The Next Thing: Journalism by Grant

July 24, 2017

THE KIND OF NEWSPAPER that the Indianapolis Star has become is not news. Everyone knows it already. It is important, though, to understand why it has become so.

What will surprise some is that it has little to do with any bias of the staff. Rather, it is the predictable result of a shift in ownership structure — and it just shifted again.

Newspapers began changing not because of Internet competition (incidental, in my oft-challenged opinion) but rather when proprietors and closely held companies were replaced by corporations. The two work differently — inherently. They have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Friends tell me that there is such a thing as a good corporation. The experience of Indianapolis, however, is that they are not good for newspapers or mass media in general. Their constitutionally protected functions depend on open competition and morally accountable decisions by individuals, however imperfect and cantankerous. Corporations are legal constructs designed to eliminate the first and minimize the second.

The Indianapolis Star announced last weekend that the news-gathering operations of Gannett Co. Inc. now will be bolstered not by circulation or advertising revenue but by grants from trusts, another form of legal identity. And these groups will not be blind charities; they have special interests in certain public policy areas.

Yet, as with so much historic shifting today, we are told to move along, there’s nothing to see. “Our newsroom will retain all editorial control over news decisions, as well as the journalists employed in our coverage, just as we do for everything else,” the Star’s editor assured his readership.

That assumes, of course, that the management is saintly. If that turns out not to be the case, you should expect that the views of the trustees now paying for additional staffing will be carefully noted by the senior editors.

How is any of this worse than a publisher-owner being influenced by a major advertiser? The answer is that it is his fortune at stake; he is directly accountable to both his readership and to the other advertisers, now and in the future. The corporate manager is directly accountable to corporate headquarters, which, he may hope, will reward him with a better assignment so he can get out of this place.

To make our point, the announcement was accompanied by a front-page article reporting that Hoosiers are overwhelmingly in favor of exactly those positions in which the grantor is interested. We know this because of a poll (sponsored by a related grantor) finding that a majority of Hoosiers “would prioritize protecting the environment even if it slowed economic growth.”

A spokesperson for a local environmental activist group was thrilled — understandably. Her response, though, betrayed the survey questionaire’s internal bias: “I would expect Hoosiers to not want to be made sick by their environment.”

The truth? What do Hoosiers think about being taxed to pursue someone else’s environmental goals?

It is impossible to know from what we are given. A corporation can advocate for causes its executive clique considers important. An editor can launch campaigns meant to pad an end-of-the-year bonus portfolio. And now a charitable trust can donate its way onto the front page.

Just know that it is flam, not journalism, and form your opinions accordingly.

— Craig Ladwig

APPENDIX

A friend conducted a story audit for us of the Sunday Star. Here are his findings, which do not include those articles and essays funded by nonprofit trusts and such:

Section A General News — A total of 28 pages of which 16 were paid advertisements (two pages of paid obits not included either way).

Section B Gannett National and International — Eight pages with one and one-fourth pages in ads.

Section C  Sports — Twelve pages with three and one-fourth pages in ads.

Section D  Business & Jobs — Eight pages with six pages in ads.

Section E  Living, Puzzles and Human Interest — Eight pages with three pages in ads.

“About 50 percent of the paper is understandably used for revenue production,” our friend adds. “How the rest of the space is used is the problem. For example, nearly one-half of one page is given to a letter from an individual telling us how happy she is with Carmel financial policies. Such opinion would expected to be limited to the editorial page or the op-ed page but is not.”



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