The front-page headline in The Indianapolis Star after the Democratic primaries last week said quite a bit about how the state’s largest newspaper perceives Indiana and its people: “SUDDENLY, WE MATTER.”
The story was ostensibly about how Indiana’s primary in May will receive attention from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but the headline’s implication was clear and unmistakable.
From the cigar-smoking bureaucrats in Virginia who own the newspaper to their hand-picked lackeys who run it, Indianapolis has never really mattered except insofar as it brings money into the Gannett Corp. It’s clear from the paper’s coverage that The Star exists solely as a means to monopolize advertising revenue.
Its secondary purpose is to serve as a training ground for young reporters before Gannett moves them to bigger, more profitable newspapers in larger cities that, frankly, matter much more than Indianapolis.
So now that the newspaper can spend a few weeks trailing Clinton and Obama around the state, Indiana matters to Gannett.
This news may come as a shock to the management of The Star, but for those of us who’ve spent all of their lives living in and loving this state, Indiana has always mattered.
And it used to matter to The Star, too, back when it was a family-run newspaper. It had a reputation for Republican bias, and more than its share of shameful moments, but the people who worked for the newspaper cared about Indiana. It mattered to the reporters, most of whom were locals who prided themselves on being part of the social fabric of Indianapolis.
The paper’s bias might make you angry, but you never doubted the newspaper’s commitment to the city and its people. Instead of praying for a transfer to a more important newspaper, most of the reporters spent their entire careers at the newspaper, building up relationships with their sources and creating an incredible institutional memory.
If a horrific crime occurred on the city’s Westside, the police reporters there could tell you about a similar incident that occurred there 20 years before. If a member of the Pacers had a particularly good game, The Star reporters could compare and contrast it with other great games from the past.
That institutional memory is gone now. All of the homegrown writers and editors were run out of the business or forced into early retirement. The reporters who spent decades honing their craft at the paper, such as Robin Miller, were fired based on trumped-up charges of impropriety. The ones who were foolish enough to take an active role in union affairs were also forced out.
Morale at the paper, while never particularly high, is in the dumpster. Important editorial positions go unfilled while the people left fear for their jobs. Radical changes are introduced one week and then abandoned the next.
Most recently, the paper increased the size of its text and reduced the size of the paper, reducing the need for reporters even more. The paper has increasingly become an advertisement for its Web site.
One can envision a day, not too far in the future, when carriers deliver a single sheet of paper with “Visit indystar.com” to homes and vending boxes across the city.
The newspaper still employs some excellent, locally-raised reporters and columnists, but their contributions are downplayed in favor of nationally-produced blandness from USA Today and the Associated Press.
And a great percentage of the local news is either lurid crime reports or kiss-ass business stories about advertisers. Even at its race-baiting, pro-Republican worst, the old Indianapolis Star was full of local flavor and a pervasive sense of affection for the community.
To compare the current version of the newspaper to the conformity of McDonald’s and Starbucks would be a disservice to the hardworking burger-flippers and latté monkeys of those two businesses. They actually care whether your Big Mac is cooked correctly or if your coffee is prepared just right.
By firing all of the veteran reporters and importing youngsters to fill their jobs, The Star has done the city, as well as itself, a grave disservice. The old-timers loved Indy and wanted to be here; many of the new reporters are counting the days until they get promoted to a bigger city.
The paper is also ignoring its readers, most of whom want to be here. They treasure their families, their neighborhoods and the locally-owned businesses that are the heart of the city. They deserve better than the watered-down, drive-by media coverage they’re getting now.
Yes, Indianapolis has always mattered. It matters a great deal. For The Star to finally acknowledge that fact was at least a small step forward.
Maybe at some point, The Indianapolis Star can finally start mattering again to the city. But don’t hold your breath on that.