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Holding government accountable: A challenge to local media

Local media faces challenges to maintain its role as government watchdog among shrinking revenue and changes in technology

Adam Slade

From left to right: Madeleine Doubek, Better Government Association; Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin; Dermot Murphy, University of Illinois at Chicago; Chris Fusco, Chicago Sun-Times; and Jake Griffin, Daily Herald

Local media has faced a changing environment over the last 20 years. From the emergence of the internet, rising mobile media consumption and lower revenues, local media has to adapt their business model while acting as a government watchdog. Illinois has the highest total units of government of any state, and the ability for local media to cover all of them is a challenge. As a result, Transform Illinois convened a panel on this issue this fall at the 4th Annual Transformer Awards Conference with members of the media and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin to discuss accountability between government and local media. Transform Illinois brings together elected officials, civic organizations and researchers dedicated to local government efficiency efforts in Illinois.

From the emergence of the internet, rising mobile media consumption and lower revenues, local media has to adapt their business model while acting as a government watchdog.

National newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have felt only modest effects of converting readers to an online format, but local newspapers have not fared as well.

“In the 1990s, people would buy newspapers for the news but also for the classified section of the newspaper, the only place to advertise real estate” says Chris Fusco of the Chicago Sun-Times. Now advertisements are online and revenue is drying up. With the emergence of the internet, local media has to fight for the attention of its readers. With shrinking revenues, local media has cut staff. Fewer staff means less regular contact with local governments.

Less contact with local governments spells less oversight: Evidence suggests that newspapers are instrumental in ensuring the fiscal responsibility of government. Dermot Murphy, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that government borrowing interest rates rose at a higher rate after the local newspaper closed than similar communities that maintained their local newspaper. It costs the government more to borrow in counties where newspapers have closed.

Right now, limited resources force local media to carefully pick and choose where they send reporters. “Local media brings awareness of government functions to the people” explains Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. Local media fills this essential function. But it is not easy to explain complex issues in a simple way.

Mayor Irvin notes that at times “news stories are not looking at the big picture,” that they find fault or controversy where none exists. As a result, Mayor Irvin ensures that decisions are made with transparency. The City of Aurora livestreams its City Council meetings so that any constituent can watch. At any one time, up to 1,500 citizens are watching the livestream.

Illinois has the highest total units of government of any state, and the ability for local media to cover all of them is a challenge.

Maintaining transparency is not always easy, and a professional tension can exist between the government and media. In 2017, the Police Chief of Aurora complained about the time and cost to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) around a traffic stop that ended in suicide. But without local media present to ask tough questions and demand information, the public are not assured that the government is acting in their best interest.

Local media regularly send Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to members of the government, who at times can feel frustrated by the required quick response time. But in May, Aurora launched a FOIA portal which allows FOIA requests to be processed online. “FOIAs are encumbering” says Mayor Irving. “The FOIA Portal makes the process more efficient.”

So what should local media do to continue holding government accountable?

“Reporters should be going to more planning meetings”, suggests Jake Griffin of the Daily Herald. This would allow the media to proactively alert the public to upcoming legislation instead of reporting on it after the fact. This is a challenge with current staffing levels for many media organizations, which have fewer beat reporters.

The future success of local media is dependent on customer interest in local issues. All politics is local, but for better or worse, controversy attracts attention. In today’s fast-moving media environment, we depend heavily on local media to create context around news stories. I hope citizens realize the value local news media brings to our democracy before they are gone for good.

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