Friday, September 21, 2012

Middletown Would Miss The Press

This is a commentary that represents solely my opinion. It is in no way meant to represent the opinion of The Eye, or any other of its volunteer correspondents.
This opinion follows Ed McKeon's articles on the financial decisions that led to the second bankruptcy declaration by the owners of the Middletown Press, and the related issues in local journalism, as well as Molly Salafia's article, "I Won't Miss The Press".

The Middletown Press continues to play a vital role in the life of our city, and it would be a great loss if it ceased to exist. I say this in part for reasons generally applicable to the press and democracy, but also for reasons specific to The Press and Middletown.

When elected officials know that the voters are, or will be, informed about their actions, their decisions are more likely to be in the best interest of those voters, because votes are more likely to be based on what the elected officials are actually doing. As long as The Press is paying a professional journalist to watch and to report to us what is happening in City Hall, in the Police Department, in Water and Sewer, in the Board of Education, etc, The Press is providing a vital service to our municipal democracy. At the national level, I would make this same argument about Mother Jones and The Wall Street Journal (and if pushed, even about thoughtless and partisan sensationalists).

The Press is not a perfect news outlet (nor is The Eye). I share Molly Salafia's concern, "[The Press] barely covers local meetings, only quotes a few of the same elected officials over and over, and in general, misses the point of those meetings." However, I come to a conclusion opposite hers: if a major problem is that The Press does not provide enough coverage of local meetings, how would we be better off if The Press covered none?

In fact, The Press has had a series of good reporters who cover government actions: it has covered Middletown joining the Mattabessett Regional Sewer District, businesses, it covers all Council, and some boards and commission meetings. The Courant also covers many of these same meetings, but no other outlet comes close.

The Eye is able to provide some coverage of Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Education meetings, and does so with residents who care deeply about the city (some might call this 'bias'). Patch has been unable to sustain significant coverage of municipal affairs, and The Middletown Insider has published a few interesting articles by named authors like Fred Carroll and Molly Salafia, but these are largely obscured (and discredited) by the rest, which are apparently written by the same cowardly "anonymous" responsible for the plague of jejune snark in the comments section of other news outlets.

Put together, all of these web-only news outlets do not provide as much municipal coverage as either of the daily print outlets. Moreover, it is not clear that the all-volunteer model of news coverage is any more sustainable than the AOL (Patch) model, or the print model. The sustained coverage of municipal government would suffer dramatically without The Press.

Moreover, loss of The Press would be even worse than these simplistic tallies indicate, because news writing and news reading are social activities enriched by others doing the same thing. Reading one story about Middletown increases my desire to read another story about Middletown, because when I know a little bit about city hall, I want to learn more. If friends have read a story about our City, I am stimulated to go read stories about our City. I suspect I am not alone in this. For example, when The Press reported this week that Captain McKenna had convinced the Personnel Review Commission to relax the requirements for Deputy Captain, I turned to other outlets to learn more, and I wanted to discuss it with others who had read about it. Like almost any item in the news (politics, sports, celebrity gossip, for example), Middletown stories and conversations are enriched by knowing the context. The reciprocal newsfeed banners on The Press and The Eye acknowledge the synergism of the two outlets for the reader.

The synergism is even greater for a writer of news. Sometimes it is obvious. An Eye correspondent learns of a city action through a Press article and attends a meeting he would not otherwise have. Or a Press reporter learns of something through an Eye article, and makes a few phone calls to city hall that he would not otherwise have. Sometimes it is less obvious. I have spent many hours with Jim Salemi (The Press) and Shawn Beals (The Courant) in City Hall, listening to city officials and members of the public debate sometimes trivial and occasionally profound issues. We exchange information and share a chuckle over boneheaded stupidity, supporting each other with a dose of companionship in what can otherwise be an isolating week night tedium.

The presence of a reporter or two at the same meeting provides me with a spark, and their writing helps motivate me to produce the best I can for The Eye. I sense that The Eye has stimulated better coverage of our City by The Press and The Courant (but I am biased).

I think it is naïf to imagine that The Press can be replaced by The Eye, or even by a combination of several on-line only, sporadic newsblogs. In The Eye's first 4 years of existence, we have proven unable to provide consistently the municipal coverage that The Press has, and I doubt we or any other volunteer blog ever will.

Especially if The Press were to stop publishing.


Madam Nirvana (Molly Salafia) said...


Jen Alexander said...


Thank you for this thoughtful commentary - even at its weakest point, the Middletown Press is better than having no local daily paper in MIddletown. I also want to thank you for your commitment to witnessing and reporting basic city functions like P&Z meetings, council meetings and other city business over the years for the Middletown Eye. You make it possible for the rest of us to be informed on at least a few issues.

I'm not sure what can be done to support the growth/improvement of a genuinely engaged local newspaper - but I think it's something we all need to talk about. The Eye started because the decline in the coverage by the Courant and Press was gradually creating a climate where public officials operated without public participation or awareness. That's not how our government functions at its best. We need journalism and the media to create a check and balance to the other influences in city business.

-Jen Alexander

Matt DeRienzo said...

Thank you for this piece. We're not going anywhere ... in fact, just invested significantly in a redesign of our print edition and adding of new columnists, a new editor and managing editor, and creation of an investigative reporter position. We hope the Middletown Eye continues as well and that we complement each other.

Anonymous said...

Did you really just compare your blog to a reputable news source? This is the one thing that has often angered me about the Middletown Eye writers...they believe they are a news source. The fact is, while you may certainly repeat news stories that have already been reported in the paper or elsewhere, you also have the right to do so with your opinionated slant, and you DO do this. I'm not faulting you for this, but as writers, I believe it is your responsibility to correctly identify yourselves, not as a news source, but as an independent blog, which is under no obligation to report anything factual.

Anonymous said...

The blog is "the facts according to grumpy old Ed"