Monday, August 18, 2008

Bad News for News

Rich Miller has been giving continued coverage of the ongoing financial difficulties that have been facing a number of newspapers in our state, (and around the country for that matter). The latest rounds of cuts were laid out by Rich in a post today:
The Rockford Register Star laid off 13 employees and closed its Statehouse office today, dumping bureau chief Aaron Chambers, who is generally considered one of the best reporters under the dome...
The Champaign News-Gazette closed its bureau earlier this year, putting Kate Clements Cohorst out of a job. The Tribune eliminated one of its Statehouse positions on Friday, laying off the incredibly hard-working Jeff Meitrodt, who was recruited from New Orleans not long ago. And, as of yet, the AP has not filled the vacancy created when Ryan Keith was hired by the State Journal-Register.
I'm not inclined to get into a discourse about the changing nature of news media and of the means by which the public consumes news these days, but I do want to point out a bigger issue in play here.

My first reaction to these specific cuts is that they are bad for newspaper readers because Chambers and Meitrodt are both professionals and very good reporters. But my broader response is that these types of cuts are actually a bad thing for those interested in good government in Illinois.

In most every other state that I have occasion to visit, newspaper coverage of state government surpasses that in Illinois. Let me be clear, by 'surpasses', I don't mean in terms of quality. We have, and have had, very good reporters covering what goes on in state government. Rather, I mean that other states tend to have broader and deeper coverage of what transpires in their statehouses. The reason is straightforward enough - more reporters = more coverage.

What does this have to do with good government? It all has to do with the 'sunshine is the best disinfectant' theory. The more information that the general public has access to about what transpires in government, the less likely it is that egregious actions will take place. (Not impossible mind you, but less likely)

One example that comes to mind is Cook County government. When I was growing up, (heck, until not that long ago), most people had no idea who their county commissioners were, let along what they did. But as the media started spending more time covering county government, and the impact that it had on peoples' daily lives and pocketbooks, people started paying more attention to what was going on in county government - and who was responsible for it. The result is that elected officials, now cognizant that their votes would be subject to public scrutiny, have had to be more mindful of how they were voting. The change won't come overnight, the recent Cook County sales tax hike makes that clear. But without a window for the public to look through, the change likely wouldn't come at all.

Now of course, public officials should be doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing - in theory. But the reality is that many of them become increasingly complacent if able to operate outside of the public spotlight, and that this complacency often leads to less than optimal governance from the standpoint of doing what is in the best interest of the public.

I would have to imagine that there is a study out there somewhere that tries to correlate the amount of news coverage of units of government with some type of objective measure as to the integrity and performance those units of government.

But I don't need a study to tell me that if there was ever a statehouse that could use some sunshine, Illinois is it.

So do your part for good government, go buy a newspaper.


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