Cities, Counties Need to Create 'Town Journalist' Job to Make up for Decline in Local News Coverage

09/14/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011

Cities and counties in America should hire journalists to watch and write about them. Yes, use a modest amount of public money to employ a full-time, professional news writer in a government position, perhaps called the "Town Journalist." This person could have a small staff -- or no staff at all -- and write news stories about city, county, parish or town government -- with the freedom to write in an independent, watchdog role.

The mission of the Town Journalist would be to operate similar to a newspaper reporter -- mainly writing about meetings and general government affairs, but with the right (and the time and salary) to dig into public records and interview public officials as needed to report factual and even controversial stories.

This concept -- perhaps not an original one -- came during a discussion I had with a good friend of mine, who's pursuing a doctorate at the University of Buffalo, one warm evening this summer in upstate New York.

I know, it sounds far-fetched, but it's worth considering, given the dire situation we're in as far as local news coverage (not to mention there are thousands of experienced, unemployed former news reporters out there, including myself, laid off in the last decade following the Dot-Com Bust).

As has been reported recently, there's been a disturbing decline in local news reporting -- and so scrutiny on government officials -- due to a surge in reporter layoffs and newspaper closures the past several years. A classic example of this was described this year in a study by the FCC called "The Media Landscape." The infamous scandal in the small Los Angeles suburb of Bell 0- where the town manager, hired in 1993, helped himself earn $787,000 a year, and the police chief $457,000 -- lead to 53 felony charges filed in 2010, thanks to reporting by the L.A. Times. Three Times reporters just happened on the Bell story while investigating a nearby small city. The former local newspaper that covered Bell and neighboring burgs was sold in 1998 and soon folded. This left the big-city Times with the job of covering an enormous suburban area with dozens of cities, the FCC stated:

The demise of smaller papers in the region has left the Los Angeles Times pretty much on its own to cover 88 municipalities and 10 million citizens. [Times] Metro editor David Lauter laments that his staff is "spread thinner and there are fewer people on any given area.... We're not there every day, or even every week or every month. Unfortunately, nobody else is either.

The consequences have gone beyond corruption scandals. A 2009 analysis of local media by Princeton University, as reported in Time magazine, found in 2007 after the Cincinnati Post newspaper folded, "in towns the Post regularly covered, voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for office and more incumbents were reelected." The decline in print news also hurts broadcast news, since the reporting staffs of TV and radio stations "tend to be even smaller," wrote Time, which quoted a Seattle radio show host saying: "We're almost totally dependent on local newsgathering here. We often try to take the story further but it starts with the local papers or their websites."

CNET columnist Eric Mack, commenting in June about the FCC study, said that thanks to the Internet as the primary source for news, there are about 13,400 fewer news editorial jobs in 2010 than in 2006, including newsmagazines, TV and radio. "[The FCC] goes on to estimate that there are roughly 5,000 less reporters covering local 'accountability' beats today than there were in 2000, and even back then there weren't nearly enough to cover everything. All told, the report estimates that the number of local beat reporters would need to be more than doubled to do the job right, at a total cost of about $1.6 billion -- or $265 million if we just wanted to get back to 2000 levels."

Here's what a state senator from Montana said about the effects of fewer local news reports, quoted in the FCC study:

Local news coverage is mainly up to city and county governments, civic groups, and local organizations to contact the local papers and radio station with information and news they need and what those providing the information want released. This has an upside and a downside. Some city and county governments are better than others in providing information and unless they have someone in the media asking 'hard questions' or probing for more information, the public may never know what they really should or need to know.

It is up to the governments to release public information, but they cannot be trusted to tell the story the way an independent reporter would. It's far easier right now for local officials -- and private businesses and organizations -- to operate with less scrutiny or public input.

A Town Journalist would make it harder for public officials to succeed in deceiving or misleading the public in a time when there are fewer skilled, paid reporters not only with access to city and county records, but who know what to look for and ask about.

Local news organizations, that still operate, are strapped for cash, especially print products in small towns. Even major news organizations are finding it difficult to profit from online advertising. If news venues can't cover important local news, then the citizens need to pay for it on the government level, even though many local governments are suffering from tax revenue shortfalls.

In this era of decline in professional local news coverage, our society needs to try something new to make sure the public learns what's brewing at City Hall. If commercial businesses can't make it covering local news, then I say make news coverage a part of our government.

Here's how it would work. Public funds would be used, or publicly-reported grant money, to hire a full-time professional journalist at a living wage that many of them have been through before -- say $36,000 a year. The Town Journalist would be granted full independence and autonomy. The Town Journalist's office would oversee a news web site and blog for the public to write comments.

There would be oversight on him or her as well. The Town Journalist would serve a set term by contract, such as two years, and his or her work would be assessed for its thoroughness, accuracy, neutrality -- and freedom from political influence -- by a commission, made up of local business people, academics, and members of the general public.

A modestly-paid, publicly-financed Town Journalist would be there purely to help the citizenry know what their officials are up to, and why. A Town Journalist would ask the important follow-up questions. Officials would have to treat the Town Journalist with openness; if not, he or she may hold them to account in blog posts, or before the Town Journalist Commission

OK, I was initially skeptical of and completely against the idea of a government-employed Town Journalist. How, first off, would a city hire a news writer in what would be an unavoidably political situation? How could you ask a local government to select a reporter who might affect the very careers of the mayors and other elected officials who may choose them, not to mention the city or county managers, public employee union leaders, the people recommending him or her for the job? What about the Town Journalist commission members? How can you ensure the Town Journalist would not be biased for or against certain officials? What about reporting on-the-record versus off-record statements?

My answer is that these issues can be handled with openness and set rules. First, it would have to have a strong support from locals. Each jurisdiction may have to pass a referendum about creating the position. That alone may well be difficult. But if the idea meets with voter approval, elected pols and bureaucrats would have to get used to the idea that the citizenry wants an independent writer-reporter to tell them what their elected government's doing, rather than "public information directors" who are paid to "spin" what officials are doing (I'm not saying, necessarily, that public info people should be eliminated).

The Town Journalist would act in a way like a town ombudsman, with the ability to talk at length with bureaucrats and elected people to gather news for stories placed on the web site, essentially a moderated blog for the public. The public, and the overseeing commission, would in turn monitor the Town Journalist.

What about bloggers, the so-called citizen journalists? Of course blogs are valuable. But it's hard for "citizen journalists" or bloggers to make up the difference in reporting local news. They are not paid, and few have the audience to make money with online advertising. Faced with making a living on the side, they can't do the kind of legwork and analysis required to report important local news stories that are buried in documents and backroom discussions. Many bloggers are more about opinion and speculation. They are not seasoned news reporters and may find it hard to get the attention of officials.

My suggestion is a potential solution to the decline of local news reporting. The need for thorough reporting of local government grows, as journalists who report on it declines.

I know full well that many will pan this idea. But what I'd like to see is a town, city, county, or parish -- somewhere -- agree to at least give it a shot, say for two years. Find out what the negatives are, and roll with them. Have a local university research and study how a Town Journalist operates. The idea might catch on, and become a popular, new set of ears for the public to keep tabs on their local governments.