No saving small-town journos


IT’S NOT NEWS to anyone that there’s no news. But I fear too few realize the importance of a media check on local government, a stalwart independent authority that holds councilmen to their word and verifies their facts, tries to match intentions with results.

That once was the job of hometown newspapers — particularly those with an individual owner, not a corporate manager. The owner, with roots deep in the community, was the trusted recipient of tips about official wrong-doing and malfeasance. That was true even if he could not afford a newsroom large enough to directly or proactively investigate city hall.

For small town or not, the truth eventually got out. Officeholders and readers alike knew that, The unscrupulous were forewarned, the honest reassured.

That of course is all gone. How far gone was brought home to me watching a council meeting in Fort Wayne, one of the growing number of media markets without local ownership. There was no reporter present.

Excuse me for repeating an earlier column, but one councilman argued that a sloppy bond deal was costing the city $50 million a year. Neither the council nor its witnesses disputed his facts. Indeed, they didn’t say anything, just voted the councilman down. There was no news report, no questions asked.

Now, that’s a lot of money. If the duly elected and sworn councilman was wrong, the public deserved to know how. If he was right, heads should have rolled. Nothing.

And last week a friend sent me a discouraging clipping from neighboring Illinois. The Illinoisans, astonishing in their shallowness, have a solution to an epidemic of newspaper closings — free money. They have created a bipartisan task force of legislators and journalist recommending a package of tax credits. Qualifying newspapers, which would be exempt from local business and other taxes, would have to pay their staff members at least $50,000 a year (there’s a union man on the task force). There would be a set-aside of government advertising to be doled out to those papers that conform to yet unstated and no doubt evolving requirements.

You get dizzy trying to sort out the incentives and disincentives of such a bizarre arrangement, so let’s just move on.

Let’s face it, this generation is not blessed with journalist entrepreneurs willing to invest in small and midsized information systems. You can’t blame them. The profit margins have always been slim and the management challenging if not exhausting. Nonetheless, a previous generation found it rewarding and to their minds essential for a town’s well-being.

You may remember a passage from Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee” that captured the mood if not the actual experience of being a small-town editor. It relates instructions from the editor-in-chief to his new assistant:

“Jones will be here at three — cowhide (whip) him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps — throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four — kill him. That is all for today, I believe. If you have any odd time, you may write a blistering article on the police — give the chief inspector rats. 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.”

My memories are more halcyon. Our publisher, who paid us a pittance, promised we would be compensated not only in learning what is essential to a noble profession but in the knowledge of what a community is about, what is at its heart whether on a perfumed summer night covering a little league game or at a raucous planning meeting in a crowded, sweaty council chamber. Although a self-serving rationale, it turned out to be right.

I don’t think the small-town publisher or his brand of journalism will return, Internet or not — just my opinion. Those with means no longer appreciate the unique role journalism plays in preserving liberty and prosperity. They would be surprised to know that James Madison and other Founders rightly preferred a monarchy had they not been assured of an active and free press.

Finally, readers and viewers no longer value the timely and objective news required to be independent-minded citizens. They shuffle along in ignorance and self-righteousness, depending on Oprah Winfrey and the like for direction and perspective.

It made me so very sad to write that.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected].

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