There is much talk, justifiably, about the upsurge in philanthropic support for local journalism and indeed local news, in America. This is significant because of the often-cited finding that people trust local news more, and also because of its connection to our democratic way of life. So when Mirror Indy , a new non-profit news outlet launched in Indianapolis, especially with a top team that exited IndyStar, Gannett’s award-winning legacy news outlet, it got my attention.

What’s more, as if in response to the heat of competition from Mirror Indy, there was another development. Gannett and IndyStar announced a $2 million investment to grow their own local reporting and expand the sales team. Their executive editor was quoted saying readers can “expect to see more coverage that’s reflective of the city and meets their needs in critical areas like government accountability and community-centered journalism.”

In wording that draws directly the winds of change blowing through American journalism, Mirror Indy clearly attempts to differentiate itself from the Indy Star. Their vision: “A stronger Indianapolis, where democratized storytelling ignites action.” And they add this to their site in boldface: “We believe in local news in which we see ourselves”.

Indeed, as far as setting direction goes, Mirror Indy hit the nail on the head. American news media, including and particularly local news outlets, have a long history of elitist sourcing. This means the exclusion of everyday and particularly marginalized voices that often convey truths through hope and pain, with an authenticity that expert sources and official authorities do not offer.

Excited, I went to the site’s government section and looked at several stories for signs of democratic storytelling and news in which we see ourselves.

This is a prolific team reporting stories on bills of substantial public significance. This in itself is a good thing, to keep watch on the legislature and city hall. But what I did not find in some key stories were the voices of people from the impacted communities, relating to the very legislation being debated in the Indiana legislature. Take a few examples.

Indiana’s birth control bill was getting attention some weeks ago because a popular form of birth control - intrauterine devices or IUDs - was omitted from the bill. The concern reported in Mirror Indy’s coverage was that IUDs were a valid choice for reproductive health and that the compromise legislation was going to hurt women on Medicaid. Both these stories source viewpoints and quotes from several legislators and medical professionals, and rightfully so. Legislators are the primary wielders of power here, and hospitals and doctors are undoubtedly stakeholders. Hospitals also have to stock (or de-stock) IUDs depending on the bill.

But low-income women on Medicaid are the impacted group and in both these stories, and there were no views from any of them directly. I.e., they were not sources for these stories, named or unnamed. More importantly, when women read these stories, they are not going to see themselves, even as they see the trading of diverse viewpoints between the lawmakers and medical professionals. Equally, when the elite of Indiana read these stories they will also miss what impacted women might say.

Mirror Indy reported on another bill two weeks ago that would allow Indiana to restrict academic tenure for professors whose classes, legislators claim, may be seen as unwelcoming by conservative students. This was an otherwise informative story about a controversial bill, with coverage of protests and hearings. The key aspect is that this bill claims to connect the experiences and fates of two different groups: University faculty and students. Mirror Indy’s story had viewpoints from professors, and rightly so.

And again, for a story that has 20 instances of the word “students” and also reports students joining faculty in a protest at the legislature, the number of viewpoints directly sourced from students themselves - conservative, liberal, or independent – was exactly zero. Missing actual student voices about a bill that seeks to counter the perceived unwelcomeness they might feel is a nagging gap in representation. What if different students had views that could complicate or deepen the narrative from the bipolar one?

I decided to check on another Mirror Indy story. A new police chief had taken over at Indianapolis recently, and the newsroom covered this in a backdrop of a “fractured relationship with the Black community”. The reporter framed the story around the Black “activists” and their hopes, and quoted three members of the clergy who represented the Black community. This is good sourcing, particularly if the Black reverends see themselves as community representatives.

But there were no voices of everyday Black people who do not hold such titles (e.g. clergy) or roles as community leaders, and yet have a direct stake in policing on the streets of Indianapolis. If they were reading the piece, yes, they may nod that the reverends’ cautious optimism was captured, but they will not see their own voices, contextualized for that particular story. The elite reading the story is not going to see their voices in the story either.

Money alone will not cut it

It is good news that both philanthropic and commercial capital is flowing into America’s cities to boost local news coverage and support journalists monitoring the statehouses. But money alone is not going to democratize storytelling. We need a shift in the prioritization and culture of everyday sourcing. In local news, these gaps are the most relevant to plug first.

It is no one’s case that all of American local journalism, or for that matter newly launched reformist newsrooms will never include everyday voices. They do. But governmental power is the most significant kind of power that impacts entire populations at scale while drawing its legitimacy from the people themselves. Everyone recognizes that journalists have deadlines. Expert and official sources are quicker to respond but on-the-ground folks working two jobs a day may not. Yes, it does take more time and will to build real relationships.

So democratizing storytelling needs to start with democratizing sourcing. That would mean depicting and centering the lived experiences and concerns in the voices of those impacted, particularly when our stories otherwise elevate the views of elite actors in our city power structures. This change must happen.