Should Local Government Information Channels Fill the Void Left by the Demise of Local Newspapers?

By Tom Bryson
Immediate Past President 3CMA | Director of Communications, City of Farmers Branch, Texas

The information age of the past several decades has been much heralded for its innovation in the ways we receive our news. At the same time, it has been significantly maligned for the ease at which inaccurate narratives seem to take on a life of their own, making it significantly more difficult for the end consumer of information to be comfortable with the veracity of the news they receive.

Such pronouncement of blessing and declaration of curses are equally appropriate.

An indelible tragedy of this “revolution” was vividly illustrated the Sunday before Christmas in the New York Times, when it published a perspective on the demise of local newspapers large and small across the country under the headline, “When a Newspaper Folds: Our Community Does Not Know Itself.” 

The tiny town of Mount Dora, Fla., boasts an estimated population of about 14,000 and is considered to be a part of the Orlando-Kissimmee Metropolitan Statistical Area. The town’s equally tiny weekly newspaper folded a dozen years ago after succumbing to competition from Orlando area dailies. Now those dailies are shrinking and smaller places like Mount Dora are practically devoid of professional news coverage. The piece quotes David Cohea of Mount Dora.

"After years without a strong local voice, our community does not know itself and has no idea of important local issues or how the area is changing … We are a nameless and faceless town defined only by neighborhoods … A few local blogs pick up commercial events that are relayed on Facebook, but aside from that, we only hear of murders and fires and hot-button controversies – the stuff of TV news."

Sound familiar?

Mount Dora is illustrative of so many of our communities, both large and small where what’s popular, exciting or sexy is the only thing that will earn coverage from today’s scaled-back journalism shops.

The simple fact is this: with the information channels at our disposal we, as local government communicators, have the capability to reach a broader audience in our communities than other mediums. We can reach a broader audience than most local newspapers and television stations (in most markets) did as recently as 25 years ago. As such, by default, does it not then become our responsibility to convey as much news and information about our jurisdictions as we are able?

Of course, it’s not that simple.

For many of us there is only so much we are able to publicize, usually limited to activities, services and events that are directly tied to or sponsored by the City or County organization. Some operate with a bit more latitude, working with Chambers of Commerce and EDCs to help promote local businesses and incite economic development. Others among us are wide open to publicizing anything that happens within their borders.

If you agree to the thesis that the demise of local newspapers is one of the lynchpins in the degradation of public discourse and news dispersal, do you also agree that it is incumbent upon local governments to do something about it? Is it up to us to tell the story of our individual communities?

There’s nothing about this that isn’t tricky since our channels can be accurately defined by the scary-sounding term “state-run media.” Still, the quality of content is the litmus test and there is a distinct difference between marketing and propaganda. So long as we’re imparting factual information and not trying to sway public opinion, does that authorize us to proceed?

This may be one of the most important discussions we undertake in 2020. I encourage you to comment on this blog where it appears at the 3CMA Facebook page.

  1. Is it up to us to help fill the news void?
  2. Philosophically, how do you package and disperse your news to your community?
  3. Do you stick strictly to City/County-affiliated activities, services and events or do you allow wider coverage of local happenings?
  4. Should those of us that limit our broadcast and publication to City/County-related only consider expanding that policy and under what guidelines should that happen?
  5. Perhaps most importantly, if you disagree with this thesis, please say so and why.

May we all develop acute professional vision in 2020.