Mayoral Musings: Local News

Last Edited: Sep 06, 2018 8:00 AM -04:00
Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly

The juicy headline has always been a part of news; today, it seems the only part.

Just a little over a week ago I came across a column by Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine sharing his concern on a recent bill with $5 million in State funding that, when and if available, would go to the nonprofit organization “Free Press,” which focuses on strengthening and reviving local media in the Garden State. The organization is focused on addressing the lack of regular local news coverage in our communities. The column, if I understood it correctly, points out the obvious conflict of having government fund, in part or in whole, the very press charged with reporting on government.

As Mulshine points out, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. I agree with him and while I am not sure what the answer is for the void in local coverage, as a mayor of a community that lacks the wall-to-wall reporting that comes from a local newspaper, my hope is that people far smarter than I can come up with ideas on how to enable local newspapers and journalists to fill the void and provide more local coverage minus any apparent conflicts.

I say that because in the absence of the type of day-to-day and week-to-week local coverage that community-based newspapers once provided, we’re basically left with headlines, and those headlines are generally of the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” variety. What that means is that the coverage is lopsided in favor of whatever is attention-grabbing and high profile (read crime). This tendency toward the juicy headline isn’t new; it has always been one of the ingredients of news, it’s just that today, it seems to be the only ingredient.

That’s not anyone’s fault and there’s nothing sinister here, it’s what happens when media outlets are forced to cover more with less. This is the consequence of the disruptive impacts that digital and social media has on traditional journalism. Media outlets were forced to consolidate and cut costs across the board as advertising and subscription dollars shifted from print media to online and from news outlets to social media platforms—so much so that these days, when people see the news vans from the network affiliates, they just assume there’s been murder, someone’s being sentenced for a murder, or there’s been some type of bad fire or accident and if anecdotal evidence counts for anything  they’re usually right. The upshot is that citizens think these are the only things happening in the community because they don’t get coverage of decisions and happenings that while impactful, are far less attention-grabbing.

Let’s face it, City Council meetings, like zoning board meetings and planning board meetings can be very dry and boring affairs because of the subject matter. Yet, it is from the press coverage of these meetings that residents can learn about the progress of a given project or about future plans, goals and objectives. Back in the day, when local newspapers had the staff to cover these meetings, it was possible for citizens to get a fuller picture of their community and what was happening—not so much today.

If we had that type of coverage now, citizens would be better informed about a host of projects, such as closing the old landfill in City Park and turning it into passive recreation and they might also know more about efforts on the redevelopment plan for the former “Tin Can” site promoting more neighborhood-based recreation. Regular local coverage would ensure that residents remain well-informed on progress related to the Food Specialization Center and the new downtown building.

The street-level coverage previously afforded local government would have been the main way citizens knew about the revitalization of the Bridgeton Villas, the progress of the Wawa development, Bridgeton’s partnership with Rutgers University on a planning grant for a smart food technology center, the renovation of the Nail House museum in City Park, and numerous other important steps forward that represent progress and hope in what is otherwise perceived as just a bleak landscape.

Yet, the progress and hope behind these developments doesn’t take away the pain, fear, or anger behind any given headline nor do they provide comfort to the families impacted—we’re talking about personal tragedy and nothing takes that away. But in the broader space between perception and reality that marks the lifecycle of a small city; it was the local newspapers and reporters—simply by covering things—that provided a community with a full and balanced reflection of itself and that’s no small thing.

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