Half Past the Month

June 12, 2019

Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers or 20 percent of the total have folded or merged, while in the last decade 32,000 of the industry’s employees have lost their jobs. — The Washington Times, June 12, 2019

YOU WOULD THINK it would be the kind of story journalists would fight to get. It has it all — Main Street crony capitalists, venal out-of-state investors, legal manipulations, compliant if not compromised local officials. And it is sitting there in most any Indiana city just waiting to be uncovered.

So why isn’t anybody asking whether the capital-intensive, public-private projects, the latest bright, shiny objects downtown are really good things? Why hasn’t some intrepid Hoosier editor sent his Clark Kent to check out reports from elsewhere that these projects have turned out to be short-term schemes, not long-term development? What if the projects, some of them financed at three times their market value, are designed only for the manufacture (issue) and sale (marketing) of bonds for the benefit of in-the-know banks and favored developers? What if they permanently distort the local political process?

To be sure, it is a difficult story. A reporter would have to get a good grasp on the hidden mechanics (captured increments, base erosion) of Tax Increment Financing plus the workings of the bonding industry and the rules of incorporation. Still, there are journalists in Indiana with the brains to figure it out. And there are honest auditors and other elected officials who could show them the toll such deals take on public finances and the economic future of our communities.

The reason none of that happens, the reason the lid remains on so-called economic development is that if you lift it you are likely to get fired. The incentive (counted in millions of dollars per developer) for squelching such a story far outweigh any public interest (counted in pennies per taxpayer) in reporting it.

But there is more to it than that. The aggregate special interests attracted to the typical downtown sports venue, boutique hotel, condominium complex, convention center, etc., invite formation of a new type of political machine. It is built from the top down with levels of protected financiers, Chamber executives, architects, engineers, lawyers and of course politicians.

It works the same way as historic machines, with “pay to play,” sympathetic voting blocs and political challenges to any councilman or mayor who dares make trouble. How many outstate city councilmen can hold back a primary challenger armed with a $30,000 war chest (the case in a recent Fort Wayne election)?

The machines of old were exposed by shining the light of the local newspaper on the assorted wrong-doings and shenanigans. And behind the reform-minded editors and reporters stood publishers — individual proprietors, not corporations. These were stalwart men and women, citizens invested in their own town whose business and family fortunes depended on the long-term health and growth of their community. All of that is stunted by the absolute power of machine politics and the necessarily constricted markets.

The situation is different this time around. Today’s journalist stands alone. His corporate manager won’t have his back. Indeed, in the interests of a good quarterly report to a headquarters four states over, the manager is likely to be on the board of the regional development authority — part of the political machine.

As a result of the blackout, the developers, generally paid up front in these cases, don’t have to worry about what the public thinks of the one-sided deals they cut for political and government support.

Suppose a journalist in your town persists. What then? He will learn a hard lesson: The systemics of contemporary journalism — that is, who owns the property and how it is managed — is not designed to produce real news let alone topple gangs of rent-seekers supported by political machines.

So, what is the alternative? What really is “real” journalism? Well, the classic definition stands: It is that which speaks truth to power and thereby wins the community’s trust and support over time.

Leo Morris, a winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer, makes the valid point that comparing “fake” journalism of the Internet variety with “real” journalism is a useless exercise. “It’s not that fake news isn’t a problem; it’s a big one,” he writes. “But constantly complaining about the fake variety elevates the ‘real’ news to a lofty position it probably hasn’t deserved in a long time.”

Morris cites Gallup as saying the percentage of Americans with a great deal or fair amount of trust in the established media has dropped from 40 percent in 2015 to a mere 32 percent in 2016. “Where is that fine line between fake and real nonsense,” he asks, “and what’s the point of trying to find it?”

It is useful, though, to think back to that time when the editing, writing and distributing of community news was held in the high regard to which Morris refers.

Again, there was a time, perhaps halcyon, when local news organizations were owned by individuals. They could be wrong in their policy recommendations, granted, and as a rule they were irascible. The title “publisher,” though, was not assigned. It was earned the hard way: Managing slim profit margins and outlasting the selfish interests at the old Country Clubs and the mindless boosters on city councils. The model of ownership mattered.

With so many friends still in the industry, nobody here is happy that our local news operations are near collapse. People are just tired of paying for the corporate version of institutional news and opinionated tripe. They need news that holds up at the morning coffee spot, information based on verifiable facts and prescient observations. They need honesty, if not balance.

The nature of a free press is that its owners are primarily accountable to their family, friends, employees, fellow citizens and the Constitution. It is an arrangement more reasonable than being left in the sway of journalists rented from distant, indifferent companies leaving us vulnerable to predatory interests. — tcl


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