“Public discussion is a political duty,” the Supreme Court said in 1964. What is not documented in the court case is how public discussion cannot exist without local journalism.
It’s a common conception that local news coverage is dull and monotonous — lots of budget meetings, traffic reports and crime coverage. As the City News Editor at the Daily Cardinal, I encounter this perception frequently.
Yet, local papers across the country are providing the information necessary for public discourse, from obituaries so that people know who they've lost, to local coverage on small businesses so people know where to go. These things matter to an informed community.
Madison has “hyper-engaged local citizenry,” according to Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker — and that makes it even more vital.
“Local government reporting is critically important to residents in any town, village, city or county,” Becker said. “It can be under-reported and somewhat undervalued.”
Becker attributes some of this to the appeal of larger government news coverage.
“Covering state and national government is really sexy [and] a lot of people are drawn to it because it's big, it's important,” Becker added. “But local government is just as important — the decisions that are made in [the] city will have a very direct, real and almost immediate impact on people.”
Becker has been reporting at Cap Times for almost three years and primarily covers city and county government. Her job looks different every day.
She wrote about the surprise announcement of former Police Chief Mike Koval's retirement Sunday. The next day, she was trumping through the mud at a farm in Cross Plains, Wisconsin to learn about how farmers are dealing with higher levels of precipitation. On Tuesday, she covered two budget press conferences.
“It truly is something different every day and I think that speaks to the amount of work that both units of local government are doing and what's going on here locally,” Becker said. “People are very interested, engaged and opinionated on the local levels of government here.”
Joe Tarr, News Editor at the Isthmus, has worked in Rochester, Minnesota; Knoxville, Tennessee; Anchorage, Alaska and Cambodia. A lot of the same issues come up in cities, he said, but Madison is slightly different than other places he's worked.
“Madison is very media-savvy so people understand media and they're happy to talk to reporters,” Tarr said. “I think it’s changing a little and people aren't quite as forthcoming as they used to be but, generally, officials and [the] public are pretty open.”
Both the Isthmus and Cap Times publish in print once a week and are publishing online every day. At Cap Times, digital truly does come first, Becker said.
“From my perspective as a reporter, I rarely actually think about that print newspaper,” she said. “The mission of Cap Times trying to be digital-first filters down to reporters — we're thinking of the most effective way to tell [a] story online first.”
Tarr, who’s been reporting news since the early ‘90s, had a different perspective.
“I don’t have a lot of hope right now," he said. “I hope things stabilize for the industry because it's been this slow bleed of talent and jobs and newspaper closings and it's sad to see. It would be nice if the industry figures out how to monetize the internet.”
As for day-to-day challenges, both Becker and Tarr are confronted with one most journalists face: building trust.
“There's always a challenge, especially since the media in this town is very white,” Tarr said. “It's a challenge to get people to trust you, understandably so.”
There’s an added level of accessibility in local news, Becker stated. Many locals will reach out and ask her questions about a story to confirm its validity — it’s just another factor of the state capital’s hyper-engaged local citizenry.
“I always feel honored when people choose to trust me and trust me with their story and let me tell that story to others,” she added. “It's really hard in this time where people choose to believe what they want to believe, but I do think that people on the local level feel differently about local news coverage.”