This post should have gone up last night after my peaceful arrival home from a day trip to Newark, New Jersey. But my arrival was not peaceful. I had left my car parked in the BWI train station garage with its lights on. The battery, obviously, was dead. I cannot be held responsible for things that happen before 7 am.
I’m having trouble finding words to begin this post, and gliding past the windows of this Metroliner, the scenery of central New Jersey isn’t helping.
Oooh. This is a nice town.
Sorry, I’m easily distracted and there is little I enjoy more than watching landscapes roll by.
Anyway, I don’t want to write about trains or windows or Jersey. I want to write about newspapers. Yippee!
As a former community reporter and a current citizen journalist, I’m keenly aware of the important role community newspapers, like those produced by Patuxent Publishing, play in local affairs. Indeed, I’ve talked about this from practically day one of this blog.
In our media saturated society, news tends to find you. Coverage of national and even state issues is practically everywhere: television, radio, print and online. When it comes to community affairs, however, a local paper is pretty much your only source.
But while local rags share news, they also promote civic engagement and enhance democracy by providing a forum for discussion and a springboard for local groups to advocate and organize. Much of the success of Save Merriweather was due to the fact that local papers provided a microphone and a measure of legitimacy to what was really just a couple of guys asking questions.
At their best, local papers are vital components of a healthy community. The problem is: They aren’t always at their best, as in the case of the recent Columbia elections.
(For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the Columbia Flier, which we “need” more than the Sun, the Post or the Examiner.)
If I may, here is my list of grievances surrounding the Flier’s election coverage:
- Only one real story for each Columbia Council race.
- No coverage of candidate forums.
- No coverage of village board races.
- Endorsements issued only days before the elections – long after most ballots were mailed in – and based on answers to a set of five questions without actually meeting any of the candidates.
In CA elections especially, there is a chronic information deficit. The races don’t involve political parties. Few candidates have websites. And there’s only one debate. Most voters aren’t even aware of who’s running (or even that there’s an election).
I’m sure we can lay some of the blame on residential apathy. While that’s a whole ‘nother story, it is in some way related to media coverage. After all, if you can’t get the local paper to care enough to adequately cover a race, what do you expect of under-informed residents? (I don't think protections for a free press were listed first in the Bill of Rights on accident.)
Now, I’m not trying to blame my loss on the Flier. And I’m not just writing so I can whine about the media, even though such whining is what made blogs what they are today. Rather, I’d like to offer a suggestion.
Underlying this discussion is the reality of limited resources. The Flier, after all, is a free paper and it’s supported almost entirely by advertising revenue. To be sure, space in all newspapers is at a premium, but this is particularly true in those supported by ads.
Nevertheless, in my reporting days, I was the only writer for a paper covering a town of 5,000 residents (I also did some county government and schools reporting and our total distribution covered a region of about 15,000). Meanwhile, the Flier devotes one, perhaps two reporters specifically to Columbia (county and schools are covered by others), a city of over 90,000. The ratios are a little off, no?
(Disclosure: My coverage of a local election may have been extensive [at least one story each week over the course of the two-month campaign], but it was not perfect. However, that, too, is a whole ‘nother story.)
On the face of it, more reporters focused on Columbia seems like a reasonable approach to filling the information holes. But that’s a very old way of doing things, and times they are a-changin’, baby.
Blog triumphialists like to say bloggers are going to take over the media. Gone will be the days of centralized news reporting and dissemination. They’re wrong. Mostly.
Many blogs lean heavily on news organizations to provide them with source material to write about, hence the beauty of the hyperlink. While reporting requirements on things like presidential campaigns, foreign wars and natural disasters are likely too onerous for one (or even a small collection) of bloggers to cover, village board meetings, candidate forums and other community events certainly aren’t.
Of course, the capability of doing something does not automatically lead to the desire to do it. Otherwise, I’d be going to and writing about a lot more meetings. If, on the other hand, I was getting paid…
But this isn’t about me making more money (well, maybe it kind of is). It’s about incentivizing a pool of latent resources (the writers among us) to act for the benefit the community, the Flier and most importantly, themselves.
So, after all that, here’s the pitch. The Flier should pay freelance writers to cover local meetings and issues that would otherwise be ignored. Don’t bother printing all of these stories in the paper (only the good/important ones), but post them online with links to relevant resources (i.e. agendas, meeting minutes, etc.). Because most readers still like words on dead trees, perhaps they could include snippets of the online stories from the past week in the print edition.
I’m guessing for the cost of a single additional reporter, the Flier could post five or six more stories a week. Plus, they wouldn’t have to pay for benefits. Win-win!
Since I don’t have any clout at the Flier (obviously), I’m basically just throwing out an idea here. Maybe I’m crazy and my ideas doomed to fail (or worse, be ignored).
But what else am I supposed to do on a train bound for Baltimore?