AuthorFallows, Deborah

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 Meams, surprised the legislature with a proposal that the university assume operating responsibility for the city's schools. (See James Fallows, "When Gown Embraces Town," page 18.)

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...

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