The news business in New Jersey has changed. In many instances, local news has migrated to online platforms: NJ Arts, NJ Spotlight, or Politico NJ. TapInto.net operates about 60 NJ franchise sites. In my own town, the owner of a local B&B faithfully updates a “good news” Facebook page. People get news from Twitter and other platforms. Meanwhile, broadsheets and tabloids are declining. Staff of newspapers has been cut and cut. According to the NJ Press Association website, there are 16 dailies, 12 group weeklies, and 15 independent weeklies, far fewer than there used to be. Throughout this transformation, local news has suffered.
That’s not only bad for the journalists, press workers, and advertising staff who work in local news. It is unfortunate for local government, too. Without a doubt my view is influenced by that fact that I once worked in local news. But in my current role as someone who speaks on behalf of local clean water and solid waste agencies, I am more convinced than ever that the decline in the availability of local news is not good for local government. I say this knowing full well that news coverage is a mixed bag. AEA member organizations have been unfavorably or inaccurately covered by local news media. Stories about misdeeds in authorities are certainly fair game, but an unfortunate side effect of them is that they shape perception and reflect badly on the many, many local elected and appointed officials and employees who are honest, professional and dedicated.
News coverage may not always be comfortable, but it is useful–even vital — for local water/solid waste agencies. Local media connects local agencies to local people who depend on their services. It provides platforms for telling about good work. A recent Pew Research Center study found that civically engaged people are more likely to value and use local news sources. Civically engaged people are the ones most likely to take Girl Scouts on a tour of a plant or ask questions about the mayor’s plan to sell a system to a corporation.
Civic engagement coupled with local news coverage changed and deepened the dialogue when Evesham Township was considering dissolving its authority. Dennis Palmer, executive director of Landis Sewerage Authority (LSA) in Vineland, has made it a years-long practice to cooperate with local reporters and make himself and his staff available to them. Local media has enabled Palmer to show the commitment to efficiency and innovation of the commissioners who oversee the authority. He heightens the community’s awareness of its water and sewer system through local poster contests for children that are covered in the local paper. When the mayor held secret discussions about dissolving the authority, Palmer held press conferences and issued news releases to tell the LSA perspective and to clarify inaccuracies. The local press was instrumental in his effort to build consensus. He put forward fiscally sound proposals that addressed the city’s needs without fixing an asset that “ain’t broke” — the well-run, and efficient sewerage authority.
So my advice to AEA member authorities or any local government entity is to keep in touch with the civically engaged people in your community by engaging with local news media. Subscribe to newspapers. Seek out local news sources online. Issue news releases. Engage social media about important civic questions such as clean water. Encourage coverage. Take journalists on tours of facilities. Discuss local services and needs with them.
The press is taking some hard hits lately. That’s too bad. A free press promotes transparency and public dialogue. It’s one of the fundamentals of democracy–whether that democracy is being lived out in Evesham, Vineland, Trenton or Washington, D.C.