SOUTH BEND – As noted in a South Bend Tribune headline, it was: “A very busy year for your watchdog.”
Yes, newspapers, despite cutbacks in reporters and coverage, the loss of circulation and advertising, and dismissal by critics as irrelevant, still perform a watchdog role.
The Tribune story about that role, keeping an eye on public officials and others to spot and disclose corruption and fraud that would otherwise go undetected, focused on the newspaper’s uncovering of wrongdoing by Elkhart police and in the Elkhart County justice system.
The police scandal brought the firing of the police chief and a decision by the mayor to forego running for reelection. The mess, now uncovered, can be cleaned up by good cops, informed citizens and determined civic leaders.
Tribune journalists flexed their muscle in other cases from the last year as well. Among them were investigations into the sudden departure of a Transpo CEO, excuses for a vote-counting problem, and a fatal crash involving a speeding South Bend police car.
That’s what newspapers are supposed to do. Long have done. Still do, though with fewer watchdogs now barking.
Some communities are left without newspapers or with publications so lacking in resources that they can’t look beyond the surface or won’t dare to do so in fear of alienating remaining readers or advertisers.
It’s unfortunate. Public officials tempted to steal or abuse powers don’t have to fear in those cases that a newspaper watchdog might be watching.
The problem goes beyond local coverage. Most states now lack the extensive coverage of the legislature and state offices once provided by newspapers from throughout the state. Few papers can afford to send reporters to the state capital.
Nationally, press coverage dwindles as well, except for the efforts of giants like the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
What they do is ridiculed by people who don’t like the facts uncovered. Journalists are the ones seeking to drain the swamp in Washington, even as swamp creatures call the facts reported about them “fake news.”
It’s not just politicians who seek to undercut the honorable cause of journalism. What’s uncovered by watchdogs in the press often has nothing at all to do with politics.
That was certainly the case following extensive and exemplary reporting by the Indianapolis Star in uncovering widespread sexual abuse of gymnasts.
The Star didn’t help to bring down the infamous Dr. Larry Nassar because he was a Republican or a Democrat. They neither knew nor cared if he contributed to some political party or candidate. They cared that he was a monster who needed to be sent where he is now, prison.
Corruption uncovered by newspapers in their communities usually has little or nothing to do with the politics of the perpetrator. A sheriff found to be stealing public funds isn’t on the take because of the local Republican or Democratic party. A reporter uncovering the theft doesn’t care if the sheriff was elected as a Republican, a Democrat or as the last remaining Bull Moose lawman.
Newspapers aren’t what they used to be. Still, they are something. They serve a vital watchdog role not easily mimicked elsewhere in the community.
Newspapers may not in decades hence be landing on porches, a printed product. But the “press,” even if without presses, will continue online to provide news and bark at public servants who serve only themselves and at others guilty of fraud or the horrors of a Larry Nassar.
Retaining that role is vital. Now. And in whatever way journalists provide the news in the future. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.