Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Government’

Editorial project idea No. 3

In Ideas on February 23, 2017 at 4:18 pm

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Steve Gray is a former publisher of the Christian Science Monitor and a former director of the API’s Newspaper Next project, which some of you will remember. He began at newspapers much like our own. His first job in the business was as a darkroom tech at his family’s newspaper, the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News.

These days he keeps a blog called MediaReset. Last week, he offered an idea that would be an interesting one for us to try. Those of you looking for a new editorial project in the second quarter, might consider it.

Gray says in the early 1990s he was concerned about some small-town shenanigans in Monroe and he hit on an idea.

I started to think about who really pulled the strings in our community. Who operated behind the scenes? Who could apply pressure or persuasion and get things done — or stop them?

I didn’t really know, although I had some ideas. I’d heard that this or that individual was quietly powerful or influential, but the only people who were routinely visible as decision-makers were the elected officials. … We came up with the idea of doing it with a survey. We decided that the best way to conduct it was to send it to a list of people we were certain had power or influence, asking them to name others who did. …
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You don’t have to be an ass

In First Amendment on June 11, 2015 at 4:12 pm
This is Hanna, drinking an entire pot of coffee, which is awesome.

This is Hanna, drinking an entire pot of coffee, which is awesome.

I hereby nominate Associated Press Kansas statehouse reporter John Hanna for reporter of the year. His nomination comes not as a result of anything he’s written exactly, but by virtue of the quiet dignity he brings the profession and, well, this great thing he did the other day.

He happened to pass a closed door in the statehouse the other day and noticed through the window that the governor’s budget director was meeting with 27 Republican lawmakers. So he walked in, crossed his arms and waited. One lawmaker told him to get out, that he wasn’t invited. He stood his ground until the state’s budget committee chairman said he could stay.

From the story about the incident in The National Journal:

… In doing so, he learned that (the governor) was threatening to lay off prison guards, cut aid to public schools and reduce payments to health care providers and nursing homes if legislators didn’t agree to increase taxes. This is information the public needed to know in time to influence the debate — and to better understand the impact of (Gov. Sam) Brownback’s short-sighted decisions. …
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The tyranny of process

In Writing on February 5, 2015 at 1:55 pm
The Holyoke City Council Ordinance Committee. Dave Roback / The Republican

The Holyoke City Council Ordinance Committee. Dave Roback / The Republican

Working in community journalism often means covering the boards, councils and committees that approve or deny local projects. Are you bored yet? No? Well, just add in a few acronyms and you soon will be. Here. I’ll give you an example of what passes for community journalism from the Web:

The City Council Ordinance Committee voted 3-2 at City Hall against considering a proposal to establish an ordinance that would require that in official mentions of the decorated tree placed at City Hall this time of year, it be called a “Christmas tree.”

I’m not making that up. Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t do much better.

These stories are a problem but they come from a place we all understand. We feel duty-bound to report government machinations to a disinterested public. We worry that if we don’t report on local government no one will and if no one does the citizenry is bound to be hornswoggled by the powerful.

That’s absolutely true. But it doesn’t mean we have to write 16-inch stories from every council meeting we attend. Or, importantly, that we have to write about the government. Instead think of the task as writing about people. … Read the rest of this entry »

Source of the week

In Editing on March 20, 2014 at 3:48 pm

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We had one of those deadline emergencies last week, the kind that seems to come up with each new edition. There was a dispute over a typo on a ballot initiative. The city attorney said it could be changed with a phone call; the opposition spokesman said god himself couldn’t fix it.

With 30 minutes till deadline, who ya gonna call? Turns out the guy’s name is Glenn Levy. We could all use more sources like him, and it occurs to me that we should at the very least talk him up among ourselves as one guy you can count on to answer the phone in a pinch.

Levy is a deputy county counsel in our county of about 700,000 souls. He’s specifically assigned to questions about local elections. He got back to us right away, he spoke on the record and was a joy to work with.

Ruminating on that contact later, I thought that I should highlight him to the staff of the Review. I’ve added him into the wiki that serves as our shared source list and I think I’ll ask staffers to provide me with folks like him – people who don’t shirk their responsibility to speak to the press, who answer promptly and have something intelligent to say – and feature them in this staff blog. In that way, we may remember whom to call the next time we’re on deadline with an elections question. … Read the rest of this entry »

The $24,000 unveiling

In journalism on January 25, 2013 at 9:36 am

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In retrospect, the cookies should have tipped us off. Failing that, the giveaway ponchos were a sign. Both were emblazoned with the logo of a local sewer agency and both were free to dignitaries who attended the unveiling of a series of underground storage tanks designed to handle excess wastewater in the wet months. And yes, the event was as interesting as it sounds.

The Half Moon Bay Review covered the event. There were fewer than 50 people there that day. The suits stood around, patting each other on the back for another job well done.

It wasn’t until much later that anyone bothered to ask how much the affair cost ratepayers, and when those questions were raised, they didn’t come from a reporter. It was Mayor Rick Kowalczyk, who also has a seat on the sewer board, who first brought the issue to the attention of the public.

The mayor said he was livid at the public expense of a project that, while important, didn’t require a big to-do. He forwarded the newspaper the invoices, which included a consultant’s charge of $1,753.75 for clerical work. That line item included asking me if she could use a map we produced as part of the event pamphlet. So we’re clear, the consultant charged the sewer agency $115 an hour to ask me if it could use a map that we were happy to give the agency for free.

So now this is a “thing.” Two elected officials on separate boards have promised an inquiry. The agency director has been accused of systematically overspending on administration. … Read the rest of this entry »

Let the sunshine in

In First Amendment on March 9, 2012 at 9:37 am

Sunshine Week comes at an opportune time for us at the Half Moon Bay Review.

What, you’ve never heard of Sunshine Week? It’s an initiative sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that is designed to spark conversation about the importance of open government and freedom of information issues. It is six years old and coincides with James Madison’s birthday, which means it is observed the week of March 11.

As a matter of practice, I’m not a big fan of these “week of” deals. For instance, Thursday was the International Women’s Day. As a certain female reporter noted, does that mean we are free to ignore women the rest of the year? These things just seem arbitrary to me.

Having said that, we are in the sunshine business. And, if you are like me, nary a day goes by that someone somewhere doesn’t try to hide something from you. Folks obfuscate and hide because they don’t want us to know what they are up to, but I think the secrecy effect goes beyond that. I think we are wired to keep secrets — or to try anyway.

Last week, we had occasion to ask City Hall for the resume of the city planning director. There were rumblings that he was asked to resign and someone suggested that he lacked professional credentials. But the City Clerk sent us a boilerplate paragraph in response, saying that we sought private, personnel information. We disagreed, appealing to the city attorney, who ultimately agreed with us. … Read the rest of this entry »

The $20 million agenda

In journalism on September 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Better sit down. I know you will be shocked. The state of California is ridiuclous.

In 1953, a state legislator named Ralph Brown had the foresight to push for a law that guaranteed the public the right to participate in and attend government meetings. The subsequent law, known as the Brown Act, now includes a bunch of small-print requirements, one of which is the stipulation that local governments post meeting agendas and report out when anything happens in closed session.

The state considers such state requirements “state mandated local programs.” As such, the state’s constitution requires the state government to reimburse local agencies for the expense related to posting meetings and reporting on what goes on behind closed doors.

Simple, right? Relatively inexpensive, wouldn’t you expect? How much could it possibly cost to post a single sheet of paper with a meeting agenda somewhere that folks are likely to see it?

Apparently, $20 million. … Read the rest of this entry »

A summer in Bell

In journalism on August 13, 2010 at 7:40 am

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the outlandish situation in Bell, Calif. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this summer that the city manager was earning nearly $800,000 a year, that an assistant city manager made almost $400,000 and that city councilmembers were paid $100,000 a year for their part-time job. Nice work if you can get it. And nice work by a newspaper that spends next to no time covering the city of Bell.

There have been repercussions since that first story. A host of city officials have quit and the elected officials say they are lowering their salaries drastically. More to the point, the scandal has put everyone in the public sector on notice. As James Rainey reports in the L.A. Times, many Americans want to know more about the compensation paid to public officials.

In California, the fury is fresh and deep. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called on all cities to report public salaries prominently on their Web sites (not that I know of a single city yet doing this.) And the Legislature is considering two bills that would essentially cap pay for elected officials in municipalities and make them acknowledge their pay in an open public meeting… Read the rest of this entry »