Can Life Be Found In The News Desert?

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January 1, 2017 2:35 PM

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America is enduring more “deserts” than ever before, and it has nothing to do with the climate.  This is about shortages.

Several Indianapolis neighborhoods have been described as “food deserts” because grocery stores providing fresh food are nowhere to be found in the area.  City officials have reacted, working to provide incentives for private investment of grocery operations in those neighborhoods.

America is undergoing new desert areas.  These are called “news deserts.”  The relatively-recent phenomena is chronicled in a recet report issued by the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism.

Local newspapers stood as a watch dog in local communities.  Reporters covered every meeting of the city councils, county councils, boards of county commissioners, boards of zoning appeals – the list goes on and on.

This report documents the rise of the new “media barons” scooping up ownership of local newspapers, aggressive cost-cutting (mostly editorial staff) and restructuring the financial operation.  Look, I have no argument with newspaper owners making a nice profit.  But this report details the extent of the cutbacks, which lowers the news coverage in areas of the nation seeing the most struggling communities economically.

I worked in radio stations in the 1970s and early 1980s.  During that time, owners of broadcast properties were limited to 7 AM and 7 FM stations.  That meant the owners of the stations where I worked had fairly small companies.  Normally, employees of these stations personally knew the owner.  That has changed dramatically today.

The Pew Project says as of 2008 (most recent year I could find dependable numbers) Clear Channel owned 833 stations, with Cumulus at 346 and Citadel at 230.  That’s a big change from the time I worked in the business.

What all this means is that ownership of these local newspapers and radio stations are less tied to their respective local communities.  With pressure to maximize profits, news coverage suffers.

I have seen this in my own local community of Fishers.  As my kids were growing up and in school, I read the Noblesville Daily Ledger, a newspaper that had been around for roughly 100 years.   It provided very good coverage of news in Fishers, Noblesville, Carmel and Hamilton County.

That paper stopped being a daily many years ago.  Another effort was made to start a daily newspaper out of Noblesville, The Times, but it fell victim to the economic downturn 2008 and the general decline of newspaper advertising revenue.

That left my community of Fishers without a daily news source.  We became a news desert.

We do have a weekly newspaper that does the best it can with the space available.  Indianapolis news outlets come in and out for specific stories, but cannot watch Fishers regularly

Once I retired from my federal government job in 2011, I was motivated to start a news blog in 2012 devoted to timely Fishers news.  I began attending local town (later, city) council and school board meetings.  I have always believed that having an independent journalist present at government proceedings is a good thing.

The news blog is a volunteer activity for me because I saw no economic model for it to be profitable.  But I was fortunate to have had a journalism background before entering government work.  Once the technical hurdles were cleared, I was able to publish my local news blog.

I have tried to do my small part in bringing life to Fishers, which was once a news desert.  Where are the other news deserts around Indiana?  How will that be handled, if at all?

Several people have come up with a model for a nonprofit organization to become a local news source, but that idea is still fairly new.  There have been more failures than successes using that model.

If you care about your local government and care about being informed, you should care about news deserts and how a better climate to those local communities can be created with local, timely news updates.  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we all should consider how to solve this problem

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