For about two years, the Federal ommunications Commission has been holding hearings to investigate the question of whether communities are getting the new and information they need. Now that the report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” has been released it notes
there is a shortage of in-depth local journalism, the type that holds
government agencies accountable. While much of the study focuses on broadcast media it also touches on print outlets, concluding that for all the sources we have there is a crisis in local coverage and accountability reporting. That’s the type of journalism the authors define as investigative reporting about government and other powerful institutions that provides critical information and journalistic “watch-dogging.” But the report concludes that government has little role to play in bringing the system out of crisis.
This is a particular problem for local news here and elsewhere as legacy media outlets pulled back from coverage of the more important and complicated public policy news, the type that required lots of time, probing, and questioning politicians to uncover the story. With newsroom staffs taking a big hit in the number of reporters assigned to cover the local beat, publishers made a business decision to reduce the resources needed to provide this type of valued news content as unique local coverage got less and less. That means the news is driven by the press releases and sound-bytes of politicians, which puts appointed staff and elected leaders in a better position to drive the story as there is little independent professional reporting. Decades ago the local print outlets competed to cover those deeper stories about town and county government.
There is one strong exception in this region and that’s the Kent County News. The reporters and editors down there provide this type of coverage, keeping an eye on town and county boards throughout Kent, packing that weekly with plenty of strong governmental reporting. One thing we particularly like is that anytime one of those boards holds a closed door meeting, that small-town weekly will challenge it often with complaints to the state review board. The only closed door meeting complaint against Cecil County (one that was affirmed by the state board) was filed by Craig O’Donnell of the Kent County News. Readers and subscribers value unique reporting, not the commodity reporting about big fires and accidents, which turns out to be old news by the time it hits the doorsteps of the readers in the age of Google as mass media.