Who Will Look Out For Community Newspapers?

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When a reporter covers a public body for a long time, he or she begins to know the issues as well as any elected official. Often that reporter will have seen council members, county board members, school board members and hospital governing board members come and go. Mayors and city managers change, as do superintendents and school board chairs. New county board chairs are named and administrators hired.

In many ways that change can be a challenge for the reporter. It takes time to create productive working relationships with new elected officials, chairs and administrators. Longtime working relationships are based on trust, which doesn’t come easy between a reporter and a public official.

We are often seen as a threat. The stories we write might get the public upset with elected officials or administrators, causing them to be reluctant to speak with us. It leads them, at times, to want to do things outside of the public meeting room and the public’s view. At times, their discussions violate the Minnesota Open Meeting law, which has few exceptions to public bodies having to do their business in the “light of day.”

These days it is much easier for public appointed and elected officials to communicate without the public or the press knowing it. They do it through regularly exchanged emails that the public and press are not copied on. Of course, they can also call each other to hash out controversial issues ahead of a meeting as well.

On the other hand, the reporter gives elected and appointed officials the opportunity to create trust with the public. Through open and frank discussions, the public is brought along on an issue so that they have a good understanding for the reasoning behind the actions that are taken.

The public hates surprises. It has an animosity toward public officials who treat it with disregard.

Familiarity with public bodies and officials also have their traps. We would estimate that for 90 percent of the public meetings we attend we are the only person in the room who is not an elected official, an administrator, or a government employee. We are the only one who is calling and stopping by to ask administrators for information they know will be published.

As we build trust, elected and appointed officials become somewhat comfortable with us. While this goes a long way toward making our job easier, it can also create awkward moments.

When sensitive subjects are being discussed, subjects that could generate public questioning of motives or actions, the public officials will realize that maybe they should have revealed some of the information presented. With a look at the “trusted” reporter in the back of the room, they might say something like, “We wish you wouldn’t report that quite yet.” We might even be forewarned: “Now don’t put this is the newspaper….” This leads us to tell the public body what our responsibility is to the public in reporting on public bodies.

However, there are also times when an official will talk to us on background, giving us information that isn’t ready for public release, but will help us greatly when we do eventually write the story. We are trusted to hold the information in confidentiality until it is time to be released. If we violate this trust, we won’t be confided in again. We will also have a much more difficult time in the future giving our readers a complete story.

There are also contentious and confrontational moments between reporters and public officials. These situations arise when the administrator of a public body refuses to release information that is public, or elected representatives attempt to go behind closed doors for conversations that clearly are required to take place in public view.

At these times, the reporter, again often the only person in the room who is a citizen not affiliated with the governing body, has to remind elected officials of the requirements of the state’s Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act. These moments are uncomfortable since many sitting at the table are often friends, or business people who are our advertisers, or both. However, these moments serve the highest purpose of a free and responsible press – the holding of public officials and elected representatives accountable.

What happens to government coverage when a newspaper disappears? Who develops those good relationships with elected and appointed officials that earn the trust that leads to deep, informative reporting? What happens when the reporter with the knowledge of the laws that protect a citizen’s right to attend meetings and get access to public documents is gone?

We can tell you what has happened in places that have lost their newspapers – corruption, ignorance and apathy pervade. Public officials, not all by any means, steal taxpayer dollars; the public is unaware of what is happening in their community; and fewer people vote and participate in public events.

Facebook and other social media in small town America will not replace newspapers. Yet we know that an informed citizenry leads to a healthy community – vital in a republic that elects its representatives. You won’t see any programs, similar to what America’s farmers get, to feed citizens the information they need to be informed and connected.

At some point, citizens will have to become involved in ensuring the future of community newspapers through their support. At some point, it may be necessary to create a program similar to what farmers enjoy to ensure the future of community newspapers.

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