Just don't call me Chief
A reader formerly from our nation's capital sends along the text of an interesting speech made this week by a blogger type who's been keeping an eye on local government in his town. He is Gary Imhoff, his and his wife's site is called DCWatch, and here is what he said as he received an award for extraordinary public service from the district's Federation of Citizens Associations:
I don't open a morning newspaper or turn on the evening television news — I wish I could stop that sentence right there, but let me start it again. I don't open a newspaper or watch the news with an eager anticipation that I'll find out something good that the DC city government will be doing for me. Instead, I approach the news dreading what I'll find out the government will be doing to me, or my neighborhood, or the city as a whole. It will be pushing some developer's plan to screw up another neighborhood, and it will be devoting millions or tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to fund those plans. It will be diverting public property to somebody's private interests. It will be passing some bill to regulate our private lives so that we'll live them in line with councilmembers' personal preferences. That's why news is so important; it's citizens' first line of defense. If we don't know what they're up to, we can't defend ourselves against them.Here in Portland, the address would be email@example.com.
When Dorothy and I started DCWatch.com in the mid-1990's, we were looking for a better, more efficient way of distributing government information, and the Internet provided it. I had tried for a couple years to convince the DC government to start its own web site, and when it didn't Dorothy and I started DCWatch to post city council bills, government reports, and so on. A few years later, DC.gov opened, and a few years after that, with its large staff, it became a bigger repository of government documents than anything we could hope to maintain.
We still post government documents that, for one reason or another, the DC government doesn't want to become too public. But the more prominent mission of our web site became providing an outlet for citizen-generated news and opinion in our biweekly E-mail forum, firstname.lastname@example.org. That mission has become even more important now that almost all print news outlets are in financial trouble and are cutting back their local coverage; and now that local television news is mostly lifestyle reports, sports, and weather. How do we gather serious local political and community news, and how do we get it to the people?
I think the second part of that question is already answered. The Internet is an inexpensive delivery method, almost free compared with printing or broadcasting, and it doesn't have the space limitations of newspapers or the time limitations of television. In the future, news about serious subjects will be delivered by the Internet first, and papers and television stations will be supplements. But how will news be gathered for Internet news services? Big newspapers, with big advertising and subscription revenues, as well as big television stations with big advertising revenues, could afford big news gathering staffs, numerous reporters and several editors. But Internet sites have limited to no advertising revenue and limited to no chance of charging their readers subscription fees. (I'm very skeptical that newspapers' dreams of walling off their web sites and charging fees to readers will lead to anything.)
So who will support these large staffs of reporters and editors? I'm not sure that anyone will. Most travel agents have been replaced with travel booking web sites, and the few remaining travel agents handle only the most difficult itineraries. I suspect that in the future most newspapers will have only two or three reporters and editors devoted to gathering the local civic and political news that we are interested in, and the days when a newspaper like The Washington Post had fifty Metro reporters on staff are gone forever.
If there are fewer professional reporters gathering and covering the news that we find necessary, who will replace them? We will. We, the people in this room and hundreds and thousands of people like us who are interested in the well-being of our city and the operations of our city government. We are already the sources for our local newspapers and broadcast stations. We try to convince reporters and their editors that they should cover the stories that are interesting and important to us. Occasionally, we succeed; more often we don't. But in our local neighborhood listservs and in themail, we are able to act as reporters ourselves. We escape the filters of ‘news judgment' that keeps a lot of important news out of our news outlets. We get to inform others directly, and in the end we all end up better informed.
I thank you for this award, but I'm not the one who earned it. What you read in themail, the things you may have learned about from it, are the work of many people cooperating to invent another way of keeping each other in touch and informed. You deserve the credit. And if you don't deserve the credit, if you haven't contributed to themail yet, go home and write now. Send your messages about what's going on in your neighborhood or in your area of interest to email@example.com, and let the rest of us know about it.