Informed Communities Are Healthy Communities

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Holding a copy of the Monitor-News up in our office, an incensed MAAC, Inc., President Denny Larson of Montevideo said, “And I had to find out about this in the newspaper!” It probably wasn’t meant as a compliment, but it sure made us smile inside.

What Larson was referring to was a story about his low bid on a demolition project in Appleton not getting the job. We aren’t talking about a small amount of change. Larson’s bid to Swift County was $40,000 less than his competitor’s.

That is potentially $40,000 more in taxpayer money spent on the job. As we explained in our stories on the bidding process, county commissioners cited two reasons for going with T&K Kennedy Excavating, Inc., of Benson. First, it was a local business. Local also means they pay real estate taxes in Swift County. Second, T&K’s bid was more detailed.

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. We have listened to the county board debate amounts of less than $1,000 on bids between “local” businesses and those outside the county. Unless the added cost has been minimal, they have established a precedent of going with the low bidder, both to save taxpayers money and avoid a lawsuit over the bid award.

Second, the bid specifications clearly laid out the scope of work to be completed as well as the requirements for taking on the job, including having a licensed asbestos hauler take away the debris. Only MAAC’s bid met the asbestos hauling requirement. Further, T&K’s added page of “details” on the job wasn’t called for in the specs. It listed work not part of the bid and possible cost savings that still left its bid thousands higher than MAAC’s.

A meeting has been set for later this week with the contractors on the demolition bid award.

T&K has done good work in the area and giving it the bid showed the county had faith they would do a professional job. The quality of T&K’s work isn’t questioned here.

However, in pointing out the significant difference in the bids between the two companies and the irregularities in the bidding process, the Monitor-News is living up to one of the essential missions of a community newspaper – a government watchdog.

Without the Monitor-News reporting this story, the citizens of Swift County would likely never have heard about the controversy.

Without the Monitor-News there would be no coverage of the meetings of the Benson City Council, the District 777 Board of Education, or Swift County-Benson Health Services. Why? At 95 percent or more of these meetings there isn’t a single citizen in the room. It is the elected or appointed officials, administrators, and support staff who participate – and the Monitor-News.

District 777 passed a $26.3 million bond levy referendum with the Monitor-News covering the debate ahead of the vote.

The City of Benson worked to get $20 million from Xcel Energy as compensation for the loss of Benson Power, LLC. The first $4 million is in the bank with the remaining $16 to be paid over the next three years. How will the community know how that $20 million is spent? Through the reporting in the Monitor-News.

SCBHS has been going through some trying financial times, and its governing board and administration have been working diligently to turn things around. It worked hard to see Scandi Haven Village built to serve the needs of the elderly in the community as well as those with memory loss. The Monitor-News kept citizens up-to-date on these stories.

As the Nov. 6 election approaches, who will provide the community with the information about the candidates seeking office they will need to make wise choices in the voting booth? The Monitor-News through its coverage.

But we are much more than a watchdog – through our pages we give the people a sense of community awareness, we give them a sense of belonging, we give them a sense of common purpose and unite our communities to face tough challenges. We celebrate together the achievements of our residents and we mourn with them their losses.

When photos of a homecoming parade appear in the Monitor-News, they become part of our local history. One hundred years from now someone reading about our community will see those photos.

What are we told will replace newspapers to provide citizens with civic knowledge that informs their decisions? What will draw people together with a common purpose to get good things done? The internet. That has been the false promise since the early 2000s.

What we have been painfully finding out is that, in reality, the internet is a winner-take-all business model. Google and Facebook voraciously consume the vast majority of advertising dollars that once went to newspapers while stealing the news from their pages. How much original reporting do they do in our communities? None.

 For the 14,000 communities in America with populations of 5,000 or less, you can say goodbye to your news in a digital-only world. Digital advertising accounts for 0 to 5 percent of revenue at many small community newspapers. We simply don’t have the reach to generate the millions, or tens of millions, of hits required to be a player in the digital revenue market.

What we also know about the internet is that it fragments and segments society into small social networks. It makes conversations between those who disagree hostile and sometimes profane. We end up going to our individual spaces with like-minded people. A community newspaper has influence because it provides trusted news and a place for a civil conversation for all.

We are an influential force for change because no one delivers the news to a community-wide audience as effectively as we do. The beauty of a community newspaper is that everyone has access to it - no subscription required, no electronic device needed, no service contract necessary, and no paywall hurdle to overcome. The copy a subscriber reads is the same copy that is available at the library, at the café, in the doctor or dentist’s office, or in the local tavern.

Yes, we don’t give all our content away on the internet unless you subscribe. It doesn’t pay and free is not a business model; but our print edition is available to all.

Imagine a community without the Monitor-News. If that future vacuum of information worries you, subscribe and encourage others to as well. If you see a community without a newspaper as one with less accountability, that is less connected, support the advertisers in our pages.

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