Op-Ed: Corporate Journalism and a Loss of Trust
Note: The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette rejected the below letter from a city councilman who is concerned about the recent decision to meld the two newspapers there. The company’s policy is not to publish letters critical of competitors.
by Jason Arp
It should come as no surprise that the print edition of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel is no more. A friend of mine with years of experience as an editor and journalist confided that newspapers depend on trust. Their business model depends on the trust of their readers, and trust in a newspaper’s reporting carries over to trust in its advertisers. When the readership no longer trusts the paper, it’s not long for this world.
Readers of the News-Sentinel have looked to it for the conservative perspective of the world’s events for many decades. People have turned to its editorial pages to identify the conservative candidates for office and the issues of importance. But a trust that has been earned painstakingly over the years can be lost in a flash.
The News-Sentinel has been owned since June 2006 by a West Virginia holding company that also owns 33 other daily newspapers throughout the country. That is not unusual; its fairly standard these days for the local paper to be owned by some national corporation or conglomerate. The Indianapolis Star, for instance, is owned by Gannett Company, Inc., the publisher of USA Today.
What in the Fort Wayne situation is unusual is the News-Sentinel’s longstanding joint operating agreement (JOA) with its supposed competitor, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. The two newspapers share a printing press, office building, administrative staff and advertising revenue. This cozy agreement has been in place for over 50 years and has survived two ownership changes at the News-Sentinel since 1980.
Even so, through the hard work and diligence of its editorial staff, the News-Sentinel remained a trusted independent voice in Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana despite the awkward JOA and the changes in corporate management.
In recent years, however, readers noticed a shift. For example, the top political reporter there began to endorse the same tax and spend policies its readers would expect from the morning paper — the municipal wheel tax, the riverfront development and income tax increase, the increased gas tax or any of the “quality of place” economic development projects. In sum, the afternoon paper looked more and more like its JOA partner.
Councilmen who questioned these initiatives and showed the temerity to vote against the political reporter’s preferences were dismissed out of hand without any investigation as to why they may have opposed a project or an abatement. “They regularly vote ‘no’ on economic development” is about all the reader got by way of an explanation.
And when the corporate publisher of the News-Sentinel called councilmen directly to lobby for a downtown skyscraper to receive city funding, it was obvious that a journalistic Rubicon had been crossed in Fort Wayne. You can listen to a recording of his call here.
The Journal Gazette subscribers know that their paper is left of center. They know what they are paying for. The consistent endorsement of Democrats in contested races isn’t the only clue. There is daily enthusiasm on its editorial page for growing almost any government program.
Subscribers to the News-Sentinel, however, now find themselves without a home. They woke up one day earlier this month and discovered there no longer is an alternative voice to the official narrative. The trust has been broken. The oldest newspaper in Fort Wayne has rolled up the sidewalk and disappeared, swallowed into the paper of its office mate — a sad day for News-Sentinel subscribers and staff, a sad day for the public discussion.
Jason Arp represents the 4th District on the Fort Wayne City Council.