Monday, August 6, 2012

Star's New Editor Refuses to Acknowledge Problems With Newspaper; Promises More of the Same to Readers Wanting Better Content

The new editor of the Indianapolis Star, Jeff Taylor, penned a piece in Sunday's paper about what readers of the state's largest should expect:
Jeff Taylor, Editor-in-Chief, The Indianapolis Star

When I was in college, one of our journalism professors had a tradition of handing out an essay to his students each semester that reminded us of what newspaper readers expect.
They expect you to get it right, he said. All the time. They expect you to be fair and balanced. And to be watchdogs. And to tell stories, great stories, that stir the heart, that inspire the soul, that cause grumbles, that surprise and delight. They expect you to tell them about their neighborhood, their city, their state, the nation, the world. To take them behind the scenes of their favorite sports. To be a leader in the community and make it a better place. To be sure the comics are there. And the puzzles and the ads that help people find great deals. And they expect you to deliver all of this to their homes every day, dry and fresh, by the time they wake up. 
We give them all of this, he said, for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. 
The message is as true today as it was then, except now we deliver all of that content, and more, in ways we never imagined -- still on paper, yes, but also on desktops and tablets and smartphones. 
At The Indianapolis Star, we've been committed to meeting those expectations for more than 100 years. We look forward to doing the same for a long time to come as our business model evolves.
Then Taylor outlines how the paper has acted as a watchdog in the past:
You can count on finding exclusive stories with us. Our coverage of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, for instance, saved ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars and led to the firing and resignations of government and business officials and the indictment of the state's top utility regulator. Our investigation into the tragic collapse of the State Fair stage rigging last year uncovered problems with inspection and permitting issues as well as failures in executing the fair's emergency plan -- all issues later confirmed by state-hired investigators. Our coverage of the state's Department of Child Services has exposed numerous incidents in which children were killed despite the agency's involvement or efforts to warn the agency.
You'll notice that Taylor never mentions the paper's role as watchdog when it comes to local, i.e. Indianapolis issues. There is a reason why.  The Indianapolis Star under the leadership of Dennis Ryerson gave up that role.  Time and time again, the Star has been scooped on local stories by the Indianapolis Business Journal, TV reporters and bloggers.  The  Indianapolis Star will not report critically on local politicians, in particular if doing so contradicts the editorial position of the Star.

The Star has opined against the state revolving door, but when it comes to the local revolving door, the Star never criticizes high level officials leaving city government to take jobs with companies doing business with the city.  Paul Okeson left from being Mayor Ballard's chief of staff to working for Keystone Construction, a company that has contributed big bucks to Mayor Ballard's campaign.  Keystone subsequently received the gift of the Broad Ripple Parking Garage built with taxpayer dollars and then simply given away to Keystone.  We taxpayers get zip in return, no money from parking, no money from commercial rents, no ownership.  Does the Star report the troubling details in the contract?  Or writean editorial criticizing the sweetheart deal?  No.

Then you have the parking meter contract. The City enters into a 50 year parking meter contract with ACS a politically-connected company that employs Council President Ryan Vaughn and the Mayor's attorney Joe Loftus as lobbyists.  The Star only mentioned Vaughn's connection in passing, as I recall, and failed to report on the details of the contract, including the details that made the 10 year out provision a farce.

And how about the Pacers $33.5 million gift from taxpayers two years ago.  Did the Star have someone analyze the contract which would have revealed that the penalty for breaking it was so large it was never a realistic threat that the Pacers could have actually moved?  Of course not.

The Star always opines in favor of Public Safety Director Frank Straub.  That's fine, but at the end of the day, the editorial position of the Star should not interfere with reporters being allowed to do their jobs, i.e. report the news.  Yet it does.  It always falls to someone else, such as TV reporters or bloggers, to report problems in public safety and Straub's leadership.

The bottom line is that under Ryerson Indianapolis Star became a cheerleader for the City, abdicating its responsibility to act as a watchdog on local politics.  When people want to the straight scoop on local politics in Indianapolis they read the IBJ, watch stories by reporters like WRTV's Kara Kenney or FOX-59's Russ McQuaid, or read blogs like Gary Welsh's Advance Indiana or Pat Andrews "Had Enough Indy?"  They will report issues that the Star will not.

I can't end this without commenting on the lack of quality political columnists at the Star.  The problem is not that Matthew Tully and Erika Smith are liberal.  I can live with that. The problem is their columns are about as interesting as watching paint dry.  They are afraid to attack any of the controversies in local government.  How many columns do we need extolling the virtues of mass transit, bike lanes or discussing how Indianapolis can "think bigger", whatever that means?  When movers and shakers want the straight scoop on what is going on in Indianapolis politics they read Welsh's Advance Indiana, they don't read Matt Tully.   If Taylor wants to know what a real newspaper columnist is like, he should go to the archives and read Dick Cady's columns.

Jeff Taylor recognizes that the Star has to find a way to adapt to modern technology.  What he fails to understand though is that the Star has a far bigger problem when it comes to content.  Instead of acknowledging that fact, he promises readers more of the same content that we received under Dennis Ryerson.  If that's his approach, the Star is doomed to failure.


M Theory said...

I find it laughable that the Star's editor actually had the nerve to say they are watchdogs!

While at dinner last night with a friend, she asked me if I've seen the paper lately. We both complained that it is no longer a trustworthy source of news and not worth our time to read.

We won't be subscribing to the star.

I don't know a single person 25 to 50 years old who reads or trusts the Indy Star.

Hoosier in the Heartland said...

Yesterday's Star was filled with first-person reports of some reporter trying sports in the Olympics.
Whoever thought that was news (or even interesting)?

Sheila Kennedy said...

You are absolutely correct, and this is a huge problem. We can get national news; those of us who live downtown can get neighborhood news from the Urban Times (which does a great job on those issues). But there is nobody credible and widely read watching City Hall. Some of us who blog may make a "catch" here and there, but that isn't the same thing as a sustained, informed and trusted local newspaper.

Jon said...

The only value the Star has is the Comics. It's better fiction than the usual tripe that counts as news in their paper.

Downtown Indy said...

I brew my own coffee and it figures out to around 2 cents per cup.

I would agree the Star's content is less than the price of a cup of my coffee.

So there's my 2 cents' worth. ;-)

Pete Boggs said...

Still one camp, long ago they put the "con" in tent.

M Theory said...

Sustained, informed trust was sold out long ago.