The decline in local reporting means fewer watchdogs, a less informed electorate, and higher financing fees

These days fewer and fewer residents show up at public meetings, an occurrence we’ve lamented in this space before. More troubling perhaps is the fact that in many towns across the country fewer journalists are in attendance.

Among its most critical roles, a free press acts as a watchdog for government, helping to make democracy more transparent and to hold civic leaders accountable to the public they serve. It used to be that if you couldn’t attend a town council meeting, you could read about it the next day in your local paper. Today, for an astonishing number of communities across the U.S., that’s simply no longer the case — and we’ve only just begun to assess the figurative and literal costs of this growing, gaping void.

In the last two decades, local newspapers battling declining readership have been forced to jettison their print editions and lay off staff in droves. Newspaper employment has fallen by 55 percent since the year 2000 — and a staggering number of small-town papers have shuttered their offices all together.

A recent University of North Carolina (UNC) study reveals a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers since 2004. In fact, UNC has published an interactive map that shows precisely how communities in all 50 states have been affected by these closures. You can actually drill down to the county level to uncover the prevalence of news outlets (or lack thereof) in your area. Even in locations where there are still newspapers, there may not be enough reporters to adequately cover the beat let alone engage in true investigative journalism.

Without a reliable source of local news, citizens and lawmakers can’t make informed decisions about the important issues that affect daily life. Beyond that, there’s another less obvious but nevertheless concerning consequence of the recent decline in government oversight — and that’s higher financing fees. It seems lenders get nervous when no one is keeping tabs on borrowers.

A recent study by finance professors Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy found that municipal borrowing costs increased by 5 to 11 basis points following a newspaper closure.  And, the costs stemming from those higher interest rates is ultimately borne by taxpayers.

Can transparency help curb the cost of borrowing?

Local newspapers hold governments accountable, and in the process help to keep municipal borrowing costs low, which ultimately saves taxpayers money. While a fiscal transparency site is certainly no substitute for local reporting, it does provide a measure of self oversight that not only helps local governments build public trust and drive engagement, but may also allay some of the concerns of wary lenders. After all, putting everything on the table is a show of good faith.

When a city or town proactively opens up their data for public consumption, it shows they have nothing to hide. It also gives resource-strapped news organizations trying to cover the local beat an easily accessible online source of truth they can use in their reporting. That said, there is a difference between being transparent and being clear. And, publishing your financials as a non-searchable PDF is neither.

At ClearGov, we’re making it easier for local cities, towns, and school districts to clearly convey important fiscal, demographic, and community development information to the public, the press, and potential lenders. Our interactive, infographic-based, public-facing profiles are designed to help local governments clearly communicate important information to their constituents in a way that makes sense to everyone. And, we continue to expand our profile capabilities to include more relevant, in-depth data every day and provide more ways for interested citizens to stay informed.

For example, when a local newspaper closes, there is less publicly available information about community projects. So, ClearGov recently added templated project pages to its platform, enabling local officials to easily share timelines, budgets, blueprints, and more in one centralized location. By syndicating the content on their government website and sharing links on social media, local governments can get the word out about important community initiatives to interested constituents. The public can even subscribe to these pages to receive automated notifications every time a project detail gets updated.

Finally, as reported by Andrew Westrope in a recent Government Technology feature, ClearGov has also recently partnered with highly trafficked news sites like Patch and Ballotpedia to help local governments better reach, inform, and engage more residents. That means communities with an active ClearGov transparency site now have a new way to get their content in front of more digital consumers than ever before. Also, syndicating municipal data to these sites will provide journalists with important ClearGov metrics they can use in their local coverage.

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