Government seeks coverage via news feeds, social networking


If you were monitoring Twitter on March 27, you may have clicked through to a short biopic of Ada County Highway District Commissioner John Franden.

"I've loved horses ever since I was a little kid," Franden says, as he saddles up a horse on his hobby ranch outside of Eagle. "In fact when I was a little kid I used to go out to Wieser and actually work on a cattle ranch during the summer times."

In an earlier time, a video of this production quality would also have featured a microphone shoved in Franden's face and a reporter demanding to know where he planned to cut $9.8 million from the highway district's budget, what he felt were priority projects for the next five years and why the highway district has such a hard time playing nice with the City of Boise.

But this "Meet Your Commissioners" video is propaganda, produced by the ACHD's communications department and disseminated via the agency's Twitter feed, followed, at press time, by 130 people. The closest it gets to probing is when Franden explains why Ada County needs a countywide road department in the first place.

It's not that ACHD doesn't want or need the reporter's microphone. It's just there aren't many reporters left.

"I can't really remember the last time we had a reporter at one of our actual weekly meetings," said Robbie Johnson, a former KTVB reporter and current public information specialist at ACHD.

As news companies across the nation continue to shed jobs, consolidate beats or quit publishing altogether, one seldom-examined consequence is the effect on public agencies of not getting covered.

"With decreased coverage of things I think it's more the government agency's job to make that information accessible," Johnson said.

For years, government public relations workers interfaced with the public primarily through the media, using press releases and relationships with reporters. Now government agencies, from the White House to the local school district, are increasingly producing media themselves, including audio, video and social networking.

Johnson and others readily acknowledge that something is lost without the filter of a trained journalist.

"You need to have people who understand complex issues and I think the history of the print media allowed time for people to delve into issues in greater depth," said Phil Kushlan, executive director of Capital City Development Corporation.

With agencies putting out more and more of their own information, it is increasingly difficult to find authoritative sources for what's news. Average citizens are not in the habit of checking the Web pages of half a dozen or more public agencies each week to see their schools' test scores or property tax rates.

"In a newspaper you kind of pick it up and you go through the pages and you see that broad array of topics that you might not have gone to otherwise," Kushlan said.

The process of filtering and organizing all of this new information is part and parcel of the crisis in journalism. Johnson has noticed that mentions on the Boise Guardian blog drive a significant amount of traffic to ACHD's Web site, while ACHD Commissioner Sara Baker complains that the Idaho Statesman does not even list ACHD meetings in its civic calendar.

"ACHD apparently doesn't even register on the radar of the Idaho Statesman except for paid advertising," said Baker. "I don't know what the reason is, maybe it's just too boring for them."

Baker maintains her own blog, as does Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman and Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Baker and Ullman write regularly about meetings that are not covered in the local media.

In February, Baker wrote a post about the Road Wizard column that runs in the Sunday Statesman, revealing that ACHD pays the paper $50,000 a year to run it.

Since January, the Statesman has run two or three short stories on ACHD projects, including one on the budget shortfall.

Baker said some of ACHD's propaganda is useful, but that the public does not always get the full story from press releases. And she feels that her blog posts are straight reporting on what she hears at meetings and in her role as a commissioner; in one post she wrote she's just trying to fill in what the papers never cover.

"I would never propagandize," Baker said of her blog. "I don't consider it propaganda because I agree with it."

Other bloggers make use of the information that public agencies release, and sometimes pose additional questions, but rarely do the actual reporting.

"I make use of press releases in what I do pretty regularly," said Randy Stapilus, a public affairs analyst who blogs about Idaho, Washington and Oregon at Ridenbaugh Press and produces monthly digests on the Northwest political and economic scene.

Stapilus said there is a growing imbalance in Boise between the number of people putting out official messages and the number of reporters checking them out.

"There are fewer inquiries from reporters than there once were," Stapilus said.

Stapilus keeps a running tally of former Idaho journalists on his Web site—it's now six pages—and tries to show how many of them go into government or political spin work. While the journalism brain drain is problematic for society, the increase in information from government agencies, on the other hand, can be viewed as a positive step.

"There's a mass correction toward efficiency right now," said Scott Lewis, CEO of the Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit local news Web site in San Diego that has gotten a lot of press recently for challenging the status quo news delivery model.

Lewis said that reporters do not need to check in with the fire station or police blotter every day because most of the basic information on fires and arrests is widely available. Even local government meetings are often televised and the minutes posted online.

He said the role of reporters is not to be scribes in the age when the fire department has its own Twitter account.

"Reporters are going to have to make themselves valuable and that's not in just recording things anymore," Lewis said. "That's in serving in the public accountability role."

Kushlan suggested that whatever emerges from the identity crisis that American journalism is currently experiencing could result in new partnerships between the media and government agencies.

"It seems unreasonable to expect the newspaper to go out and hire a small army of reporters to go sit in public meetings," Kushlan said.

But in the same breath, Kushlan suggests that intense local reporting could be the raw materials of a media renaissance.

"Maybe our future is in our history and our history is in our future," Kushlan said.

Or as ACHD writes on its 140 character limit Twitter feed: "Crash on I-84 westbound beyond Exit 44 (Meridian Rd.) is now clear."