Local news and mastery of the press

When people ask me what Twitter is for I always say, “Twitter is great for following individual reporters, not just the publication they work for.” I’m reminded of this as these local reporters are telling people they need to pay for local news.

I agree people should pay for local news and anything else they consume. But like any rational person, I’m only interested in paying for a product that meets my needs. If I wanted to pay for the promise of something, I’d visit Kickstarter.

With local news we have options between the Indy Star, the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indy Monthly, Nuvo, four local TV stations, WFYI, and probably more I’m forgetting.

I have significant problems with all of them.

Television news is terrible and designed for the least common denominator. I don’t care what random people on the street think about something they’ve never thought about. I don’t care about the crime and fire stories because there are always gangs fighting over drugs and buildings catching on fire. A cursory glance at FOX59.com right now shows 28 stories. Nine of them are stock photos of IMPD cruisers or police tape and are about crime. One is about potato chips, one about pie, one about grilled cheese, a state police lip sync video, the death of two children, four about the Colts, and a couple business stories.

The Indy Star isn’t much better. More about Colts, the VMAs, a crappy pizza place in Carmel opining about road construction, something about a guy named Adam Driver who I’ve never heard of talking about the KKK, and more still about the Colts and IU sports.

Nuvo focuses on a niche I don’t care about — local music and arts isn’t something I care to read much about. But they have their audience and seem to do well. Indy Monthly has great pieces from time to time, but appears more as a place for foodies, wine lovers, and the sort. That’s fine, but I don’t live to eat all the time.

I’m guessing these outlets have viewership data that tells them crime n’ grime sells. That anything with Colts attached gets clicks.

I can’t justify paying for that. You are selling a product I do not care about.

What I care about is rare. A legitimate news story about corruption in the City-County Building, the Mayor’s race, and sharp reporting on what large organizations around Central Indiana are doing.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want more smart coverage that shows a mastery of a segment of news. But that costs money, and without it, I get less. I hear that argument. But publications like the Star seem to relish the endless sports coverage and junk like random pizza joints closing in Carmel because they have their reporters chasing stories for the sake of stories at times when there just is no news.

The Star’s coverage on USA Gymnastics is stellar investigative reporting. But if I pay for all the Colts and Carmel fluff, I’m never guaranteed the Star will put the money into more USA Gymnastics stories. It’s like going to a restaurant where it’s sometimes good, sometimes terrible. Eventually, you stop going altogether.

As the election rolls around, there’s almost no coverage of township races or school board races. Something else I’m sure outlets have viewership data on that says no one reads those stories. Or, they’re so hyper-local and resource-intensive they can’t be produced no matter how much we pay. In things like school board action, we’re almost at the mercy of local bloggers.

The IBJ for its part demonstrates mastery of a segment of news by focussing on matters of importance to business. I think the sustainability and mastery of a news cycle that comes with that focus is in their favor. WFYI’s partnership with Chalkbeat is a good example on the education coverage front. More news outlets would do well to devote their attention to specific areas.


Is your social media unbalanced? Here’s some help to fix it.

Several people have commented that their social media feeds are depressing, upsetting, bitter, and in most cases: an echo-chamber.

I wrote about this recently on what you can do about “Your Facebook Bubble“, how the algorithm works (particularly on Facebook), and why it’s important. So today I thought I’d share a list of Twitter and other sources you might consider adding to your feeds.

I took the effort a year or more ago to balance out my streams and sources with opposing and bi-partisan sources. if you’re reading a lot of Slate, or getting all your news from Sam Bee, Sean Hannity, or Jon Oliver, try balancing out with some of these folks. I watch Jon Oliver, too, but that doesn’t help the echo-chamber.

I have tried to avoid large “ad” entities, like political parties’ sources, though I follow each just to read what they’re saying. There’s no Drudge or Breitbart here. There’s no hate-mongering people here. I’m looking for smarts, not entertainment.

I also include several Indiana-specific people, too. If you find yourself lacking in knowledge about what’s happening at the State House, these folks are indispensable.

And if you find yourself saying, “Oh, no, I don’t want to see that”, you’ve missed the point and opportunity. If you feel angry at these things, then it’s probably working.

Is this the end-all list? Of course not. But this has helped me understand more sides of important issues.

I’ve linked to Twitter and sites where possible here. Facebook and other URLs can often be found in the bios of these people. You can follow me directly on Twitter @jlharter.

Nicke Gillespie – Journalist at Reason.com, a libertarian-leaning news source.

Reiham Salam – Writer for Slate and the National Review.

Adam Wren – Writer for Indianapolis Monthly and POLITICO.

Charles Cook – Editor for the National Review, frequent panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher

Grover Norquist –President of Americans for Tax Reform (“the tax pledge”), which has the ear of every elected representative in Washington.

Brian Slodysko – AP Political Reporter for Indiana.

Dan Carden – Statehouse Bureau Chief for the Times of NW Indiana.

SCOTUS Blog – Indispensable source for Supreme Court coverage.

Indiana Law Blog – to add to the former, Marcia Odi has done stellar work over the years covering Indiana’s Judiciary.

Abdul-Hakim Shabazz – Veteran Indiana politics reporter with a conservative tilt.

Nikki Kelly – can’t recommend following her enough. Great Indiana government and politics reporter covering the State House. One of the few left.

Aaron Renn – Indiana native now working at the conservative Manhattan Institute. An urbanist covering issues related to city growth and economies.

Doug Masson – Lafayette attorney covering Indiana’s politics for about a decade.

Alex Griswold – Media reporter at Mediaite.

Matt Welch – Co-author of the Declaration of Independents.

HHR – The urban conservative blog.

Matt Taibbi – excellent writer and journalist (left-leaning) for Rolling Stone. Also a regular on Real Time With Bill Maher.

Windsor Mann – Writer and editor of The Quotable Hitchens.

David French – Senior Fellow at the conservative National Review Institute.

An update on lousy reporting

I just read another piece of reporting that made my brain vibrate inside my head (go ahead, read it, I’ll wait. Now ask yourself how the people of Speedway, Beech Grove, Mars Hill, East 10th, or Trader’s Point must feel. Basically it’s a guy waxing about what he wishes his own neighborhood should be like).

I’ve been giving more thought and research to what a “new” news service might look like. My notes, while disparate still, are below.

For now, I’m just going to have to let this project go. Maybe someone else will pick it up and run with it and I’ll wish I had followed through, but it probably won’t happen.

My reasons are many. Like this:

Great ratings don’t come from eight-month special reports on Haiti, O’Donnell said. They come from the television equivalent of must-read newspaper columnists.  People tune in to see what their favorite personalities think. “When you get to 9pm in America … what they’re doing with their remote is ‘I want to know what O’Reilly thinks about this. I want to know what Rachel thinks about this.'”

Plus, I don’t have a big network of people. I’ve consistently foregone thousands of followers and Facebook “friends” in favor of something more realistic and manageable. I don’t have access to money and I have a disdain for debt of any kind.

I am unconvinced there are enough people across Indiana interested enough in paying, supporting, or even viewing much from a small team of people that can’t be achieved by an already existing network of blogs and (for now), Twitter.

I described it to someone yesterday like this: “A couple years ago a tornado hit Pekin, Marysville, and Henryville. Has anyone bothered to check back and see if those people stayed and rebuilt? Did they move, and if so, where and why? There was a flap in some counties that new construction was cost-prohibitive to do because old grandfathered-in septic systems now required more expensive updates. What happened with that? Did the State and FEMA do anything to keep or break their promises?”

I want a smart, slow-news source that asks bigger questions and delivers on some useful data and reporting.

I’m pulling a Jony and saying no to this project for now. Though if you’re reading this and want to bounce ideas or be of assistance, by all means contact me.


What does good local news look like?

Local and regional news outlets across Indiana generally report on egregious crimes (murders, rape, aggravated assaults, etc.), traffic accidents — particularly those causing death, and numerous opinion pieces with decidedly understood political biases.

The region lacks a news source that focuses on individuals, storytelling, and reader-friendly design. To name a few examples: TV news stations that have commercial-laden and buggy video playback, news stories limited by paywalls with arbitrary limits, click-bait headlines, ads in slideshows and the middle of articles, and otherwise amateur website layouts.

Readers deserve clean, fast-loading, easily shareable, and easy-to-read stories. Stories that inform, give perspective, and tell a balanced and fair account of conditions or situations.

Stories should include delightful and helpful features like one-page stories, no slideshow galleries (instead placing images in easy to skim thumbnails), estimated reading time, and responsible, scalable, layouts and typography.

What does the business model look like?

Readers should have a tie to their news sources like they do a local co-op grocery store, with minimal advertisements that are unobtrusive and relevant. News should be disseminated freely and treated like a public good, but because writers, editors, and other staff deserve to be paid fairly, readers should feel encouraged and ready to donate or sponsor.

Monthly subscriptions, possibly starting at $19 a month. Donation drives, sponsored posts written about staff.

What else is there?

A weekly one-hour long podcast with a panel of 2-3 people.


The news has no business being a business.

Indianapolis news is bad, but I can’t fix it. Can you?

The other day I lamented on Twitter that the Indy Star, the state’s largest newspaper, had dozens of stories on their homepage, and all of them were editorial or opinion pieces. There was no news.

There are no local news sources that appeal to me. Nuvo strikes me as a paper for hipsters looking to drink beer and find a boring show to watch (literally, at the time of this writing the homepage is a big bro-bear in horns hugging a glass of beer). Every news station strikes me as nothing but “crime and grime” and traffic deaths, journalism parlance for gruesome murder stories and awful crimes that grab attention. Or it’s just Buzzfeed-style clickbait. The Star is increasingly just cheap editorials sandwiched between pieces I can’t help but think are biased.

Matt Tully has so been swift and adamant that this city will face certain death if we don’t get more preschool funding, despite plenty of research to the contrary. Made me wonder why, until I realized his daughter might skew his viewpoint (which is fair, but it’s a factor), and some possibly-wrong-and-ill-informed rumblings that his wife is involved with a large preschool here in town.

Erika Smith is liberal in her views, and Gary Varvel so conservative in his you almost feel surprised when either of them says something that sounds like actual reporting. In the case of Erika, if we’re not talking about the plight of poor people and transit, we’re probably not talking. And for Gary, if we’re not talking about how horrifying Obama is, we’re probably not talking.

It sounds harsh, and I don’t like criticizing people so succinctly, but our local news reporters have as much responsibility in protecting and serving the public as the police do.

We have some immensely talented individuals working in Indiana journalism. Nikki Kelly at the Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette is a trusted source whom I actively seek out for reporting on big events. The now-retired Mary Beth Schneider from the Star also comes to mind. Matt Tully can write really well, too.

And for years I’ve wanted something like The Atlantic or Rolling Stone for Indiana or regional news. It doesn’t exist, and I don’t know that it can.

I have a project in my to-do list app called “Hoosier.ly”, a sort of working title and domain name that (for now) could be registered and made into that sort of long-form, captivating, well-written, journalism.

It doesn’t even have to be the sort of expensive hard-hitting journalism that takes months to do. I think by and large most of the time things are pretty quiet in the halls of the State House and city halls. But even just displaying some sense for interesting stories, like how a kid at John Marshall struggles to compete in a spelling bee can bring a world of insight to people who never get it.

Even our local NPR affiliate is pretty tame on news. I don’t recall a time when WFYI ever had a big scoop or story. The local news reporting strikes me as press-release gathering and some reliance on other local news gathering partners.

But I’m not smart enough to fix this problem. I don’t have the time, money, or resources to devote to building something to fix this problem. And for a lot of people, there is no problem. There must be a shocking number of people who care about the Star’s Falcon cam, or how big some Carmel/Fishers/Geist/Greenwood house is, or how long Andrew Luck’s neckbeard was. They must really like those “entertainment” pieces, and the market has spoken.

Not to mention the actual market dynamics of making money in this industry.

When I think about what I’d like to read, there are three components. A great online site, a weekly 1-hour podcast, and a really well-designed printed magazine-style piece that comes out monthly.

Maybe Indiana just doesn’t have that much news. Indianapolis Monthly is well-designed, but I don’t care about what wealthy Carmelites are doing to their homes, or what over-priced food I can’t afford to eat looks like, or whatever the hell a Swoon List is.

The Indianapolis Business Journal is generally very good and routinely delivers on details I can’t ever find anyplace else, but they sit comfortably in their niche of business news. There’s more to us than just mergers and land sales, right?

So I share this so if you or someone you know is considering or doing something that’s truly new and journalistic for educated, independent-minded, non-partisan people, get in touch. I want to help, or at least be a reader.

It’s not just me, right?

Thoughts on race, class, and WTF is wrong with people

A new Wal-Mart Marketplace just opened up across the street from me. If you look at the Judgmental Map of Indianapolis, you can see that I live in an area called “Laid Back Black People”, which for the most part is pretty accurate.

So it’s no surprise that the majority of the people working in this store are black. The manager is black, the cashiers are black. Some of the store workers are white, but most are black.

They wear these ugly pastel green-ish colored shirts to signify their employment. On opening day, when I needed a bag of chips to go along with a sandwich, I walked in and immediately noticed one thing: they were all wearing large and extra large shirts. They were incredibly ill-fitting. It struck me as sloppy, unkempt, and tasteless.

“Don’t get worked up, Justin. There’s a culture, there’s a style, it’s just their thing. Like kids with those dorky Bieber style haircuts that make boys look like lesbians,” I said to myself.

I get that if you’re poor new clothing is not at the top of the list of expenditures. It may look old, dated, or not “new”. That’s fine — totally just doing what’s best for you. I don’t shop at Hollister either. But see, clothing has these little labels. They have sizes. And stores, even Goodwill, has lots of clothes in lots of sizes. So no matter what your race, I do not understand people who wear t-shirts that are two sizes too large.

If you were wearing a suit it’s the difference in saying to the world, “I have a career” and “I have a court date” with a bunch of wrinkled jeans and baggy shoulders. Maybe that’s “white culture”, but I think any rational look would point to that being “having gainful employment”. There are rules and we have to play by them. I don’t like wearing a suit, but if I wanted a job in a downtown tower making $90,000 a year, I’d get a damn suit that fit and made me look like I give a damn, even if I didn’t.

But there are a lot of things I can’t wrap my brain around. Things like why people smoke, drink in excess, or Lady Gaga.

If you’re under the age of 35 and you smoke, I can’t understand why. I will never understand why. Because it seems incredibly straightforward to me that you have received immense amounts of education and understanding about smoking and yet you still do it. As a result I will probably look down upon you in some way. I just do. I don’t think there should be any laws against smoking, you can do whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have opinions.

It’s like if you have a tattoo of a spider on your face, it will probably impact my opinions about you in whether I do business with you, talk to you, hire you, etc. People with tattoos of spiders on their face do not get to be in the boardroom. Well, you may be cleaning the boardroom after everyone else has left, but you will not be running the room. Sure, there’s probably some hipster indie bullshit shop out there where you can prove me wrong, but the CEOs of America’s biggest companies do not have a spider on their face.

But there have been a few things that have been bugging me lately all in light of recent Ferguson, MO developments. They deal with race, class, and just not understanding people. I was curious whether black people commit murder at a higher rate than white people or other races. Turns out, they totally do:

The department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report offers a snapshot of racial disparities among violent crime victims. Black people represented an estimated 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2005, the latest data available, but were the victims of 49 percent of all murders and 15 percent of rapes, assaults and other nonfatal violent crimes nationwide. Most of the black murder victims — 93 percent — were killed by other black people, the study found. About 85 percent of white victims were slain by other white people

So white people commit more murders because, obviously, there are more white people. But per capita, black communities clearly have a problem. And this is what white people just can’t understand. Those of us not committing murder just can’t wrap our brains around this.

It’s like a little kid who is about to touch a hot stove. “Don’t touch it, it’s hot,” you say but the kid does it anyway. “Don’t murder people, that’s not cool,” you say, but there people go. I don’t get it — no amount of poverty or discrimination makes me think that murder is ever the way to go.

I’m a gay man, so I’m aware of cultural discrimination. I just shut up about it. I don’t have to walk into a meeting and say, “Hey I’m Justin, gay, and here to help you with your website.” Doesn’t really work that way, and it doesn’t matter. Yes, I get that black people are visibly black, but a lot of gay men are clearly gay, so it’s not all lost.

It’s the label we’re all hung up on, partly because the government and everyone else is so fixated on “getting numbers” about literally everything. Point is I just don’t think you can “explain away” the violent crimes that are committed in the black community.

Black people totally get the short end of the stick on a lot of things. I get that economic opportunities are lower, pay is lower, stereotypes are rough to shake, the police aren’t really on your side, probably because it’s hard to get a good education and get a break. But you can’t tell me you had to commit murder today because you had to eat.

And when situations like Ferguson happen and we see looting and theft and battery and assaults, I hope to goodness it’s just bad reporting. That it’s a media bias covering a store not in a biased way, but because it’s happening, and the looting and rampaging is just part of the story that trumps the peaceful protests.

But there are some things that just don’t translate. So looting happens in Ferguson, but I think we can all agree that absolutely would not ever happen in Carmel in any circumstance except nuclear holocaust. “Oh, well, there’s a big income disparity.” Okay, so looting happens in Ferguson, but can anyone honestly say that would happen under similar circumstances in Salem, Indiana? In Shelbyville? Maybe?

It’s as if the logic is straight from middle school. “I’m mad at my teacher so I’m going to go break this window at the hardware store.”

It just seems very simple to me, and I think most of us, no matter where we grew up. Indianapolis’ crime problem (and any inner-city) has always puzzled me because compared to my upbringing, I’m just sorta flabbergasted. There are museums, libraries filled with literally everything, and things to do a bus ride away. $1.75 gets you from 30th street to downtown. In Salem I remember playing with sticks. There was no library for my taxing district, there was no transportation, and there were no people around to play with.

People in rural communities have just as much trouble with meth and drugs (my old neighbor holds the record for Indiana’s largest marijuana growing operation bust) and lack of parents and access to higher education as anyone in Ferguson, and to my knowledge there’s never been any looting in Salem.

I have no idea how to fix any of these problems. I almost believe you, me, or “the government” can’t fix them. It seems apparently entirely cultural — for the majority and the minority — but that could be part of the solution. Stop referring to people in groups and just call them “people”. No more “black”, “Mexican”, “white”, or “gay” labels. Just people.

The rest is on you as an individual. The police are just there to protect private property. And I imagine if there were a riot outside my house or even down the street from my house or business I’d want the police to exercise every imaginable bit of reasonable force to keep my stuff safe, because that’s what the government is there for.

We’ll have to see how the investigation shakes out and whether the police were inept or wrong, but it doesn’t excuse the actions of a lot of people, white and black.