Munis and the Disappearing Media
I missed doing a blog last week, but I have a good excuse. I was out of town and did five media training workshops - four in-person and one virtually.
I did media training for three Alberta municipalities. I enjoy working with towns and cities, counties and municipal districts. The issues are somewhat different from those in the big cities, but the approach is the same.
One thing that is different is the media covering those municipalities (called munis by many.) In several cases, it almost seems like the local media has disappeared and that's not a good thing.
Where Did the Reporters Go?
In mid-December, I was doing media training for a municipality in Central Alberta and the subject of local media coverage came up.
The Chief Administrative Officer of the municipality told me there used to be a fair amount of local media coverage of decisions by their City Council, but not anymore. He said, “In the last couple of years it seems as though the media has disappeared. Many of the newsworthy decisions our Council makes don’t get nearly as much coverage now.”
He’s not alone in that assessment. It’s a common theme with across Alberta outside of Edmonton and Calgary.
The biggest reason is the continual decline of the news media in Canada. In small cities and towns, the weekly newspaper was, and still is, the lifeblood of the community. Some of those weeklies have disappeared, while in others, the number of reporters has dwindled, in a similar fashion to what’s happened in the larger markets.
Fewer papers and fewer reporters adds up to less local coverage. It’s a simple formula.
The COVID Factor
There’s another factor too. It’s COVID. The COVID story has dominated the news for the past two years. There’s never been a story in the media like COVID – one that’s been as impactful and has lasted as long.
If short-staffed media outlets are doing their best to cover the COVID story in their area, the end result is fewer stories about other issues, such as developments from their local municipal Council. There’s only so much time to go around and so much editorial space in the paper.
It’s really the same regardless of the media market. Even in larger markets it’s the same. For the first year of the pandemic, I think Julia Wong, who was at Global Edmonton at the time, attended almost every government news conference on COVID19. COVID was her beat. We’ve seen the same with several other reporters, such as CTV Calgary’s Kevin Nimmock.
If Wong and Nimmick are covering these news conferences and following up on other COVID-related angles, they can’t cover other stories, whether they’re about politics, general interest or whatever.
I know there are many people who would rather see fewer COVID stories in the news, but it’s not that easy. When Premier Jason Kenney, or CMOH Dr. Deena Hinshaw conduct a news conference, it has to be covered. Who knows what they’ll say or announce?
I also know many people are bored by the latest COVID numbers on case counts and hospitalizations. It’s difficult for the media not to cover these numbers because they give us a yardstick on what’s happening and the numbers are easy for media outlets to get. Just because there are fewer reporters, doesn’t mean there aren’t large news commitments that need to be filled.
The Double-Edged Sword
Shifting back to the lack of local coverage in smaller media markets, it’s a double-edge sword for municipalities. On one hand, there’s a problem when a muni has some good news that it wants coverage of. New programs and construction projects are almost always seen as “good news” stories.
However, on the other hand, if there’s some controversial news, I’m sure the muni is just as happy that it’s not being covered. Who wants controversy? Who wants the media to cover stories that make taxpayers upset? It’s understandable if municipal politicians don’t really miss reporters in challenging situations.
As in any situation where there’s less media coverage, the public is the loser, regardless of the type of story. If we think it’s bad now, I wonder where we will be in another generation or two?
Local governments can do something about this though. I advise my muni clients to tell their own stories, if the media isn’t doing it. Municipal communicators need to become reporters. Many of them used to be. They need to cover their municipality like a newsroom does. They should be writing stories on municipal developments and put them on their website. I’m not talking about one or two stories a year. They need to be churned out on a regular basis. They should be interviewing municipal councillors and managers and putting those interviews on Facebook and YouTube. Anything that can be turned into a news story should be.
It’s time for municipalities to tell their story because the media isn’t anymore.
Media Training for Munis
If your municipality is looking for media training, it's what I do and have several 5-star Google Reviews from the municipalities I have worked with. I do both in-person media training and virtual media training sessions, so drop me an email and let's get going.
I couldn’t free more.
The sense of community you gain from local weekly newspapers is invaluable.
It’s what can bind us all, especially during these covid times.
There’s also the names, names, names concept. People like to see their names in print. For that 3 pointer in the final 5 seconds, to the marriage of our kids, to those pages of Graduates for the local high school.
That binds us.
We need more of this. Not less.
Great post. I couldn't have said it better.