Vote indicates state newspapers have a Republican problem

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The House vote on the amendment to kill a $250 cap on state and local government public notice advertising would indicate Indiana newspapers have a Republican problem. 

The vote defeating Rep. Terri Austin’s, R-Anderson, amendment for S.B. 535 was 54-39. All 54 votes against the 2nd reading amendment were cast by Republicans. Granted there are some extenuating circumstances. 

 All the Representatives understood that the language would be removed from the bill when it was returned to its author, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville. The language was clearly not germane to a bill limiting what cities and towns could control outside their borders. This allowed some who would normally vote with HSPA on a transparency issue, could vote against a Democrat-filed amendment to show solidarity with the Republican legislators pushing for the ill-conceived cap. There were some who wanted to send a message to those newspapers whose pricing for notices of sheriff’s sale was seen as price-gouging. 

But it’s clear to me that a level of disappointment, if not anger, with the press exists among many Republican legislators, both in the House and Senate. It’s supported by comments made during conversations I’ve had with more than one Republican legislator. 

There’s a perception among them that their local newspaper doesn’t represent the voice of the community. They see the editorial page as liberal and biased against Indiana conservative views and values. 

“No wonder circulation for newspapers is dropping,” one Senator said. “People aren’t seeing their values reflected in the newspaper.” He wasn’t talking about the Washington Post or New York Times, but his hometown newspaper. 

This particular Senator said he wouldn’t mind if the editorial page content ran 60-40 liberal to conservative or 70-30, but said his paper runs more 90-10 regardless of the local political demographics. In the last presidential election, only three Indiana counties voted for Hillary Clinton while the remaining 89 went for President Donald Trump. 

Another legislator was dismayed that his local newspaper had stopped running letters to the editor. The feeling was this newspaper had abdicated its position as the conduit of the community’s voice. 

One state Representative shared a recent story whose explanation of what a bill did was lacking and would give the reader a misleading impression of what the legislature was doing. 

A state Senator shared a satirical column that was published on page 3 amongst news articles with no designation that it was a column. He said many in the community contacted him confused because it was displayed as a news story, not an opinion piece. 

“People read the paper to get the benefit of the news,” he said. “Give them the facts so they can decide what the truth is.” Opinion should be relegated to the editorial page or marked as columns or opinion pieces, he added. 

Other complaints focus on service and quality issues. They note how the pages are narrower and fewer and local content correspondingly is less, but subscription costs keep increasing. There are frustrations voiced over the lack of phone calls being answered or bodies available to talk to in offices. 

Is perception reality? Each publisher and editor will have to answer as to their newspapers. But there are enough legislators who feel this way that it makes sense for publishers and editors to do a little review to see where the truth lies. 

We may find that the criticism of the local press comes with being the majority party. If it’s your party controlling the legislative agenda, it’s your party’s decisions that will be scrutinized by the press. 

We may find that we do present a balanced look at political issues, but not as good a job explaining how an editorial position was formed. 

Hopefully, an honest self-appraisal will not find an ingrained political bias, but if it does, hopefully we have the courage to make changes that improve our position as fair providers of local journalism. 

We should all strive to “provide the best obtainable version of the truth” as noted by journalist Carl Bernstein.