Friday, December 12, 2014

If a meeting falls in the forest and no one covers it, does it make a sound?

Hey, did anyone in local media notice that the Iowa City Council and Johnson County Supervisors had their first joint meeting in years yesterday?

The big story, other than the fact that the long-deferred meeting between the two bodies who don't always get along well has actually finally happened, was that Iowa City wants to push ahead on their local option sales tax do-over. (More on that in a future post.)

But only the Daily Iowan was on hand to report the meeting. Good for them; they must have extra time on their hands now that their monthly sit-down with Sally Mason has been cancelled.

(Gutsy move, that prominent two-page layout for that piece.)

When I first started working for Johnson County, in 1993, I was a part-time minute taker. There was ALWAYS a reporter at EVERY Board meeting, and usually more than one. The DI, Press-Citizen and Gazette all had reporters assigned to the county government beat. Granted, a lot has changed in journalism since then, and there's only about four full time professional print journalists in this town anymore...

...but then maybe it's time we change how we deal with newspapers on the government end?

In the little-noticed dark and dense last pages of the paper, mixed in with the dwindling classified ads, you will find Legal Publications. Even though full sets of minutes are promptly available on line from even the smallest cities, and even though Johnson County has full meeting video free and on line for most meetings, the assumption of Iowa law is that these delayed, small-type printed minutes are critical enough to be mandatory.

It'd be a tough law to change.  The small-town papers, which people actually still read, would have kittens if this lucrative subsidy - call it what it is - was cut off. But they still earn it, to some extent. In larger towns, my parents' generation of 80somethings is the last that will get a large share of its news from printed newspapers.

But in smaller communities, the papers are still sold, and read, by big percentages of a much smaller population.  (And those legal publication dollars still matters more to survival for those small town papers.)  For my money, one of the best political journalists in the state is Douglas Burns of the Carroll Daily Times Herald.

Of course, at the first threat of changes to the archaic publication laws, papers will scream about the value of their local government coverage, even though it's taxpayer paid minute takers actually providing said "coverage."

And more to the point here, Johnson County's other two legal publication newspapers, the Solon Economist/North Liberty Leader and the Lone Tree Reporter do a far better job of actually covering local government than the local edition of the Des Moines Register Iowa City Press-Citizen.

You may not have noticed it, but the Press-Citizen died last month, a victim of Gannett's latest downsizing re-structuring.  Oh, there's still a thing called the Iowa City Press-Citizen, but it's a zombie paper, a locally branded version of USA Today.  Yet they're still getting ballpark of a thousand bucks a month to print minutes, written and fully prepared by the county, of meetings they don't bother to cover.

Yes, it'd be a tough law to change.  But local governments can FOLLOW it differently.

Next month city councils and the Supervisors designate their official newspapers for publications during 2015. Before they decide who gets that money, maybe they should think about which papers are and aren't showing up to cover local government, or even watching the video at home and posting in their pajamas?

Is it time to pull the plug on this artificial life support for the Press-Citizen and send a bigger share of money to the Solon Economist/North Liberty Leader and the Lone Tree Reporter? Or even to the DI?

And if the County is expected to pay ballpark of $12,000 a year to subsidize a "local" edition of a corporate paper, is it too much to ask that they do their job and actually cover local news?

No comments: