Are We In Danger Of Losing ‘Sunshine?’

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Whether it is the Swift County Board of Commissioners discussing building a new justice center, the Benson High School gymnastics team seeking a new place to practice and perform, the City of Benson discussing future economic development plans and how it will spend the $20 million coming to it from Xcel Energy over four years, there is one primary source that keeps the public informed – the Swift County Monitor-News.

Imagine if we weren’t here.

How would you be informed? How much information would the gatekeepers of government discussion and debate let you hear about? How easy would it be to get the documents that underlie the decisions elected leaders make?

This is Sunshine Week in America. Throughout the country, newspapers are writing about how sunshine – the light community newspaper reporting brings to government operations at all levels – is the best disinfectant against corruption. It is a light that illuminates what our local government officials are doing so that we can make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Started in 2005 by American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week is intended to remind people of the importance of journalism. This year’s focus is on the loss of news coverage in a staggering number of communities across America. Over the past 15 years, nearly 1,800 newspapers have disappeared – 1,700 weeklies like the Monitor-News, and 60 dailies.

Do you really think Facebook is going to replace your community newspaper? Do you think texting and email can replace it? Do you think citizens are going to sit through all the county, city, school board, and hospital board meetings? Do you think they are going to do the in-depth study and grinding work to report on some of the more involved subjects?

What does it mean for democracy if it loses an informed citizenry? Are we going to rely on government officials, rumor and partisan fighting for our information?

Some government officials are reluctant to give citizens, and the press, information that is clearly public under the Minnesota Data Practices. Information that helps inform people about the issues elected and appointed officials are discussing that involves spending of taxpayer dollars, the education of their children, and public safety. At times they hold the information because they reflexively act as gatekeepers rather than public officials acting according to the law. At other times the information may cause controversy they would sooner avoid.

We have elected officials who would conduct business behind closed doors, through email, or on the phone to avoid public scrutiny and possible criticism. They don’t want to take the heat from citizens their discussions and study of an issue might generate.

Though for the most part our local elected and appointed officials are open and straightforward with citizens, we do have some who do fit into the category of unnecessarily restrictive gatekeepers. We do have elected officials who would rather have discussions out of the public eye until they have worked out the more controversial aspects of an issue.

However, it is through public conversations that citizens are able to judge the quality of the people they put in office. Are they making good judgments? Are they doing their homework on issues? Are they talking to citizens? Are they letting personal grudges and prejudices influence their decisions? When public bodies meet in open sessions, their conversations reveal much to the public, helping citizens make good decisions on issues and those who serve them.

Holding power accountable

Newspapers have influence in their communities for five primary reasons:

1) The deep reach we have among citizens. Elected leaders know that a story printed in the newspaper will circulate throughout the entire community. Subscribers will share stories with friends and family.

Newspapers can be found in the library, the restaurant, the tavern, on the park bench and on the counter in stores throughout the community. We also have our online presence.

2) The authority of their voice as a trusted source of news. Survey after survey has found that the local, small-town newspaper is the most trusted source of information in a community.

3) Their financial ability to challenge power. When government officials refuse to hand over public documents or illegally close a public meeting, we will take them to court. Citizens often aren’t willing to, or are unable to, muster the money to challenge government. Unfortunately for citizens, newspaper challenges of the illegal acts of local governments are fading away as their financial security declines.

4) We show up – day after day, year after year. Government officials know that we will report about what is discussed. We will follow up, reminding citizens of past successes as well as misdeeds.

On Facebook, your circle of friends may get fired up about some action the city council or school district takes, but it isn’t long before the daily grind of life distracts them and the issue fades with no one held accountable. The newspaper is always on duty; we follow up.

5) Our knowledge of the laws that govern public officials such as open meeting laws and laws that dictate public access to government documents ensures transparency and accountability. The average citizen can easily be told by public officials that they have the right to keep documents private, or that meetings can be closed for “executive sessions.” We know better.

Newspapers a public good

Americans must understand that newspapers are a public good, much like our educational system, our roads and bridges, our water systems, and our national defense.

With the internet taking away advertising that supports journalism, with the public turning to free entertainment and news on the internet and dropping their newspaper subscriptions, the responsibility to support how our citizens are informed will eventually go back to its roots – where society recognized the essential need to sustain journalism that educates the electorate. How we will do that is a subject of considerable debate, but one we must have.

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