By Brandi Makuski & Patrick Lynn
The past year has seen some drastic changes for consumers of news in the Stevens Point and Plover areas, few of them good.
Initially, the writing of this editorial began as it always does each October: a behind-the-scenes compilation of the goofiest, most nonsensical, and controversial newsworthy items our staff observes within city and county governments.
But in the face of so many changes in the local news industry, we’re seeing a lot of disturbing trends emerge which are changing how readers think about bias and what they consider to be a “fact”. These changes have replaced, for some, stories reported by independent news outlets.
These changes forced us to take a hard look at some of the events leading to the existing situation, which are listed below in no particular order:
Publishers Running Their Companies into the Ground
Like it or not, it’s a fact of life that money makes the world go ’round. The same is true in the news business.
Over the past decade, the journalism industry has witnessed drastic cuts to staff across the nation, thanks to a massive decline in ad revenue, and flaccid or outdated managerial processes. Advertisers now have the option to spread their messages on social media—and often for a lower cost than news outlets can afford to offer. Some media outlets do all they can to save the most important positions, like that of the investigative news reporter, but others squander their resources and fail to plan for the future, forcing the elimination of positions regardless of a journalists’ training, experience or performance.
From a business perspective, the cuts make no sense. One cannot cut their way to prosperity.
From a civics perspective, it’s a dangerous situation. A democracy needs journalists to ask hard questions of its leaders, and to hold them accountable for their actions. Without hard-nosed journalism, voters are often left unaware when it comes to seismic shifts in local leadership, upcoming changes to tax bills and roadway construction, and public safety issues in the community.
It’s bound to put local elected officials in an uncomfortable situation, answering tough questions, but it comes with the office. And when those elected officials try to bully journalists, the only loser is the voting public.
It’s important to realize the news business isn’t just a business. It’s an institution, a pillar of a community. Much like police and fire service, a school district, or farming, it is a structured system containing checks-and-balances the public relies on for daily life. Like it or not, it is the media’s job to shine a light on government, and to ask tough questions because there aren’t always two equal sides to every issue.
But when those questions can’t be answered, or when someone refuses to answer, it’s our job to report that too, and we must feel safe to do so.
Council Members w/ an Exaggerated Sense of Importance
Despite regularly mentioning the Ph.D. status some of them have achieved, many council members continue to operate as though they are still pawing through their first days on the job. Many regularly promote personal agendas and have shown no ability to change their minds when presented with new, or contradictory, information. Few seem aware that they are one member of a larger body of government, led by a mayor’s office—the only one elected at-large by the entire community, and specifically for his vision for the community.
Some members of the council even privately lobby for specific contractors on infrastructure projects, and on one occasion a council member even publicly requested a contractor be hired because, in part, it was a woman-owned company (a statement that would make any HR department wince).
Some on the council view opinions contrary to their own as a dangerous insect that must be squashed; indeed, Metro Wire staff has even become a target by some on the council who perceive probing questions from investigative journalists as either bias or a personal attack, often taking to social media to decry the latter instead of taking the high road and simply answering the question.
Using Social Media as a Weapon
Despite repeated warnings from the city attorney to avoid social media altogether, some on the council use it via official aldermanic accounts to frame the narrative they want their supporters to experience. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but given the higher use today of social media than that of a generation ago, it comes with a much higher level of responsibility.
Elected officials can now forego any communication with professional media outlets. Social media can be an instrument of good, such as gauging constituents’ thoughts, promoting a local charity or reporting developments within city government. But members of the city council, and the county board, can and do also use it to report their own version of a story, without copy-editing, quotes, context, relevant data attribution, or inclusion of contradictory information: the very definition of bias.
Combine this power with the aforementioned reduction in trained journalists, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands.
Then there’s the quorum issue. A quorum is the minimum number of members who can legally conduct business on behalf of the city or county. Considering many sit on the same committees, the number of members which constitutes a quorum can be as low as three. A quorum can’t legally meet without a publicly posted meeting notice, and while social media interaction is a grey area in state statutes, City Attorney Andrew Beveridge has repeatedly advised council members against the practice. The appearance, if not the practice, of inappropriate communication, is too great, he said.
And yet, the practice continues.
And why not? Some members of this council have created a very uncomfortable environment for those working in, and those who regularly follow, city government. Some publicly reference Mayor Mike Wiza as a “bully”, arguing the position of mayor has too much authority in city government, all while they overstep their own authority by policing neighborhoods for ordinance violations and noise complaints.
Some on the council publicly insult local journalists, along with specific media publications. Some publicly note the importance of having a female-majority council for the first time in city history, as though one’s anatomy is in any way relevant to governing a city.
Again, these conditions are nothing new in politics. But the city council is not designed to be an extension of any political ideology, nor should it be. It is intentionally a nonpartisan body because city government is a business through which millions of dollars funnel annually. It is not a body intended to appease one particular political affiliation, educational institution or social cause.
The actions some on our city council portray can only be described as antics, and only serve as a provocation to those who regularly follow local government. We truly hope it is remembered in the spring election.