As described in this post, Jim Fallows and I are long-time supporters of The Washington Monthly, where Jim had his first magazine job exactly 50 years ago. In their latest college-guide issue, I had this article about the way the student newspaper at Ball State University had taken over some of the responsibilities of covering the local news.
The article is reprinted here with The Washington Monthly’s approval, and with our thanks.
In 2000, the Gannett media company purchased the local newspaper in Muncie, Indiana, The Star Press. Much of what happened next will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the long, accelerating decline of independent local news sources.
As this magazine’s editor in chief, Paul Glastris, has written, first the chains began economizing on independent local coverage. Then the chains themselves succumbed to takeovers by even more ruthlessly profit-minded “vulture capital” firms, of which the most notorious are Alden and GateHouse Media. Three years ago, GateHouse took over the Gannett chain (and rebranded itself with Gannett’s name). This has left The Star Press and countless other once-independent and -profitable local papers with smaller newsrooms, shrinking audiences, and fewer possibilities to do the kind of detailed coverage that connects citizens with the progress and challenges of their towns.
That’s the familiar part of the story. Here is the surprise: the way another local institution rose to fill part of the civic information gap. That institution is The Ball State Daily News, the student newspaper at Ball State University in Muncie. Its performance in the past four years, in response to a historic change in the city’s public schools, is an important illustration of how colleges can innovate to address community challenges.
The background to the story is a decades-long cycle of decline in the city’s public school system, Muncie Community Schools (MCS). Enrollments shrank, performance fell, and budgetary pressures rose until, in 2018, the state of Indiana officially placed the Muncie school system under state receivership (along with schools in Gary). Soon afterward, the new president of Ball State, Geoffrey Mearns, surprised the legislature with a proposal that the university assume operating responsibility for the city’s schools.
This was a revolutionary step in U.S. educational history. We’ve found no previous case of a publicly run university managing a whole city’s K–12 schools. (The closest counterpart was in the 1980s, when Boston University, a private institution, assumed control of the Chelsea schools, near Boston.) But the legislature agreed; a new school board with new powers took office, and MCS began the slow process of recovery.
But how would community members be kept informed on what was working and what wasn’t? The normal news outlets had strained to keep up with routine events. This is where The Ball State Daily News came in.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Ball State Daily News. In March 1922, the paper debuted as The Easterner, named for the Indiana State Normal School, Eastern Division, the institution that eventually became Ball State University.
The front page of the very first edition, now viewable in digital archives, is formally laid out like today’s New York Times. It announced itself as “A Live Paper From a Live School,” the “adequate expression of the school life and spirit.” The college was then four years old, and its spirit was growing. The first day’s stories include growing enrollments, a geology class trip to the Pacific coast, the baseball schedule, an announcement of the Spanish Club banquet, and the addition of a trial faculty position for a “physical director” for women—name and gender unmentioned.
Today, the Daily News publishes a daily digital edition, a Thursday print edition, and special editions throughout the year. It is housed within a big media footprint at BSU, the eight-year-old Unified Media Lab, a hub designed to encourage multimedia collaborations among the paper, two magazines, a media metrics training center, a weather broadcast station, a TV newscast, a sports media and production center, and WCRD radio.
The paper maintains a professional culture. The director of the Unified Media Lab, Lisa Renze-Rhodes, identifies her role at the editorially independent Daily News as an adviser who is available to help students “make the best decisions they can.” But “at the end of the day, they have authority to move forward or not,” she told me. “We need seasoned reporters, who understand quality and repercussions.” The paper is financed through university support, advertising revenue, and donor dollars.
As the turnover of the Muncie schools was beginning, the Daily News leadership and Renze-Rhodes met and agreed that this was a chance to move beyond the paper’s traditional legacy of standard nuts-and-bolts reporting about the city.
The students thought hard about telling deeper stories about the community, and about the schools. They were aware that Muncie residents were used to hearing bad reports about the local schools—the collapsed budget, the dropping enrollment, the poor graduation rates. The student journalists felt they could serve the community better by going inside the classrooms to see what was happening and telling the stories of the people working to make change. Journalism exists to cover the exceptional—an emergency, a surprising event. But much of its value lies in covering the routine—what happens day to day in classrooms and communities, what is working and what is not. A student newspaper cannot pretend to be a major investigative journalism institution. But the Daily News has given Muncie’s citizens a more nuanced picture of their schools than they would otherwise have.
Brooke Kemp was the editor in chief of the Daily News when the partnership between the university and the schools was under way. In a “Letter From the Editor” in April 2019, she wrote, “We hope to provide a full picture of the commitment to progress within the district. While we know MCS faces obstacles, we want readers to see what is being done.” Kemp told me in a conversation this summer that it had been exciting to lead the paper at this historic moment: “A reporter’s dream—being young and being able to cover this felt like a big deal.”
Taylor Smith, this year’s outgoing Daily News editor in chief and a first-year reporter in 2018–19, echoes Kemp’s sentiment. Smith says the students were motivated to tell the stories that no one else was telling and were delighted to work like “real journalists.” One of her favorites is on a history teacher telling his students about Muncie itself, and “what it means for us to be Middletown and having inspired Americans that way.” (Nearly a century ago, Muncie was the setting for Middletown, a famed book of sociology.)
Covering the story of the university-MCS partnership was a win for student journalists. Renze-Rhodes said this chance helped the students improve their craft, and “now more than ever, there is a need for strong, smart journalism.”
Over the past four years, the Daily News has published several dozen articles about different aspects of the collaboration between Ball State and MCS. The series is dubbed The Partnership Project and branded “One district. One university. One shared future.”
In April 2021, Natasha Leland reported from inside a first-grade Spanish-English bilingual classroom at West View Elementary. She talked with students, teachers, parents, and BSU faculty whose university students were helping at the school as part of their Spanish studies. She wrote about the history, goals, and everyday challenges of the dual-language program, and the context of bilingualism in the U.S.
In May 2021, Dorian Ducre wrote about Indiana’s new bill, inspired by the 2020 national election, requiring middle school students to take a one-semester civics course. The article included commentary from a state legislator, a Muncie middle school principal, and BSU political science professors about the various implications of the new requirement.
Having student reporters dig into stories was a new experience for the town as well as the young reporters. “Creating the relationships, building the trust, took time,” said Kemp, describing the initial reticence among those in the schools who had grown wary of negative stories. The staff was intent on building a solid foundation to pass along, aware that the reporters’ longest tenure would be a short four years.
Kemp told me that once they started writing, the situation “became real.” It was a big step, she said, “accepting the fact that we are a local paper and a local source of news.” Kemp grew up in Muncie, but through the Daily News reporting, she saw a new side of her hometown. “These are people who are moving our community forward,” she said. “I never knew about it before. I was being a better citizen, too.”
For the city of Muncie itself, this kind of local reporting has a number of advantages: helping it see its own story unfold, letting townspeople speak for themselves, imparting to students a rich sense of where they live, and building shared knowledge of a community and its values.
Lee Ann Kwiatkowski is CEO and director of public education of Muncie Community Schools. Like Taylor Smith, she told me the students cover stories not done by the mainstream press in Muncie. “They do a nice job tailoring stories and going deeper,” she said. “Word about the schools is getting around. More people learn about work we’re doing because of the university paper.” Andy Klotz, MCS’s chief communications officer, told me that while it is difficult to quantify the impact of the stories on enrollment, graduation rates, and so forth with hard numbers, there is a clear soft measure. “A big factor [is] turning the tide on old perceptions of an old system that existed before the partnership,” he said.
Smith described to me the creative audience development strategy that her team carried out, building readership through savvy social media that connects with students via Instagram, alumni via Facebook, and colleagues via Twitter. The students also applied an old-fashioned shoe-leather approach to building awareness, providing copies to local businesses and showing up at community events in Muncie to distribute papers when stories relevant to the event-goers appeared. When Muncie’s branch of Habitat for Humanity held a fund-raiser, copies of the Daily News were available for the roughly 300 attendees to take home.
On June 23, 2022, nearly four years into its new reporting style, the Daily News ran a sports story that jumped off the virtual page in contrast to the 1922 announcement of a trial position for a “physical director” for women. The headline is “50 Years of Title IX.” Just as women’s sports have moved from the sidelines to the big arenas, so has the Daily News moved from being a college newspaper to must-read local journalism.