Federal Aid for the Indy Star?

June 27, 2011

For release June 1 and thereafter (750 words)

So the Indianapolis Star is in trouble with deep layoffs and a major restructuring. Some think we should bail out the big newspapers as we did the car companies. Not me.

A delegation from Izvestia sat in our conference room one afternoon as the long-running totalitarian regime of Leonid Brezhnev came to a close. The Russians were eager to tell us why Soviet journalism was better than ours. Their presentation went something like this: We have the only truly free press; you are dependent on advertisers and subscribers. We can write whatever we want to further mankind for the good of all, not just for the rich.

Today that view survives at—of all places—America’s richest journalism schools. A friend teaching the craft here blames the troubles of the Star on technological innovations and resulting market shifts. She sends me a proposal by the president of Columbia University advocating a new model of American journalism, one that is government-subsidized and therefore free of capitalist whim.

But let us step into an alternate reality. It is the work of a quite different kind of journalist, Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine and formerly a professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Olasky told me during a visit to Fort Wayne that the “new” journalism my friend would save, the journalism predominant in our largest markets today, is a throwback to the crusading newspapers of the Pulitzer era.

In this school of journalism, Olasky explains in his history of American newspapers, problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influences: “The role of the new journalist is to put a spotlight on those influences. The hope is that if man’s environment is changed, man himself changes—and poverty, war and so on, are no more.”

Beginning in the 1970s, the large American newspapers, secure in monopoly, abandoned en masse their constitutional charge—the difficult and expensive job of digging up facts to provide a check on the powerful in government and out.

Their newsrooms filled with Pulitzer-style “advocacy” journalists, lecturing and improving a hapless readership through application of higher social and political sensitivity. Here, for example, is the president of the Indianapolis Newspapers Guild quoted by the Indianapolis Business Journal in reaction to the layoffs at the Star:

“Despite Tuesday’s unpleasantness, despite the corporate greed that made it possible, and despite the sense of loss we all feel, our readers still depend on us to put out a newspaper. We do it to pay the bills, as did our friends. But mostly we do it because we feel it’s important, and because we will never concede defeat to those rat bastards at corporate headquarters.”

Can anybody be surprised now that nobody wants to pay for that, be it print or digital? Market penetration began to decline years before the Internet took hold.

What is the future of journalism?

First of all, you can hold the subsidies. The death of The New York Times or even our beloved Indianapolis Star does not necessarily mean a net decline in the prescient information necessary for our constitutional republic to flourish. It certainly doesn’t justify assigning government a seat at the editorial board.

An information system modeled, say, after Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Indianapolis Business Journal or even your brother-in-law’s blog might well step into any market void with a more successful business plan and editorial philosophy.

You should know that publishers of the smaller community newspapers, specialty papers and media systems throughout the nation were outperforming the big shots until the recession, their closeness to their readerships saving them from the hubris of advocacy.

Incidentally, our gifts to the Soviet delegation that day included a copy of Mark Twain’s classic short story “Journalism in Tennessee.” There is a passage where the editor-in-chief, a fiercely independent fellow after Olasky’s model, gives his apprentice the plan for the day:

“Jones will be here at three—cowhide him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps—throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four—kill him. The cowhides are under the table; weapons in the drawer; ammunition there in the corner; lint and bandages up there in the pigeonholes. In case of accident, go to Lancet, the surgeon, downstairs. He advertises—we take it out in trade.”

The humor was lost on our Russian visitors—as it is, we suspect, on our friends in the journalism academies and newspaper unions.

Craig Ladwig, editor of The Indiana Policy Review, has worked in both small and large newsrooms for 40 years. He is a former editor of Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Capital Cities Newspapers and has written articles on journalism reform for the Wall Street Journal and Editor & Publisher. A version of this article appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal. Contact the author at editor@indianapolicy.org.


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