By Tim Unruh
A few years back, a city manager in a town that won’t be named, opened a public discussion in front of his elected bosses.
“We need to raise taxes,” he advised city commissioners.
“I’ve got (multi-millions of dollars worth) of projects that need to be done, and we don’t have the money,” the manager said.
Ahead of any debate and devoid of specifics, one commissioner raised his hand and said “I’d vote for that,” and the same was echoed from another.
Nothing was wrong with the previous exchange that was shared with me well after the fact, other than media members sitting in the audience didn’t report it, or mostly didn’t.
It’s one example of community journalism going extinct.
What would have prompted editors and news directors to collectively amass legions of reporters and others to dive into such a statement and devote front page space to the issue, never happened.
And that’s a damn shame.
It would have been a no-brainer to news leaders a decade or two ago, to sick an aggressive crew on the issue, and doggedly pursue answers.
They would first ask for, and then demand, a list of those projects, prioritized by date and need, some justification for those expenses, and for raising taxes.
Editorials would surely follow.
The city manager would be asked which project could wait, or if they were necessary at all. Would trimming other areas of the budget help, and have all other methods to secure the funding been exhausted?
Media would also reach out and collect public comment.
Not long after, it was suggested to a similar local governing body, that one way to raise revenue would be to hike the sales tax rate equalling that of a nearby city.
Once again, little or nothing came of it in print on over the airways.
That should have once again piqued the interest of reporters, made them lose sleep, and if need be, kiss their understanding families “goodbye” until an explanation was “in the can.”
At least it would have before so many of the “watchdogs” were euthanized.
Much of the eradication was thanks to the Internet, where a great deal of the reporting is accepted as gospel without a shred of integrity, standards, fact checking, or fear of legal or social ramification.
Meanwhile, the reaction from public officials is to shelf the urgency to share information with people. A sheriff told me recently that the front page of many incident reports, which are public record, are provided at a snail’s pace, especially on weekends, because officers with the clearance to approve them are not on duty, forcing a public that has a right to know, to wait, possibly in peril.
A former local cop told me it was common for the duty of approving front page reports to be in the laps of desk sergeants.
Why would some choose not to release public information? Because they’re allowed to, thanks to media lacking the teeth to push for rights to be enforced.
Every once in awhile, public bodies should be shamed into submission, or at least they need to know it’s possible to be taken to task by media.
Those are just a couple of reasons why we sorely need newspapers, and other forms of aggressive reporting.
A Salina 311 editor asked me weeks ago to share my opinions on the subject, knowing that I intended to express that printed and digital versions of this startup publication are so far woefully short of being considered a viable newspaper.
Founders, investors, and some subscribers set a bold goal just over a year ago to bring community journalism back to Salina.
Some of those shortcomings are often expressed throughout the community and among 4,000 print and 9,000 online readers from California to Florida. But I heap credit on the folks at Salina311 for their persistence in improving the relationship with law enforcement and elected officials. It’s paid dividends in the form of more timely reporting.
They know it will take possibly years and a fortune in investment and commitment from many to return this industry to prominence, most essentially by hiring more help. Those goals can only be realized by a boost in profits.
Despite that, big thanks are due to the growing circulation for holding on and holding out for a better product.
There ARE good intentions, but too many reporters are still missing one vital trait — curiosity — and-or the ability, i.e. staff and budget, or internal drive and passion, to act on it. Much of what appears in print, on websites, is pure milk toast, and that includes some of what carries my byline.
But we keep trying, and acting on that newshound fire that still burns in some. Unfortunately, more of the best examples of that dedication are the subjects of obituaries, retirement announcements, or both.
Sometimes the pursuit of information hits a dead end.
Case in point, a letter/promotion we were mailed from the Salina Area United Way in early April. It touted nonprofits that received grants, among them the Belleville First United Methodist Church.
Why, I wondered, would the United Way give money to a Methodist Church 71 miles away when there are several such churches in Salina, and in-between? Couldn’t that money be put to good use closer to home?
It prompted me to make a call to a former United Way worker, who set me straight.
The money was distributed through a competitive grant process, she said, and no UMCs in Salina applied. On top of that, she added, the Belleville church is doing great things with early childhood and youth programs.
She also reminded me the Salina Area United Way serves a 10-county area.
‘Nuff said. I moved on.
The void of local news is rampant, and not just in north-central Kansas.
Some 220 miles southwest of us, a woman dear to me — my 90-year-old mom — expressed why newspapers are important.
She’s among many who have approached me over the past several years wondering “what’s happened to the local paper?” And why.
I blame a bit of it on the Internet, and speculate on many other causes.
Mom is very straight-forward about what she wants in something that’s been part of all her adult life.
“I need to know what’s going on in the area I live in, when babies are born and people die, entertainment I might be interested in and events you can attend, what groceries cost, and where I can find help for certain needs,” she said. “I would like to know who was hurt in car accidents, and what police are doing to protect us, people they’ve picked up and charged with crimes. You can’t be listening to the radio all the time for news, or watching TV,” she told me.
Not all readers her age are blessed with the tech savvy to surf the worldwide web. Conversely, younger readers have been duped into believing everything they read on smartphones and computers.
“You want to find out about the ball games or a special meeting of the city council, or what’s going on at school. Sometimes you like to re-read stories and information. And those comics are important at times.”
Less local news is available these days, Mom said, and that includes local sports that she clipped from daily editions and pasted into our scrapbooks.
The same is apparently true 249 miles to the northeast, where my tough-minded mother-in-law still anticipates the arrival of the local paper, and asks family members not to discard editions that pile up on the couch.
But those days are coming to an end.
“We won’t renew (the newspaper subscription) next spring,” she said. “The newspaper’s not worth what it was.”
The subtle decline continues. Without readers/subscribers, incentives for advertisers to buy space goes away, and some state leaders are pushing to abolish legal advertising requirements in official county newspapers, which also gouges revenue.
Makes you wonder how long before more temple of truth close forever, which means we will be less free.
American news media can mount a comeback, and I still think it will.
Many readers can recall when good reporting, telling great stories, created more excitement on airwaves and newsstands.
Such as the wonderful, but too short life of Kalana Calkins, born April 8, 1990 to a family in Lakin, Kansas, with life threatening issues.
Shortly after birth, a surgeon at the hospital advised her mom to take Kalana home, keep her comfortable, and let her die.
Mom dismissed that advice, and started a fund-raising campaign to find her daughter a donor heart and two lungs. The local newspaper published a story about her plight, which included needing $10,000 just to get Kalana’s name on a waiting list.
After the story found its way to the wire services and was spread throughout a number of communities, a couple in Wichita read about it, and donated the necessary money. Roughly a year later, after Kalana broke through a number of dead ends, the little girl received a heart and lungs.
I’ll never forget that beautiful and spirited little girl who claimed to speak to angels, knew her life would be cut short, and planned her funeral. She passed Oct. 26, 1997, and true to her wishes, balloons were released after her service.
A newspaper helped Kalana touch many hearts in her seven years, including mine.
Stories like hers from local media everywhere in this country, could fill a few libraries. Too many are lost these days.
And for those reasons and thousands more, local media should not be allowed to die.
Best of luck Salina 311 and other media outlets. Keep improving. I’m pulling for you and proud to contribute.