20 Aug 2014
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Patch Fills Local Information Gap

Local news websites cover the unsexy workings of community life.

Patch Fills Local Information Gap Patch Fills Local Information Gap

Journalists are right down there with lawyers and used car salesmen in the dungeon of public opinion but here’s a small example of what can happen when we’re not on the job:

On December 10, 2009, Salisbury Township commissioners adopted an ordinance restricting the use of all-terrain vehicles in the township. They had followed the law, discussed the proposed ordinance at a public meeting, and advertised it in newspaper legal ads before approving it.

But because the area’s main daily newspaper, The Morning Call, hadn’t covered the issue, there were no complaints about the new restrictions until after they became law.

When ATV-riding residents found out about it, they protested at some meetings, complaining that the ordinance was too restrictive. After much back and forth, the commissioners amended the law to ease the new restrictions somewhat.

And that, in a nutshell, is why communities need Patch. Local daily newspapers no longer have the staff and resources to get to every borough council or township supervisors’ meeting in their coverage area.  The result is ATV ordinances and the like can fall through the cracks without a Patch to cover them. These aren’t   Woodward and Bernstein-type exposes, but such stories still make a difference in the lives of citizens.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission issued a 478-page report bemoaning the state of news coverage in America since the newspaper industry went into free fall. The report rightly frets about cutbacks in investigative journalism, which has suffered the most from mass layoffs at newspapers.

Daily newspapers have seen their staffs reduced by 25 percent since 2006; newspaper advertising revenue dropped by 47 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to the report. 

While all types of online journalism have increased, the FCC points out that much of the blogosphere is heavy on commentators and light on hard news reporting. It cites a study by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism that looked at the proliferation of new media outlets in Baltimore. The FCC reported: “But when Pew’s researchers analyzed the content they were providing, particularly regarding the city budget and other public affairs issues, they discovered that 95 percent of the stories – including those in the new media – were based on reporting done by traditional media (mostly the Baltimore Sun).”

Daily newspapers like the Baltimore Sun and The Morning Call still do excellent in-depth stories, investigations and spot news reporting. I happily pay for subscriptions to The Call and the Sunday New York Times and donate to public television and radio stations because I value those news sources.  While there’s some overlap, Patch has found a niche catching stories and features overlooked by bigger media.

It has more time and space to focus on positive things happening in a community – the Eagle Scout landscaping a park, the school program that’s working. Typically, the press spends a lot of time and space focusing on school budgets and test scores because they are important and affect lots of people, but also because they’re quantifiable. What is more likely to be overlooked is what’s hard to measure: the teacher inspiring students to be creative, the chorus making beautiful music. Patch catches people being good.  

The key to rescuing journalism is finding a practical way to make it pay. This I’m sure of: whether it means paying for a subscription or patronizing companies that advertise on your favorite news sources or donating to nonprofit radio stations, Web sites or television, good journalism will cost you.  

To those who recite the “Information wants to be free” mantra of the Cyber Age, I say, “Yes, but my children want to eat.” The journalists I know love the work but can’t afford to do it for free. Show me someone who sits through all municipal meetings and writes about them for free and I’ll show you a person with an agenda.

The FCC report mentions Patch and the value its reporters and editors add to the news business, but points out rightly that local Patch web sites don’t have the staff or the resources to do lengthy investigations and “full-time enterprise reporting.” Yet just this week, Patch columnist Bernie O’Hare broke a story about Bruce Gilbert, the nominee for Northampton County finance chief having a history of seven small money judgments filed against him, including a federal tax lien. Gilbert’s nomination was withdrawn Tuesday.

Patch is a work in progress. I’m guessing that when the first truly independent newspapers emerged in the 1600s, they had to learn by trial and error about what to cover and – just as important – how to pay for it.  Online journalism is in its infancy and there are going to be some growing pains. It’s got to figure out how to make reporting pay -- and soon.  

Patch in the Lehigh Valley is not yet a year old. For an infant, I’d say it’s off to a healthy start. But it has to grow up fast.

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