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Transparency Despite Lack of Local Journalists

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adam Kuczynski
February 2, 2020

Transparency is largely recognized as a pillar of good government. Academics (rightly) discuss the relation between transparency and related concepts such as accountability, openness, responsibility and the like. But practitioners and the public are losing a key ally in the transparency battle: local journalists.

Local journalism used to be a right of passage for professional journalists (individuals who studied under other professional journalists, either through experience or education). One used to be hard-pressed to find a seasoned veteran who didn’t have a story about a council meeting or zoning board meeting that went haywire. Yet, today, the opposite is nearly true.

Public officials knew this, as well. If the national media was calling, then something either truly terrible or tremendous took place within your town’s borders. In that sense, you did not need to worry much about the national or regional news. There were not many surprise questions. However, when that ever-present local reporter called, your hair raised on your neck—regardless of the subject.

One now-retired (and formerly jailed) politician told me that a local journalist was the one that exposed his financial dealings that get him in trouble. Even city officials with nothing to hide cringed when a local journalist came knocking—or FOIA-requesting. The inevitable question was going to be about why something was not working or costing too much. In this very tangible way, a local journalist was responsive transparency in action.

However, professional journalists abruptly abandoned this sphere, ostensibly due to the financial decline of newspapers and media. There just wasn’t money in the local chambers, as one retired publisher recounted. Are governments now running rampant with corruption? Of course not. Many of the professional administrators and politicians that run day-to-day operations of municipalities do so to the best of their abilities. They also attempt to be as transparent as possible. Yet, outside of the legal guidelines, what are they to do? Another question that is not so clear-cut, though: Does this mean there is no interest in local government?

If local voting participation is any measurement, then the outlook is a bit bleak. But, as we all know, there are many more ways to study, measure and acknowledge resident interest other than just voting. The issue is that many of these direct and indirect ways of participating require time and energy to investigate—especially for issues that may not be earth-shattering on a national level. We can argue that it boils down to which is the chicken, and which is the egg; Does interest demand media attention or does media attention create the interest?

This is a huge question for those who study transparency. Although, it should also be a large concern for practitioners who deal with transparency, both from a legal and moral perspective. Legally, many things that a local government does have to be publicized due to individual states’ Sunshine laws. Yet, is simply posting a meeting announcement on a bulletin board and paying for an advertisement in an unread weekly, “Local,” paper (that covers the entire county or half of the state) transparency? Yes, you met the legal obligation, but is this the plaster and concrete that helps build that pillar of transparency?

The realm of local coverage has not been totally abandoned. In some locales, when local journalists pulled out, citizen-journalists moved in. At the anecdotal level, this would indicate there is some desire for information to become available for the public. However, as talented and passionate as many of the citizen-journalists/bloggers/social media personalities are, there is still a perceived difference from the public and the officials themselves. Does this perceived difference alter that pillar of transparency in any such way? Do local officials suffer from a lack of distribution of information? Perhaps the more apt analogy would be akin to a tree falling in the woods without anyone around. If transparency is offered, but nobody is there to hear it, is it still transparency?

Undoubtedly, there are many tracts to understand and research—and truly good research that is currently being done (I would encourage reading it)—much more than this column can explore. However, these are all important questions that need to remain on the forefront of municipal transparency.

Author: Adam Kuczynski, MPA, is currently completing his Ph.D. in Public Administration at Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration. Adam has served in local government, and worked as a journalist and director of communications at a nonprofit. He focuses primarily on volunteerism and philanthropy, but also on transparency, administration, and law. He may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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