June 08, 2008

Feeding Readers Better Information on County Government

Submitted by John Bury

Twenty years ago the Daily Journal of Elizabeth covered Union County politics. Many municipalities had their own weeklies. The Star-Ledger covered state and national issues but rarely bothered with this county. At least some things don't change.

After the Daily Journal folded in 1992 a gap developed in coverage of county issues. Some weeklies consolidated but focus remained on the towns, which is what their readers primarily cared about. So for the last few years the freeholders have essentially gotten a pass on coverage by the media and gotten fat. Maybe with the Local Source consolidating countywide there will be much-needed light shed on what the freeholders are doing.

Though most things thrive with sunlight when it comes to government budgets it's a lack of sunshine that induces growth. Since 2000 the county tax levy has risen 68% from $150.1 million to $251.7 million. Included in those are vanity projects like the restoration of the UCPAC, studies for a children's museum, and annual musicfests where the costs get passed on to taxpayers with only token debate and apparently little forethought. If the taxpayers don't care, why should the county? But taxayers would care if they were fed the information from a reliable source.

The internet was supposed to supplant newspapers for local coverage but it remains unreliable and sporadic often consisting of little more than rumor and innuendo. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of editors. You can easily get information out there but, without an effective filter, anyone with an internet connection can propagandize, sometimes under various aliases, about whatever would benefit them personally. Couldn't a job of a county public relations department be to go on websites anonymously and denigrate any critics of their policies?

A newspaper editor might get ten items to choose from for inclusion in a paper and pick three. On most internet forums all ten items would be viewed, with quantity trumping quality, leaving it to the reader to also adopt the role of editor. The problem comes when readers often have time to read only the three items and they gravitate to stories that feed their prejudices or taste for sensationalism.

It's as if your mother were to set out ten food items for dinner and you could only eat three. Too many people would be subsisting on diets of chocolate cake, jello, and pork rinds. The spinach and kidney beans that you need for sustenance would go to waste with their necessary nutrients. Hopefully, the new Local Source will lay out a balanced diet and we will all be stronger, wiser and richer for it.