Sunday, February 10, 2008

News Coverage of Local Issues

Since becoming involved in local politics in the early 80's there has been an on going discussion on how the local media covers, or doesn't cover, local issues. Over time coverage of local issues seemed to have been relagated to 4th place behind national, state, and human interest stories.

Today Council elections involve one story on the candidate, additional stories only if there are candidate forums, and an election story. In the early 80's the paper ran stories on issues and provide readers with more details on the candidate's positions.

When there is coverage on an issue it seems to be somewhat supperficial. Politicians are asked to explain themselves in 25-words or less. While we read and hear a particular politician's short answer on an issue the issue itself is not usually explained. How can a person put in context a statement about a transportation project when the process to move projects forward is never explained. When a politician states he will bring more business to the area you seldom hear or read the follow-up question that you are waiting for--How are you going to bring more business or what type of business are you going to bring?

In my conversations with members of the press I've ben told that people are not as interested in local affairs as in the past. Another reason given is that some issues are too complicated to cover or too much detail turns readers off. And finally they don't have enough time or space.

To be fair, I've seen improvement. The coverage of the Kalahari project has been good. FLS reporters now have blogs to get additional info out. Yet there has been little or no effort to inform the public about this new medium.

Do you believe that the coverage you get on local issues is adequate? If not what suggestions to you have to change it? Do we need to bring additional media to the area?


Larry Gross said...

I would say given the ascendancy of citizen media (Blogs, Internet, etc) and the recession of the traditional media that the chances of more conventional, competitive media is slim.

To be honest, the main appeal of the local Fredericksburg media for me IS local news. I can get State and National news from tons of sources (but I do value some of the FLS State-level political reporting).

but I don't think public officials should rely on/hope for good coverage... but be proactive and develop a reputation of wanting to meeting with the public...

and holding a required public hearing .. is NOT meeting with the public.

hearings actually engender ... histrionics and makes some people very nervous and sometimes folks just have questions... and not that interested in making a speech.

so I don't think hearings really give public officials a good feel of the width/depth of citizens real concerns.

It does not allow the give and take which ..yes.. can be messy at times but people will respect any official that is willing to get out and dialog in public...

I note that some developers who have demonstrated that they are willing to meet with the public, listen, and actually incorporate some feedback have shown than a having a certain level of trust is possible.

In other words.. they get out in front of the press coverage.. by meeting directly with the public..

Your BLOG here.. says something about your willingness to hear what folks have to say - and for others also to hear what folks say.

That takes a bit of courage in my mind.

Nathan said...

I've been musing about this issue for awhile. I ran with your post over at my blog, but the long and short is that yes, we would benefit with additional media.

One thing that former City Manager Freeman Funk talks about is how he preferred that citizens went straight to the City rather than the newspaper when there were issues that needed to be addressed.

Mr. Gross raises a good point about the public hearings. Perhaps Council members could hold informal (yet still respectful) Town Hall style meetings where citizens wouldn't be timed, under the cameras, and under pressure to make a speech. Maybe a conversational style interaction would help generate ideas and cut out the need to go through the media middle man?

Matt Kelly said...

Nathan—Since my election to office I have met with the Civic Associations in my ward but find that unless there is a big issue attendance is low. Part of the problem is there is no good time for a meeting. Most elderly don’t want to be out at night and coming home from work for a meeting is not high on my hit parade. Mornings and weekends have there own issues.

I started the blog because, unlike a telephone conversation with one constituent, it is a discussion in a public setting and hopefully results in more interaction. But it is never going to have a market like the FLS or 1230AM. They, or someone else, who can reach a larger market, must step up and fill the void. FUG has great potential but again seems underutilized.

When I hear 1230AM would be hosting there own morning talk show I was pleasantly surprised until I heard the format, which is call in and ask the expert. That format has great potential and I will chat with them about it.

I hope as this discussion continues we can find a way to expand the coverage of local issues.

LG--I stopped sending Press Releases out long ago. No interest.

Bryan said...

Kevin's meeting on the IDA was a good conversation between residents, the city, and a number of business owners. It was probably one of the more constructive city meetings I've attended. There is a bit of a lack of city coverage in the FLS, which is why I think you've seen a number of blogs show up. There are a lot of things going on, but due to the format of a daily paper, they are relatively copy limited. It's truly unfortunate.

I agree that not only do we need to hear a politicians take on a topic, but an indepth discussion of the issue at hand. Being online really helps with this background, as you can include links directly in the story, unlike in print where it is difficult to refer to other publications.

If the exec's at FLS read this, we would love to get more information from the online edition. Having more stories online, will bring more page reads, which should help to sell more ads to support the format.

Larry Gross said...

here's the deal.

If you don't want to be defined by your opponents AND the media - you need to be responsible for engaging the public.

This means much more than giving them the "opportunity" .. at YOUR convenience.

I see an elected persons job to FIND OUT what people think instead of taking the attitude that he/she is "open" to receiving feedback.

Yes.. there are no good nights for everyone....

but you can bet ..that, that does not mean that people may not be concerned or have questions and the answers to those questions - may well result in a different outcome than if those answers are provided by sources that have other agendas and/or might be biased - and at times border on misinformation.

The question is.. do you want to respond to unfair characterizations .. after the damage has been done - play catch-up.. take a lot of heat ,etc.. or at least be able to play offense on a level playing field?

The job of public officials - is to be EFFECTIVE with the public IMHO and that means.. engaging the public - at THEIR convenience at times and places and venues that ALLOW THEM to let you know how they feel.

The ultimate Constituent Service is to not follow up on why garbage service has changed but why their property taxes are going to go up unless some choices are made.

It's when the choices are made without adequate consultancy and then portrayed by others that you get yourself behind the 8 ball.

It's almost comical at times.. watching public officials step into it.. time and time again... turning that same crank and wondering why things go to hell in a handbasket.


Having said that.. I have the utmost admiration for anyone who seeks public office but also fair to say.. that some of them.. don't seem to understand that it's not what you do - it's how you do it that counts.

(no one ever accused me of not having an opinion ! but I always try to leave something on the table as a contribution).

Larry Gross said...

Why have meeting minutes?

Because some folks want to know what happened even if they could not attend.

so you have a public meeting - and 4 people so up.

You do the minutes .. cover the issues.. etc.. and then provide those minutes via email list or blog or website... AND you provide a way for folks to join that conversation if they wish.. by giving them a way to ADD to the online minutes AND you let them know of the next public meeting.

The job .. is to LISTEN.. and understand.. before acting.

It's a pain in the backside to do it - but IMHO - it's the job.

I think your BLOG is an excellent way to do this - but it will take some time for folks to know that it exists and how to use it...

How did the folks that comment here - find out about this BLOG?

Myself.. I blundered into it by doing a BLOG search for the Fredericksburg Area...

Matt Kelly said...

LG--I agree with the need for the public official to be as active as possible in getting public input but you are still limited by your audience. What I have tried to do is cover issues through OpEds, radio internviews, and sitting down with reporters to discuss issues. The paper, and local radio, are still the best avenues for getting the word out to the largest audience. The problem is that you face limits on time and space (newspaper space that is).

While it is relatively easy to say--"I support more funding for transportation." The problem lies in the fact that most of the general public are unfamiliar with the transportation funding/planning process.

It is on this point that more can and should be done by the local media--Education on the process. To fully understand what influence we can bring to bear on this, or any, important issue.

Another point is putting the issue in context. The FLS has done a good job covering our discussions wiht Kalahari. But that project has not been put in any context as to how it does, or does not, meet the City's long term planning goals. Most people seem unaware that we are also looking for high end jobs, or that Celebrate VA has been planned for a tourism campus for the past 10 years.

I do look at the local news media as a natural ally in informing the public on the issues we face. It is my hope that they will play a more active role in the future.

Larry Gross said...

re: transportation process

yup... I think you got my feedback on that issue...


I feel the effort needs to be made to move to a more proactive progress that actually engages the citizens.. and educates them.

A proposed Transportation Authority will "get defined" in ways not helpful if it is primarily perceived by some of the public as a behind the scenes effort.

p.s. perhaps your blog will serve as a model for FAMPO to RSS their site and .. hold on.. perhaps a Fredericksburg Area Transportation Blog... shazaaaammmm...

Bacon's Rebellion is the closest thing to a transportation blog that we have.. and usually does not deal with locality-specific issues.. except the Kalhari Interchange of recent.

I've heard from more than a few folks who are simply very suspicious of the Interchange Study - not really knowing what it is.. not even having the benefit of links to help them better understand the process.


Rich said...

Could part of the problem be a lack of involvement by member of City Council and others? I ask because when the city was looking into getting Auto Chalk I sent an e-mail to the mayor and all members of the city council with some questions and suggestions--only three took the time to respond, along with the City Manager. The lack of a simple response I felt was at the very least inconsiderate, and makes me wonder if the media has any better luck in keeping in touch with city officials.

When Bill Beck was mayor I knew I could stop by his shop any time with a question or comment. I wonder if the current mayor is as accessible at his medical duties.

Larry Gross said...

I think email is a problem for public officials in terms of efficient use of their time.

It's a lot like a phone answering machine.. you get home at 9pm after a long meeting and there are 23 messages expecting an answer ...

.. and many of them are asking the same questions...

So, elected officials can easily get overwhelmed - and remember - most of these folks have other jobs and are part-time.

That is why I consider the BLOG method so much better.

First the elected official can DEFINE himself on an issue instead of having a off-target media account or others with less than helpful motives including disinformation.

Second, questions AND answers are seen by everyone.

so if you have bunch of folks with similar, overlapping questions, they can all be answered quite efficiently.

Third - it's a public forum where peer "encouragement" of common civility can contribute to more useful dialog.

Some folks want a public official version of a Doctor's bedside manner. They want to connect on a personal level. The "touch" is as important as the issue.

But.. when you've got hundreds of constituents.. and there are important.. controversial issues at hand - getting the "right" (complete and accurate) information out in a timely and dispassionate manner ought to take priority - in my opinion.

It's a matter of realizing that public officials time demands is like a Black Hole...sucking at every spare minute they have - and after all they have a life also (or should).

I think Mr. Kelly's blog is a telling reflection of his values and commitment to make himself available for questions and to get the word out on important issues.

We should support and encourage him and use him and his Blog and a MODEL that other elected officials should also emulate.

I'm not so sure - that it wouldn't be a good idea for City Council itself to have such a BLOG - to provide links to relevant background info BEFORE a hearing - as well as the Agenda packet info that will be supplied at the hearings.

If they wanted to restrict comments to city residents -they could establish that capability also.

Matt Kelly said...

Rich—I try to address issues brought up in e-mails and calls in a public forum such as work sessions and meetings. In the case of auto-chalk we received a number of ideas from painting the vehicle to represent our City’s history to the purchase of an alternative fueled vehicle-- Ideas that were discussed in public meetings. E-mails and calls that are sent to the entire Council stating a position on an issue I do note but do not necessarily call or e-mail back. If a specific question is asked I do respond.

Unlike Bill Beck, whom I still stop by and chat with, I have a job that takes me out of the area and makes me less accessible. It was for this reason, and the fact that e-mails/calls usually deal with a specific point and the info is only going to one person, that I started considering a blog for the reasons articulated by Mr. Gross.

A public debate/discussion on issues is imperative for a successful democracy. I want to make myself as accessible as possible and make sure that those discussions and debates are in as public a forum as possible. It is through such dialogues that the best solutions present themselves. And if at the end of the day we still don’t agree at least everyone fully understands the position of the other and feel that they have been heard.

I do think that the local media can play a much more constructive role especially in the area of education and context. What are other localities doing? How much influence does a locality really have on a particular issue? What is the history of a particular issue in the community?

Bryan said...

I am a city resident, and I do feel that a majority of the city council is very responsive to my questions. Some better than others, but I attribute that to amount of time based on their other careers. I think it is great Matt has embraced modern technology as a tool to better interact with the constituents. Probably too much to ask for everyone, but I will probably consider how 'online' candidates are in the upcoming election. If I feel I can get a good response, that is always a plus.

I'm a huge proponent of open government, which I feel matt promotes by publishing for days/weeks/months on this blog. I do wish the other city departments would take the same online approach to public meetings that City Council uses.