November 3, 2016
On Reading Today’s News

Guest blogger Susan Neville details her desire for the future of our state in our Next Indiana Bookshelf blog series.

For most of my adult life I’ve started each day with the Indianapolis Star.  In that liminal morning space between darkness and daylight, between sleep and wakefulness, I enjoy the warmth and taste of coffee and the daily news. This, the paper seemed to say as the caffeine kicked in, is what you’ll need to think about, knowledge that may inform your actions on this day.

At some point the paper stopped speaking to me. The book reviews disappeared. The paper grew smaller. I used to think that Indiana was participating in a discussion that was national, even international, that we had a point of view, something to say, that there were stories in this state worth digging deeply into, stories with a history.

Anything there? I used to ask my husband, the early riser, as he turned over the paper and his corner of the couch to me each morning.  Good Mannweiler column, he’d say. Check out Mike Redmond, Judith Cebula, Dan Carpenter. Check out this investigative piece on the front page, this op-ed column. This is the state with a history of good journalism, the state that produced Ernie Pyle, editor and writer James Stewart, Janet Flanner, and many other important journalists.

But some mornings now the Indianapolis paper is so thin it feels like a newsletter. Other mornings it feels like an advertisement and entertainment delivery device.

My husband and I still start the day with the paper out of loyalty and habit, but now, I’m ashamed to say, I often turn to my Facebook news feed first. At first I thought it was an addiction. Now I’m sure that it is. But we turn to addictions when the real world seems too complex to bear.

And I have to admit that often I learn more on the web. Admittedly, I have a feed that suits me.  While I get the late night talk show clips and videos and for a while last year was in love again with David Bowie and Prince, I can easily skip things knowing that other more interesting things are waiting to rise up through the web. My morning feed often consists of friends linking to The New York Times, to Salon, to the Washington Post, The Guardian, to reviews and paintings and poems. Facebook is often where I find context and history and book reviews and editorials. I get links to pieces written by local columnists I admire—Matthew Tully for instance.  I’ll read his columns twice, once on a device and again in the paper. The feed takes me to books I might not have read otherwise, and those books take me back to the feed.  It’s the links to other newspapers that has become my morning paper. Twitter serves the same function for my children.

I have friends who are always liberal and friends who are always conservative and I enjoy the rants and honest voices and sometimes the clarity of argument—a clarity that requires listening to the other side—and the way their words remind me that yes, this is the thing I need to think about today.

After a half an hour of reading articles on my phone, I turn with reluctance to The Star.

This blog post is not meant to be a prophecy. I am not saying the Next Indiana will be our Facebook or Twitter feeds (or whatever it is that replaces them) though it may well be.  I’m not comparing print news to digital. I don’t particularly care how my news is delivered. (OK. That’s a lie. I do care, but that’s not important.) What I do care about is the story.

I don’t trust the algorithms of the feed or the brevity of the crowd-sourced information.  Like television news, there’s usually a dominant narrative, with people searching for the hook to jazz the narrative up instead of looking for the hidden story. And my liberal friends seem to be living in an entirely different country than my conservative ones.  During this strange election year we’ve seen the multiplication of faux-online papers that masquerade as conservative or liberal sources of news and we believe they’re staffed by journalists.  The articles are shared as though they’re real news, and every photograph of a candidate is photo-shopped beyond recognition and when you read the article if you agree with it you think it’s real news, and if you don’t agree, you can spot the fake headline and the unflattering photo. While I get both sides on my feed, I’m simply comparing propagandas and it took me a while to realize this. There’s no dialogue. And an algorithm is not an editor.

We’ve gained in immediacy (the trending stories) but lost variety and depth. My biggest concern, though, is how we’ve lost that depth in our reporting on the local.  This is not the fault of the journalists. It’s the fault of corporations that have purchased our local news. It’s our fault that we’ve let that happen. We have to care passionately about our own stories because if we don’t know one else will.

I believe in the importance of long-form storytelling. We need journalists and novelists who are willing to dig deeply into local soil.  Curious, imaginative people. When we produce these young people, they often leave—sometimes the state, sometimes journalism, sometimes their idealism. We desperately need young writers who are trained not only in the craft of journalism but in ethics and history and literature and science: writers who respect the way words work and who understand logic and argument and the process of investigation and where we have something to add, as Hoosiers, to the human conversation.

Mostly we need institutions that will give them freedom and time to pursue the stories, time to think and read.  We need good newspapers.

Because as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, 10 percent of the population is cruel and 10 percent kind and the other 80 percent is easily swayed. If I am going to be swayed, I would like to be well informed and to be moved in the direction of justice.

I can’t imagine how the news will be distributed in the Next Indiana.  I read The New York Times on my Kindle, knowing full well that to the New York Times my state and city are invisible.

The deep currents of commerce and politics and human failures and greatness should not be invisible.

We need a local news source with an ethos like the now-defunct Indianapolis Times, a local paper that had the courage and the vision to take on DC Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan and by extension the Indiana statehouse in the 1920s.  It was a local story with national repercussions, as all well-told stories are. The local is the universal. The paper won a Pulitzer for this work.

I want to trust that corruption will be exposed before it festers. I want the truth. I want it straight on and I want it slant. And I want it fresh each morning, with my coffee. That is what I hope for in the Next Indiana.

Susan Neville is the author of four books of creative nonfiction and two collections of short stories. Here stories have won the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Richard Sullivan Prize, and have appeared in two Pushcart Prize anthologies. She teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis. This post was written as part of a series celebrating the Next Indiana Bookshelf, a program of Indiana Humanities and the Indiana Center for the Book. Views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana Humanities or Indiana Center for the Book. Check the Indiana Humanities blog throughout 2016 for additional posts by authors detailing their vision for the Next Indiana. 


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