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Newspapers, Government Have Vital Partnership

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
It wouldn’t be surprising if most people thought of newspapers and those serving in government, whether elected or appointed, as natural adversaries. Often, we are portrayed that way in film and books. The press seeking to uncover incriminating evidence of wrongdoing by the government officials is a common theme.

It’s true that at times public officials hide information.  Perhaps, they’ve done something foolish, or criminal, that they don’t want the public to find out about. It’s our job to expose wrongdoing, whether intentional or not. Only through our reporting can the public judge the honesty and competency of their elected officials, then hold them accountable. Their informed judgment helps citizens decide whether someone deserves another term or should be replaced.

Who those elected officials hire to administer our schools, cities, and counties also says something about their competency and oversight responsibilities.

For the most part, our local officials are diligent and honest. Our administrators do a conscientious job in carrying out their duties. It is the rare exception when we have to report stories that set us at odds with our local leaders.

For the most part, we collaborate on informing the public about important issues. When a community loses its newspaper, among those who miss it the most are the local government leaders. It is why they should have a keen interest in the future of their local newspaper.
There are stories essential to health and safety, finances, economic development, education of our youth, housing availability, childcare, and quality of life that they need and want told.

A school district may be looking at cutting courses in language, art, music, and science because declining enrollment in our rural areas has meant a substantial loss in state funds.

Each student brings in about $8,000 in government revenue to a school district. The loss of 10 students over one year means $80,000 less in funding. If that pace keeps up, in five years, $400,000 in financial support is gone.

There are two solutions to address the lost funding: cut staff and programs, or raise taxes. Knowing what steps a school board has taken to maintain a tight budget helps inform their decision. Knowing the value of these courses to a child’s education will have an impact on their decision.
The school board wants those stories told. It helps earn the support that gets an education levy passed.

Your city is faced with a critical housing shortage that is holding back the expansion of local businesses. When those businesses bring prospective employees to town, they might find the community attractive but decline the job because they can’t find affordable housing.

To address the housing problem, the city council is looking at hiring someone whose focus will be to find solutions to the housing challenge. That person may also spend time on the broader economic development challenges facing a rural community.

Our job is to inform the public about why the council is spending the funds to hire another person when the budget might already be tight and people don’t want their taxes raised. It is our job to tell the taxpayers about the costs and sacrifices the council’s decision will entail. It is also to tell them what long-term benefits the community could see by hiring that new staff person.

Our city council wants that story told.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been partners with local health providers and governments in educating the public.

We are partners with law enforcement in informing the public about scams circulating in the community. We work with them on safe driving campaigns and public awareness about a rash of car break-ins.

There is an old saying often attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what people know, it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.” Too often in our communities,  the public knows a lot of stuff that “ain’t so.” It is our job to give them accurate information about what our local governments are doing or not doing. Elected officials and administrators need an accurately informed citizenry to achieve their goals without facing headwinds caused by misinformation.

What are the options for citizens without their community newspaper?

There are just two in our small towns. First, the government will likely be hiring an “information officer” at taxpayer expense who will provide citizens with its spin on what it is doing. Of course, a lot of people who don’t trust the government will push back on its version of the story.

Secondly, social media will provide dozens of takes on what local government is doing with taxpayer money. Based on our experiences with social media, we know a great deal of it will be inaccurate and laced with snide comments or angry accusations.

We already know the most probable outcome of a community left with these two choices for information: a more bitterly divided citizenry. Local leaders will find it more difficult to motivate citizens to back actions necessary for the community’s common good and its future.

There are times when the public will ask us why we didn’t cover a topic or inform them about an activity. We can’t be everywhere all the time with our slim staff. We rely on local officials to reach out to us at these times; not all do so willingly. It’s a mistake on their part. Through the relationships our public bodies create with the public, they earn support critical to the backing of their future needs and plans.

How do we know this important partnership between local governments and the community newspaper exists? We’ve covered public bodies – city, school, county, hospital, and  economic development – for more than 40 years. We’ve seen what a good working relationship between the press and local leaders can do for a community, even if we face those inevitable clashes from time to time.

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