Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"And Newspapers ... Can Disappear ...," Another View

I disagree with Ed McKeon's commentary about the Courant's advertisement opposing state legislation which would relieve municipalities from the requirement to purchase newspaper advertising to publicize municipal meetings.

Mr. McKeon has several objections to the advertisement and the cause it champions.

He charges a lack of objectivity, if not a conflict of interest, in the newspaper's advertisement, because the newspapers benefit financially from printing legal notices. Hello?!?!
Clearly marked, unambiguously identified, admittedly cheesy, it cannot be confused with a news story or even a commentary. Since when should readers expect their advertising to be objective? The Courant's actual editorial on the subject fully acknowledged the self-interest of its position, even as it spoke to the ramifications of the legislation on citizen involvement in municipal government.

It seems hard to imagine any issue affecting civic engagement which would not in some way affect the bottom line of newspapers. If newspapers are to avoid advertising on issues which affect them, should they refrain from news or opinion or advertisements relating to the First Amendment (Freedom of the Press)? By McKeon's own logic, should purveyors of on-line only publications refrain from commenting on the publication of legal notices in on-line only publications?

McKeon also seems to make the argument, "The Hartford Courant does not cover Middletown municipal meetings, therefore newspapers are doing nothing to assure an informed citizenry or help a participatory democracy." With all due respect to the importance of Middletown municipal meetings, it is a stretch to say that Hartford Courant has "abandoned" coverage of government. Moreover, while there can never be enough coverage of municipal meetings, many of Middletown's are being covered quite ably by a {gasp} newspaper {ungasp} called the Middletown Press.

Doug Hardy has already addressed the specious "I don't know anybody who reads the legal notices in the newspaper, therefore nobody does" argument. I know several citizen activists who maintain up-to-date clippings of the legal notices. In fact, I would guess that most of the citizen watchdog regulars at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings plan their attendance on the basis of newsprint legal notices.

Even if McKeon Were Right...
As Doug Hardy pointed out, the newsprint industry is in dire financial straits. And yet, when we read a news story on-line, we are almost always reading the work of somebody whose primary income derives from selling printed newspapers. Yes, even the hallowed publication you are now reading depends on the reporting and editing done by those who sell newspapers.

I do not follow the logic that since there is now less newspaper coverage of municipal meetings, newspapers should get less support, "That'll teach 'em, they'll never abandon us again!" The hard, cold truth is that if there is less money for the Newspapers, there will be less coverage, not more.

Even if it could be documented that not a single person in Middletown ever again will read the public notices in the newspaper, do we really want to enact legislation which will allow governments to eliminate support for the news organizations that are essential to the proper functioning of a democracy? I know Ed would agree that our government would be worse if there were no newspapers to report on its actions.

1 comment:

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

We should probably have this argument over a beer, however, I don't think there's anything wrong with criticizing a corporate entity (The Hartford Courant), which has abandoned reporting on the day-to-day issues in Middletown, including its public meetings, and then wants to make an issue about protecting citizen rights by publishing public notices for a fee.

Their noble cause of "keeping the public informed" is shadowed by the dollar sign.

Let's imagine that newspapers were required to publish these notices at no cost. Would they be making the same argument if they were told not to publish them anymore because they were going to be published online? I may be speculating, but I think they wouldn't be wasting the ink they now are.