One of the major issues being discussed in my little corner of the world is a horrific sewer problem in Centreville, Illinois: a low-income town largely populated by black residents. It is literally the poorest town in the United States, and it has problems. Flooding isn’t just a wet basement for these folks; it’s open sewage pumping into a front yard, water literally spewing up from manholes.
It’s being investigated by local newspapers – you know, those “dying” institutions that the Facebook commentators love to mock and refuse to pay. Insert rant here.
Reporter Michele Munz with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has taken an interesting approach: she wrote a first-person narrative of her efforts to get information from the Centreville leaders.
A month of phone calls and emails.
Ducked by council members.
A mayor who would only take questions in writing and then never answered them.
Contradictory information given out at town halls.
Munz’s column, “Crickets and unanswered questions from metro-east government,” is an unusual choice in that it is a first-person account of shoe-leather journalism. It is, of course, a common – almost mundane – tale for those of us who have worked in local journalism. Nobody wants to answer the questions when the answers aren’t pretty, so they hide.
But it’s not so uncommon anymore. Munz writes “On the Beat” regularly, detailing what goes into her reporting. More and more local journalism is pulling back the curtain, following up major stories with detailed “how we investigated this” and “why we did that” pieces.
It’s part of the push for transparency in reporting, intended to create a greater trust in news media among the readers. Of course, if you just read the Facebook commentators, it doesn’t matter how many lengthy hours we put in trying to find people and get your public officials to explain why they let sewage flow into people’s homes. They just complain about the paywall.
This new trend goes beyond the traditional role of the ombudsman, to examine and sometimes criticize the newspaper’s decisions, independent of editorial control. This is news literacy, explaining what we do in the hopes that they will understand how very hard it is. This gets even harder as newspaper after newspaper cuts staff and retasks their few remaining employees to run after car crashes and murders because that’s what you click and they’re desperate to pay the bills.
And no one else is doing it, folks. Unless someone has accused the mayor of burning down City Hall, I don’t see television cameras in city council meetings. Nobody is watching your local school board or library trustees… or sewer district. Nobody except newspaper reporters, the ones you’re not paying when you growl at the paywall.
Munz is keeping after the Centreville officials. Who’s keeping after the officials in your town?