam family since 1944, began taking a corporate tone in the mid-1990s as Eugene S. Pulliam prepared his newspaper for what market forces and inheritance taxes would make inevitable — sale to one of the national chains. The Gannett Company purchased the paper in the summer of 2000, flying in the first of a string of corporate loyalists (Gannettoids, they are called) as publishers.

At that point, Hoosiers were excused if they kissed an honest public discussion goodbye.

 

— Craig Ladwig



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