Dailies Aren't Telling Citizens What They Need to Know | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Dailies Aren't Telling Citizens What They Need to Know

Ain't it the truth? We're surrounded by evidence of this problem, as discussed by Governing magazine. This is a good story, and very thought-provoking. It starts out:

It is hardly unusual for politicians to lash out at the loca newspapers that cover them. But a few months ago, whe Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis took aim at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he skipped the standard complaints about bias or sensationalism. Instead, he charged in his blog that staff cuts and other changes at the newspaper were hurting the city itself.

"The P-D's spotty and often inaccurate coverage of local, state, national, and international news has made opening the hometown newspaper a chore fewer and fewer St. Louisans are willing to face each morning," he wrote. "The paper's current struggling fiscal health and demoralized voice are drags on our own civic renaissance."

Slay's little diatribe occasioned pretty much the response you'd expect: A Post-Dispatch columnist remarked that the mayor seemed "tired and irritable"; the local journalism review speculated that Slay was unhappy with the paper's coverage of his troubled attempt to take control of the St. Louis School Board; the editor of the Post-Dispatch gibed, "I would hope, as the mayor, he has more important things to do than concern himself with the health of the Post-Dispatch."

Yet Slay isn't the only St. Louisan with important things to do who is concerned about the Post-Dispatch. Last spring, a group of local civic leaders and journalists turned a memorial service for a revered former editor of the newspaper into an impromptu forum on its decline. Former U.S. Senator Thomas F. Eagleton delivered a eulogy lamenting the paper's "dumbing down" over the past few years.

Read the whole piece.

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And how familiar does this part sound? That seems to have been the problem in San Diego, where the Union-Tribune, the city’s only major daily, essentially slumbered while one of the biggest municipal scandals in recent memory unfolded. The scandal included massive underfunding of the city’s pension reserves, chronic overstating of assets and general budgetary malfeasance that cost a mayor his job in 2004 and got several city councilmen convicted on corruption and extortion charges. The newspaper, which over the years had cut its city hall coverage to the bone, barely stirred itself. “I am convinced that one of the reasons the financial crisis happened was because the Union-Tribune was not serving as a watchdog,” says Carl DeMaio, who runs the libertarian-oriented Performance Institute, which did much of the work that uncovered San Diego’s problems. “It was not checking statements by city hall and was not aggressive in checking a lot of indications of wrongdoing. It was supposed to be the city’s watchdog and instead was its lapdog.” Things are changing in San Diego, in part because the newspaper was embarrassed and has beefed up its investigative reporting, but mostly because a longtime Union-Tribune columnist who’d been fired from his job joined with a local philanthropist and a couple of reporters from the business weekly in town to set up voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit online newspaper. The voice now has six reporters and editors and routinely beats every other news outlet in the region to meaty stories. “As one of our sources says, it’s always been a big happy beach party here,” says Andrew Donohue, one of the site’s two co-editors. “There hasn’t been tough reporting or critical thinking in the press here for a long time. When someone kicks the ball, the rest of the media run to it, so we’ve been the ones trying to kick the ball.” On a wide range of stories, from revelations about bad investments by the San Diego County pension fund to an investigation of misdoings at an affordable housing agency to ongoing coverage of city council meetings and development proposals, the voice has resuscitated not only news about government but also San Diego’s public conversation. “It has far more impact on what goes on in San Diego today than the Union-Tribune,” says DeMaio. “There is no opinion leader in San Diego who doesn’t check out the voice twice a day. So it starts the echo chamber of what they talk about, and then that’s picked up by the traditional press.”


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