OPINION | For local political coverage, we need community-based media


In recent years, struggling newspapers and profit-hungry TV news operations have repeatedly promised to deliver more local (even “hyperlocal”) news stories and content. Yet, close monitoring of Twin Cities metro dailies and local TV news programs (the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, KARE 11, WCC0 4, KSTP 5, and KSMP 9) reveals diminishing rather than increasing attention to important stories concerning local government, neighborhoods, ethnic communities, schools, job training, transportation, health care, poverty, childcare, the elderly, environmental concerns and elections.

As national and international bureaus and correspondents have been eliminated, newspapers have increasingly relied on wire service stories to fill the ‘A’ (front page) news section. At the same time, as more and more local reporters and editors have been let go, the regional or B sections of papers contain a smaller and smaller number of locally reported articles on community and civic concerns, especially those that go beyond the daily roster of straight-from-the-police-blotter crime and arrest reports or the routine human interest feature. Local TV news programs devote even less attention to serious community and civic concerns, having long ago abandoned coverage of such topics as local government for a marketing driven mix of sports, weather, crimes, fires, and fluff.   

Yet, with each new round of newspaper cuts we are told that the newspaper’s commitment to unique local coverage remains unflagging, while each new ad campaign for local TV news touts their news operation as the most intimately engaged with the local community. The scam is on. We hear these hollow claims repeated while watching yet another wave of cost cutting gut the resources for in-depth local reporting. We watch these television promotions while looking in vain for any substantial civic or community reporting in the news shows themselves.

The disappearance of state and local government beat reporters on TV news has long been noted, and the downsizing of local government reporting in the metro dailies is starkly evident. Yet the lack of attention to civic and community issues is perhaps most obvious when it comes to local elections, events that one might think would attract extensive coverage. Last fall’s mayoral and school board elections in Saint Paul, Minneapolis and suburban municipalities received only the most cursory and piecemeal coverage in local metro dailies, and virtually no coverage at all from local television news.

When undergraduate students in my fall News Writing and Reporting class at Macalester College were assigned to write stories on the St. Paul mayoral and school board campaigns they produced articles containing far more complete information on candidates and issues than those of the metro dailies, as well as more original reporting, including interviews with real, live voters exploring their concerns regarding city government, education issues, and the current state of the school district. 

How is it, I wondered at the time, that beginning journalism students first introduced to a topic and spending less than a week on a story were able to produce more in-depth and more broadly contextualized reports than those appearing in established professional newspapers? Undoubtedly, cutbacks in personnel and resources are at the heart of the matter, but it also reflects news organization priorities that do not include a genuine commitment to local politics.

Apparently, those deciding which types of “news” are most commercially viable have decided that local government, and events such as city and school board elections, are not marketable and cost-effective topics. And when it comes to local TV news? I monitored three different local stations on election night waiting to see their coverage of voting results, only to find that there really wasn’t any.

Three months later (February 2010) I was further dismayed by the superficial, ill-informed, and often nonexistent coverage of precinct caucuses.

 Where were the stories of the diverse faces across scores of communities that came together in neighborhood town hall meetings to share their concerns, passions, goals and frustrations? Where were reports on the real details of precinct caucus work? On the party building activities that occupy most of a caucus meeting? Or on citizens new to these meetings, volunteering for the first time to serve on a district committee or seeking election to serve as party officers?

Reporters and editors in the mainstream media consistently missed the most important political, human, and local stories of these caucuses in order to focus exclusively on the gubernatorial straw polls that were but one of many activities at the precinct meetings. And in so doing the mainstream media often conveyed a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is that precinct caucuses really are.      

The commercial media cannot seem to let go of the impression that precinct caucuses are just another, more exclusive, election format. Again and again, journalists and news commentators criticize caucuses and promote primaries with the argument that primaries are a more widely accessible and convenient election process for the voting public. Few reporters or op-ed writers seem to fully understand that party caucuses are not government administered elections at all but rather party business meetings.  The bulk of caucus meeting time is spent maintaining and renewing precinct, ward and district party machinery, electing party officers (such as the precinct chair who will run the caucus), drafting and passing party resolutions, and forming committees for the administration of party affairs.

In years when party endorsements for major offices are strongly contested, more time is spent selecting delegates, who proceed to the next level of party conferencing (district or county) and eventually work to secure the party’s endorsement for a particular candidate.  But precinct caucus meetings are mostly about neighbors meeting once a year to express their concerns and opinions, and maintain the existence of that party’s apparatus. The mainstream media has completely failed to educate the public concerning these distinctions.

Because commercial news operations are almost exclusively interested in horse-race coverage of major contested races (such as the current one for Governor in Minnesota) they insist on reducing multi-faceted community events to singular issues and results. 

This year, the little coverage that precinct meetings received focused exclusively on the preferences for gubernatorial candidates expressed in straw polls taken during the meetings, despite the fact that these were mere snapshots of non-binding preferences which, given the winnowing process of delegate selection at later stages of the endorsement process, carry little weight and have little staying power. In the past, winners of these straw polls have rarely ended up winning the party’s endorsement, and many prominent candidates decline to even participate in them (as Mark Dayton did this year in Democratic Party caucuses).  

At the precinct caucus that I attended, less than 10% of our time was taken up by the straw poll of announced gubernatorial candidates.  Most of our time was spent nominating and electing party officers, and discussing the issues raised by participants in the party platform resolutions they submitted.

Yet, rather than attempt to cover these more complex and truly local caucus issues news stories the next day in the commercial press reported nothing but the results of straw polls for gubernatorial candidates. There was no mention of party resolutions, or the debates and discussions surrounding those resolutions; no mention of the many animated discussions of recent issues, such as the Governor’s unallotment of general medical aid for the poor. There was no mention of the candidates for the state legislature, county attorney, county sheriff, and county commissioner who visited precinct meetings to introduce themselves and cultivate support.

In other words, attention to the local was abandoned in favor of a single focus on the anticipated race for governor.

Even public media, when surrounded by the competitive environment of commercial news, is influenced to skew its coverage in the same direction. For example, Minnesota Public Radio carried much more extensive and in-depth coverage of local elections last fall, and of precinct caucuses this winter, than the commercial media did, including entire hour-long interview programs with major candidates. Yet they too focused their attention almost exclusively on the anticipated executive races for mayor and governor, and offered little in the way of more local community coverage.

During the next few weeks Minnesota senate district party conventions will be held, where delegates elected at precinct caucuses will continue to vote on resolutions, elect party officers, and send delegates committed to various candidates for local and state offices on to the county, congressional district, and state conventions in April. Will we see coverage of these important civic meetings in the commercial news? Following the first wave of district conventions last Saturday there was not a single article that appeared in either Twin City metro daily, not even a progress report on delegate preferences in the nascent gubernatorial race.  

It seems that if there isn’t a dramatic horse-race story concerning big-name politicians, the mainstream media will opt to carry stories about Tiger Woods’ sexual addiction therapy, the arrest of Michael Jackson’s doctor, or Denny Hecker’s divorce and legal travails instead.

As citizens we deserve much, much better political and community news coverage. Where can we look for the local news that we need to participate as citizens in our communities? The commercial news media has failed us so consistently that it is time to give up hope that it will ever recover. Instead, it is time to put all of our efforts into finding ways to support local political reporting through non-profit community media.