We need local news and local reporters more than ever
Now this is interesting. I briefly caught a story on NPR the other day about a small town in California where the overwhelmingly working class citizens were in an uproar after discovering that their city officials had been paying themselves exorbitant salaries for the past five years.
We're talking "the highest salaries in the nation" high, and this for a town of just 2.5 square miles and in a state with a $19 billion deficit.
It's a fascinating tale on several levels. First of all, it's always maddening (if sadly not surprising anymore) to hear about a few amoral individuals taking gross advantage during a time of severe hardship for everyone else. Instead of tightening their belts and working to improve the high unemployment amongst their neighbors and up the median income of just $35,000 a year a handful of the city's officials decided to live lavishly while everyone around them suffered.
It's the proverbial "pulling the ladder up behind you" tack taken by so many neo-cons and straight-up cons throughout time.
Secondly, though, this story may well be a case in point about the dangers of not having a local newspaper. As noted by Brendan Kiley, writing at The Stranger, the town in question (Bell) has been without its own newspaper for several years now, and it took a major investigation by the LA Times to uncover the problem.
City employee salaries should be publicly available, and easily at that. Good, hard-nosed journalists working locally could have called that out and followed up by exposing the bloated salaries much earlier than the LA Times which, to be fair, works to serve a much larger area.
Which is exactly why more localized news outlets are so crucial.
This problem isn't relegated to California alone, of course. A recent expose in Milwaukee Magazine points out the shaky financial ground on which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel now stands, and the very real risk of losing that paper in the not-so-distant future.
Meanwhile, right here in Madison layoffs continue at both the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times, which now operate jointly (another effort at cost-cutting). There has apparently been an uptick in digital ad sales for Lee Enterprises (the company that owns both papers), which is certainly good news, but their overall profits are still down and both jobs and benefits have been cut at many of their outlets.
The reasons for all of this are, of course, many and varied. Between the recent broader financial collapse and the longer-term difficulties of a changing, more digital (and thereby freely available) market, it's a decidedly difficult time to be in the newspaper business.
I understand the hard spot this puts managers and executives in when it comes to balancing budgets and trying to stay afloat. But I also understand that continually reducing the size of your workforce i.e. the number of feet you have on the ground to cover stories and slashing their benefits ultimately does more harm than good.
Less local coverage and more outsourcing tend to mean fewer readers. That can also lead to situations like the one in Bell, California where a major scandal goes unchecked for far too long because there weren't any professional journalists around to keep up with it.
I value the contributions of citizen bloggers and the free flow of information as much as anyone (heck, I am one of those obnoxious bloggers), but I strongly believe that they must be equally balanced by a well-trained, professional journalist corps in order for some semblance of democracy to be maintained in this country. (Bloggers, after all, simply don't usually have the time or resources necessary to really dig up stories.)
How we reach that point is a whole other can of worms. Perhaps we need to explore the federal funding angle once advocated by none other than the Found Fathers, who implemented a series of postal subsidies and other tools to assist in the wide dissemination of newspapers around the country. It sounds absurd on its face, and could certainly become so if handled carelessly, but such a system isn't unthinkable. Read John Nichols and Robert McChesney's take on the idea and you'll get a good idea of what's being discussed:
...the post-colonial press system was built on massive postal and printing subsidies. The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism. The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms. Their initiatives were essential to America's progress.
The value of federal journalism subsidies as a percentage of gross domestic product in the first half of the 19th century ran, by our calculations, to about $30 billion per year in current dollars. It is this sort of commitment, established by Jefferson and Madison, that we must imagine to address the current crisis.
They go on to note that "Saving newspapers may be impossible. But we can save journalism." And that's an important point. Regardless of how we go about it - government subsidies, non-profits, whatever the key thing is that we learn to better value and support real, independent, thorough journalism. That means a financial commitment to keep those feet on the ground and doing democracy's work. It means being willing to throw off out-dated modes of thinking and operating that keep us tied to unsustainable business models.
News outfits can't afford to continue on as though nothing has changed, as though there's some hope that the traditional newspaper format will make a comeback. It's time for bold ideas and big changes. It's time for the general public to demand it and for management to step up and make it happen.
What happened in Bell, California and in countless other towns and cities that have lost their local news sources should never be acceptable, never be the status quo. Through a combination of governmental and financial regulatory reforms, as well as changes in how we value and operate news organizations, we can see that it isn't.
Just when you thought it was safe...
It's baaaaaaack in the news, that is. The Edgewater! Oh how I've missed you (not really). What's up now? The project request to expand a downtown TIF district to include the hotel redevelopment (and $16 million for it) is up for a vote with the TIF Joint Review Board. Now, said body has never shot down a request, usually voting 5-0 in favor but this is the Edgewater we're talking about, one of the most controversial TIF requests in recent memory. Apparently, too, "at least two review board members express[ed] reservations during recent interviews about extending the TIF district to benefit the Edgewater redevelopment."
Another interesting angle I hadn't considered before comes up here as well:
The Madison School Board has previously complained the city is putting too much land into TIF districts, depriving the school district of badly needed tax dollars at a time of diminished state funding for schools.
In fact, when the city proposed expanding TIF district 23 downtown, Mathiak, under directive from the full School Board, voted against it at the TIF review board meeting in January 2010.
Mathiak says the School Board was opposed because it delayed payments to the school district and instead used those funds to make aesthetic improvements to the Capitol Square - including flower planters and granite curbs.
"Businesses whose properties benefit from the aesthetic improvements paid no part of the cost of those improvements," Mathiak says in explaining the board's opposition.
I've had qualms, quite publicly, in the past over the general design of the redevelopment, its environmental impact, and the way it was seemingly shoved through committees, but in the end I'm generally in favor of projects that will create jobs and improve the city. That said the Edgewater TIF application has never sat right with me. The School Board's complaint only adds to my reasons why.