The final lesson is not so much about local government as it is about you, as a reporter or blogger: Will you report on results or just on process?
By process I mean the most public parts of government: city council meetings, press conferences, city hall events, public hearings, campaigns and elections. If you are invited to it or are legally entitled to witness it through open meetings or open records laws, then that’s process.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. Process is important, and you really should cover it. After all, elections hold governments accountable, open meetings cause them to be more inclusive and thoughtful, and fair processes keep them honest. But these things aren’t the sum total of government; they’re more like the visible tip. Most of government lies beneath. If these essays on covering city hall have done anything, I hope they’ve encouraged you to go below from time to time and give things a look.
Before doing so, though, let me ask a question: Why do reporters spend so much time on the process parts of government and so little examining results? Well, let’s be honest: It’s easy. When a council member goes on a rant at a city council meeting or a protest march is staged outside city hall, the stories practically write themselves. (I know. I wrote a lot of these stories myself.) Tracing ideas as they move through local government, mapping the compromises made and collaborations created, and measuring their impact on land use and city services? That’s hard.
And, too, city hall reporting has long suffered from the poor examples set by reporters in Washington and in state capitals. In those places, public policy is often treated as if it were a performance and not a series of decisions with lasting impacts on states and the nation.
Am I being too hard on your colleagues? Well, think back to the torrent of reporting on health care reform in 2009 and 2010, the vast majority of which was about political maneuvers. Far less attention was paid to the reforms themselves: the ideas behind President Obama’s plans, where they originated, and their likelihood of success. Since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, there has been even less attention paid to how the reforms are working. No wonder we were so surprised in 2013 when the health care website crashed. Once the political drama had moved on, few reporters were still paying attention.
You can do better than this—and you should. For one thing, local government isn’t nearly as large in scale or ambitions as federal or state governments. Want to meet the people implementing your city’s projects and policies? That’s easy. The results, too, can be seen and measured without much trouble. If you want to know how the downtown is doing, start with the business improvement district director, interview merchants and shoppers along Main Street, talk with a developer or two, and check a few statistics at the city planning department. You can do all of this in a day or two.
Not sure you know enough to judge a city’s performance? The things local government is concerned with aren’t hard to understand. (In fairness to those covering the Affordable Care Act, health care economics is harder.) Keep in mind the difference between strategy and services. As I’ve written, the big decisions in local government are about land use. But this is a subject you can master with a little reading and some time spent with city planners and urban studies professors. The other part of local government is service delivery. This, too, can be mastered by asking simple questions: What is the problem or need in this area? How have you tried to solve the problem or answer the need? What have been the results?
Whether it’s public safety, sanitation, transportation, or water supply, those questions will usually get you started. Check what you hear with independent observers and experts (take advantage of a nearby university), find citizens affected by the issue, and then ask to see the numbers. You can do this.
Here’s a final reason for taking the harder path of focusing on results. Process journalism, the kind that skims the surface of public policy, is rapidly becoming a commodity. Reporting that digs deeper and looks for results is, I believe, the journalism of the future. If you want a preview, check out news websites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight. These sites don’t just report what politicians say is going on; they use data and other indicators to show us what’s actually happening. At the local level, you can find similar results-oriented reporting on websites in San Diego, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.
To repeat: Please continue covering city council meetings. That’s important. But don’t stop there. Examine how government works and what it produces. If you pay attention, it’ll make for better government and a better city. And who knows? It might also make you a better reporter with a brighter future.
This is the last in a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics. To read the introduction, please click here.
Photo by Thomas Claveirole licensed under Creative Commons.