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Good Local Journalism Is Essential to Good Governance

The decline of the local paper over the past decade is bad news for all of us.

/Amy Pattullo

After repeated staffing cuts at the Grand Rapids Press/MLive, who’s guarding the henhouse of local government?

The Rapidian is one. In December, amid public scrutiny of the police department, Lyonel LaGrone used these pages to expose a disconnect between city efforts to reform the department and the city’s own lenient labor policies. It was a timely story and an important one, but no professionals were on it. Without the volunteer efforts of an interested amateur, the public would be none the wiser.

In July, The Rapidian published an editorial by LaGrone advocating a Human Rights Ordinance. The NPR affiliate WGVU found this newsworthy and reported it.

Neither of these stories made the Grand Rapids Press.

Since rebranding as MLive in 2012, the Press has seen three rounds of major cuts. The organization, which is owned by national conglomerate Advance Publications, declined requests for staffing numbers. But its remodel was patterned on that of its sister paper, the Ann Arbor News. That staff, according to the American Journalism Review, was trimmed by about one-third when it went digital in 2009, and the same might be estimated for the Press in 2012. In 2016, MLive cut another 29 staffers statewide, according to Revue magazine. This year, in closing its 7 suburban weeklies in and around Kent County, another 4 reporters were let go.

A handful of hard workers are left to cover city, county, and township governments, K-12 education, colleges and universities, business, and the environment. Besides occasional listings, arts coverage has evaporated. There is no local opinion page.

Other outlets attempt to fill the breach. MiBiz and the Grand Rapids Business Journal cover West Michigan business news. Revue, the free monthly entertainment guide available in many stores and restaurants, has begun a public affairs feature by independent reporter Andy Balaskovitz. For statewide coverage, there are 2 nonprofit, online outlets, the award-winning Bridge, operating out of Ann Arbor, and the new Michigan Advance (no relation to Advance Publications), from Lansing.

With this diversified news landscape, where readers are foraging for themselves from among targeted outlets and social media, the question remains whether public bodies are being sufficiently monitored and whether citizens feel connected as one city.

City Commissioner Ruth Kelly acknowledges things aren’t what they were several years ago. She misses “reporters with experience like Jim Harger.” Now we “seem to get a new one every two years.” Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood, a veteran reporter formerly with MLive and currently professor of journalism at Grand Rapids Community College, confirms this sentiment. “There isn’t the depth of experience to train recruits and facilitate the depth of coverage” there used to be.

The Commission has adapted to the new landscape, Kelly said, with direct contact via neighborhood associations and ad hoc groups formed around particular issues like parks and streets. The city communicates through its website and social media. It conducted a digital town hall this month for its first time.

After a 37-year career at the Press and MLive, writer Jim Harger recognizes what’s been lost. “There used to be 2 or 3 reporters covering education. Now it’s just Monica [Scott]. She’s a fine reporter, but she can’t be everywhere.”

On the other hand, Harger pointed out that organizations now target their constituents directly. He writes for the School News Network of the KISD. Spectrum Health, too, has hired former MLive reporters on a full-time basis.

These avenues may suffice and even work well when organizations have particular information to spread. The same goes, conversely, for constituents with a personal concern. But carrying out one’s civic duty in a general way, staying abreast of what needs to be known, has become more difficult. In the past, a professional news corps existed precisely for this: to be the public’s eyes and ears. Most people don’t have the time, or the training, to keep tabs on government in a systematic way. Journalists are not just professional writers, but professional observers and analysts. Just as our infrastructure has depended on the specialized services of engineers and architects, our democracy has depended on the specialized knowledge and attention of journalists.

When the Kent County Commission hurriedly voted to disband its Land Bank in December, not only were low-income housing advocates dismayed but city officials were blindsided. Might they have had advance warning and been able to change the outcome if the local press corps were what it once was? Kelly couldn’t say. She noted that “something like this is so complex you’d have to have someone very astute” to take notice and call attention to it.

In addition to news gathering, the Grand Rapids Press used to be an opinion leader. Whether right or wrong, the editors’ opinion was valuable as an articulate starting place for reasoned discussion. The paper also selected and edited a couple columns’ worth of letters from among hundreds received. When it did its job well, it facilitated an informed, balanced debate.

Substituting for this, MLive appends strings of anonymous reader comments to every article. Now everyone gets to say their piece. But lacking a curatorial hand to winnow out the repetitious, irrelevant, and confused, it’s a question whether this free-for-all contributes to good government. The digitization of journalism lends itself to the ArtPrize principle that expertise is pretentious and every person’s judgment is as good as another’s. In art, the principle has sponsored a raft of large animals made of push pins. In national politics it has sponsored Donald Trump.

At a time when journalism is scrambling for a new model, we’re fortunate to have this vehicle, The Rapidian, for citizen voices. But unpaid, untrained writers can’t provide the dependable, thorough coverage that local issues deserve and a healthy democracy requires.

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