Newspapers remain the best way to disclose information to public
Being a county commissioner is a hard and somewhat thankless job, particularly in a time of severe economic downturn. It takes intestinal fortitude to make decisions that affect real people, stand behind those decisions and withstand the blowback that invariably comes from one interested party or another.
In this case, Mesa County Commissioners Janet Rowland and Craig Meis took a position at odds with the interests of my company, The Daily Sentinel. They want to remove county fiscal disclosures from two local newspapers, The Palisade Tribune and The Daily Sentinel. The commissioners claim the county can post its own disclosures on the county website.
I have no doubt that their motives are pure. Their position is not payback for hard-nosed reporting or pointed editorials. They genuinely want to do right by county residents and try to save money for their entity. (The cost, incidentally, to the county of making its disclosures is a little more than $10,000 annually paid to the Tribune and the Sentinel out of an annual budget of $130 million.)
Despite the bona fide nature of their intentions, I believe Rowland’s and Meis’s position on this issue reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between local government and newspapers. (I’m not entirely convinced that they understand that they are the government, but that’s a different column.)
The most important role of newspapers is keeping an eye on the government. We are the watchdogs on behalf of taxpayers. And in this community, The Daily Sentinel is the primary watchdog. We have a newsroom equipped to attend every county commission meeting, every city council meeting, every board of education meeting, every legislative session, every government-appointed working group, and we work hard to watch the conduct of every other governmental actor in this area.
As a result, we reach more than 60,000 sets of eyeballs every day. More on Sundays. No other news or information medium in the valley can touch those numbers. Not even close.
Indeed, I think there is a misunderstanding about newspapers generally in this country. We have become enamored with what’s new and flashy. The Internet and social media are exciting. Facebook is growing like gangbusters. But get this: More people read a newspaper every day than use Facebook in a month. The Super Bowl this year set a record for viewership, huge numbers, which is why advertisers shell out huge bucks for clever, forgettable ads. But more people picked up a daily newspaper the Monday following Super Bowl Sunday than tuned in for the game.
Newspapers are the dominant medium — and there are some new significant players — but that does not mean that newspapers have surrendered the prime position. Not yet, and probably not for a long time.
So the issue of the county making its fiscal disclosures in newspapers is really a question of policy. Do we, as a community, value genuine transparency and disclosure? If so, then we should require counties to publish their financial business in the dominant medium. That’s newspapers. If we care less about transparency, then the most convenient medium will do, such as the county website.
The law of the state of Colorado indicates that Coloradans favor genuine transparency because it requires counties to disclose their fiscal business in newspapers. Someday, it might be appropriate to change that law — but not until the Internet or some future medium surpasses the reach of newspapers.
Recall the case of Bell, Calif., in 2010. The city administrator was paying himself a salary of $800,000. The part-time mayor was pocketing $80,000, and city contracts were awarded on the basis of favors and grease money. Why? Because Bell, Calif., had no local newspaper. No one was watching. Why are these people now in prison? Because the Los Angeles Times started sniffing around.
I’ve learned that folks in western Colorado are highly skeptical of government. The notion of counties posting their “own” fiscal disclosures makes me uneasy. I trust our county commissioners. They’re good people and they’re trying their best. But part of the reason I trust them is because they know that disclosure in a permanent, verifiable record is the law. And that we’re watching.
Oh, and that detail the Sentinel “missed” about the county wanting to change the law to allow online disclosure, followed by an ad in the newspaper about it? That detail didn’t make it into proposed legislation — see HB 1098. We really are paying attention.
Jay Seaton is the publisher of The Daily Sentinel.