Sunday, July 24, 2011

Editor Dennis Ryerson Suggests Indianapolis Star Gets Scooped Because of High Ethical Standards; Ryerson Ignores His Own Newspaper's Cozy Relationship With With Downtown Power Brokers

Indianapolis Star Editor Dennis Ryerson
Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, penned an interesting column this morning.  Here's part of his take on the media controversy surrounding the Rupert Murdoch media empire:
There are several "legs" raised by this story and other recent media behaviors:

The issue of phone hacking and other illegal or less-than-honorable practices some use in an effort to pull a sensational story.

The cozy relationship that can build between the media and the politicians they cover. It's fair to say that too many British politicians of all stripes have gone overboard to kiss up to media owners in the hopes of getting favorable coverage.

The "open source" approach to journalism brought on by the Internet, resulting in more access to information but also vastly different standards as to how reporting is done. As one example of that, an editor of the website Buffalo Beast pretended to be a big-name conservative donor to get an interview with the Wisconsin governor, tricking the governor into saying incredible things he wouldn't otherwise have said.

I fear that as more and more diverse outlets use whatever less-than-credible tools they can to dig out stories, they'll from time to time come upon a legitimate story and beat the more mainstream media.

Will that, then, drive all of us to reduce our standards just to get a story first?

Not if I have anything to do about it.
Reading Ryerson's column, one would be left thinking that it is only "open source" media (I assume he's referring to bloggers) who have been scooping the Star on stories.  The fact is every media in town has been scooping the Star on stories, especially those relating to Indianapolis politics.   WRTV's Kara Kenney and Fox59's Russ McQuaid are but two of the reporters who have done quality reporting on local news stories that the Indianapolis Star has simply ignored.  Also, the Indianapolis Business Journal has repeatedly done investigative reporting on stories that the Star refused to cover.  While bloggers like myself, Gary Welsh of Advance Indiana and Pat Andrews of Had Enough Indy have written stories on local politics, most were based on information the Star knew about or could have easily discovered with any sort of investigation.

The Star's approach to covering local political controversy.
Surprisingly the Star has done a fairly good job at reporting political misdeeds at the state level.  The Star exposed the Duke Energy-IURC scandal through excellent reporting.  The Star is all over the state-wide abuse of civil forfeiture.   A couple years ago, the Star was running a regular piece on gifts received by Indiana legislators.  The Star is strong when it comes to talking about the "revolving door" in state government.  Of course, when it comes to the local revolving door, a much worse problem, the Star says nothing.

Let's look at the local issues the Star refused to do any quality, investigative reporting on:
  • The Broad Ripple Parking Garage, including the administration's insistence on secrecy as to key details and the fact that a big contributor to Mayor Ballard and employer of former Deputy Mayor Paul Okeson won the deal.
  • The North of South project, a deal that every private investor rejected as too risky. 
  • The East Market Street project deal and the questionable financials behind the deal.
  • The 50 Year Parking Meter Deal, including the questionable financials and that the winning bidder, ACS, had employed as its lobbyist, Joe Loftus, the chief legal advisor to Ballard and lobbyist for the City.
  • The fact that Deputy Mayor Paul Okeson went directly from working for the city to Keystone Construction, which then won contracts from Mayor's Office.
  • The Pacers $33.5 million gift and issues relating to the need to do that deal.
  • Questionable figures supplied by the Capital Improvement Board regarding their financial condition.
In every case, the best the Star would ever do is simply report that questions were being raised. It was TV reporters, the IBJ, and bloggers who did the investigation into those matters and reported what was learned.

I don't blame the Star reporters. They are forced by their employer to churn out several stories a day under tight deadlines that don't allow for investigative reporting.  You talk to those reporters and most would love the opportunity to do more investigation into the stories they write.

The reason for the Star's approach is financial...Gannet saves money on news gathering if  fewer reporters turn out more stories.  But it is a short-sighted approach.  After all, it is quality, investigative reporting on local issues that sells newspapers. Cutting back on the cost of news gathering ultimately leads to less newspapers being sold.  I never thought I would see the day when TV reporters were doing lengthy investigative reporting, while newspapers were doing superficial stories that barely scratch the surface of issues.  That day has arrived.

Unfortunately, cost savings is not the sole reason behind the Star's failure to critically cover local politics.  The Star is very supportive of the pay-to-play political culture of Indianapolis politics.  Questions regarding the heavily-subsidized public-private partnerships and real cost of those deals to taxpayers are consistently ignored by the Indianapolis Star in its news stories and by columnists such as Matt Tully.   The Star editors close their eyes when it comes to any sort of improper political influence exercised by these private companies over our local decision makers.   Compare how the Star ignores local political malfeasance while zealously pursing it at the state level, most recently with the previously mentioned Duke Energy-IURC scandal.

The Star's parent company, Indianapolis Newspapers, is an investor in the downtown mall which is owned by the Simons and is propped up with taxpayer subsidies.  Who represents the Indianapolis Star?  Barnes and Thornburg, a local law firm which all but runs Indianapolis city government and also represents the Simons.   The fact is the Star is extremely close to the downtown power brokers who have long suckled on the teats of taxpayers.  How can Ryerson criticize Murdock's "cozy relationship" with politicians while ignoring his own newspapers "cozy relationship" with the very people his paper should be reporting critically on?  There's only one explanation:  hypocrisy.

While a lot of people celebrate the Star's demise, I mourn it.  We desperately need a good daily newspaper that is willing to do investigative reporting and keep the politicians honest.  The Star, led by Ryerson, has shown it is not that newspaper.


Pete Boggs said...

The reason they're left, left behind, is a lack of fitness.

Hoosier in the Heartland said...

We desperately need a good daily newspaper that is willing to do investigative reporting and keep the politicians honest.

If only.....

Nicolas Martin said...

You may as well lament the absence of steam locomotives, horse-drawn buggies, and amiable American women. Those days are gone.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Don't know, NM, we had excellent investigative newspaper stories done on Indiana politics the last three weeks. It's just they were done by the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal.


The Indianapolis Star does not sell investigative reporting, it sells advertising.

When it asks you to buy the paper, it touts its weekly ads as why you should buy.

Its marketing strategy puts itself in the same league as a Penny Saver, except that the Penny Saver is free.