Newspaper Closures Affect Local Government and the Public Bears the Burden

by Michelle Martineau

newspaper-closures-affect-local-gov
Image by Bucol from Pixabay

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.

It’s Official: The OPEN Government Data Act is Now the Law of the Land

by Michelle Martineau

The OPEN Data Act passed the US House and Senate with rare bipartisan support

What does it mean for local agencies and the public at large?

On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act into law. A key component of FEBP is the OPEN Government Data Act, which passed the US House and Senate back in December with rare bipartisan support.

This new legislation has been years in the making and codifies key pieces of President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy Memorandum. In addition to the broader initiative to improve government transparency and drive citizen engagement, the OPEN Government Data Act also promises to increase the accessibility and usability of government information for other key stakeholders including journalists, academics, and entrepreneurs in both the public and private sector.

OPEN is actually an acronym that stands for Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary, and under the new law federal agencies are now required to publish all non-sensitive government information online in a machine-readable format. That’s good news for everyone, especially researchers and developers looking for data to fuel innovation.

For the record, the “non-sensitive government data” we’re talking about generally includes information on weather, traffic, census, budgets, and more. More importantly, it’s data that taxpayers actually paid to develop and fund. In short, the public financed this information, and now the law says they’ll finally have free and easy access to it.

Making government data not only accessible, but machine readable is key because it means it’s searchable and therefore more actionable.  A 2017 letter of support for the legislation signed by more than 80 businesses, industry groups, civic organizations, and transparency advocates argued that opening up data to people in both the public and private sectors would effectively drive development of “new tools and services that address some of the country’s most pressing economic and social challenges.”

Until now, many government agencies simply scanned documents and posted PDFs to their website to comply with Federal Open Information Act (FOIA) requirements. While this checked the transparency box, it didn’t make the data easily searchable or particularly useful. With this new legislation, that’s about to change — for good.

While the new guidelines specifically apply to federal agencies, the implications are far-reaching. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that open and transparent government is no longer merely aspirational. For democracies here and abroad, government data is increasingly open by default. And, there’s ample evidence to show that this global sentiment is being embraced at the local level as more cities and towns endeavor to establish and hone an online presence to better engage busy constituents.

In fact, over the last three years ClearGov has built free public-facing pages for 20,000+ local governments showcasing government data in easy-to-understand infographic-style profiles. And, hundreds of towns and school districts in 20 different states have since claimed their profiles, expanding them to include valuable commentary and relevant peer comparisons. Some are even building out project pages that enable residents to view budgets, blueprints, timelines and more for capital improvements, new construction, and other initiatives. Residents can even subscribe to receive updates automatically every time the data changes.

claim your transparency profile

While OPEN data is now officially the law of the land, it’s not likely the transparency police will be enforcing it any time soon. However, it does set the bar for clear governance — and there’s no going back. It’s time to start sharing public-owned data with the public, and making it easy to understand and actionable.

Join the conversation: Register to attend a live Q&A with Gov. Martin O’Malley January 23rd

by Michelle Martineau

Former two-term governor and pioneer of data-driven governing, Martin O’Malley

It’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of a former governor and pioneer of data-driven reporting and management systems for local governments, but next Wednesday you’ll get your chance.

Mark your calendar and reserve your virtual seat at the table now for “The New Realities of Public Leadership – A Live Q&A with Martin O’Malley.” On Wednesday, January 23rd at 3:00 PM (EST), ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock will sit down with the former two-term mayor of Baltimore and two-term Governor of Maryland to talk best practices for civic leaders in the age of misinformation.

Given today’s politically charged climate, it’s worth noting that the conversation will draw upon O’Malley’s vast experience in running governments by the numbers and not his party affiliation, as ClearGov’s mission to help democracies work better is strictly nonpartisan.

O’Malley’s experience in the public sector spans three decades and includes eight years serving as a city councilor, so he’s well versed in the challenges confronted by civic leaders at the city, state, and local level. He’s also an avid proponent of transparent, data-driven governing and a founding practitioner of CitiStat, an innovative statistics-based tracking system that he debuted in Baltimore and later evolved for statewide use as Governor. The cutting-edge program won Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government Award in 2004 and is now used by hundreds of governments across the country and globally.

O’Malley currently sits on the board of directors for ClearGov and shares the company’s passion for empowering public leaders to better communicate, connect, and engage with their constituents. Of course, with more ways than ever for the public to access, consume, and disseminate information, today’s leaders face a whole new set of challenges.

In the last decade or so, there’s been a profound shift in the way we as a society get and share news. The internet, social media, and smartphones have all played a role in the democratization of data. Today, more people than ever not only enjoy — but have come to expect — unfettered access to a near-infinite stream of information (accurate and otherwise).

While this new reality poses unique challenges for civic and school leaders, the opportunities far outweigh the risks. The most successful leaders will be those who learn to leverage Information Age technologies to inform better decision-making, drive transparency, and ultimately build public trust.

In an ebook published earlier this month, Governor O’Malley identified best practices for how to not only adapt in an increasingly hyperconnected world, but actually thrive and help your community to prosper in ways never before possible.

In a live Q&A with the Governor on Wednesday January 23rd, we’ll pick up where the ebook leaves off. Register now to secure your space at this live event. Even if you can’t attend, sign up now and we’ll send you a recording of what promises to be an insightful discussion about the challenges of public leadership in the era of “fake news.”