Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Government News Service for Residents: Offensive to News Media?

The Ottawa County (Michigan) government recently announced a new subscription news service to residents of the county. Being a resident, and  PR professor, I subscribed to receive by email a variety of county news releases across categories. I already have received several, and find them to be objective and informative, as government information should be.

But it didn't take long for one paper in the county, the Grand Haven Tribune, (self disclosure: I write a monthly column for the paper as a community columnist), to take issue with the county's new public service. The July 29, 2015 editorial (not online yet as I blog so this link is to the opinion page vs the specific editorial) cautions that the county's news service is a "slippery slope" and the put the word 'news' in quotes in the headline and throughout the opinion. Their concerns are that the county may be circumventing professional media, or that in time it will be like Pravda, the Russian state media. They wonder aloud if residents feel the county will give unbiased reports of County Commission meetings and other public information.

I take issue with the Tribune taking issue with all of this.

I have a degree in journalism and practiced it for a time and still respect the role of objective journalism in democratic society. But I also have studied, practiced and now teach public relations, as well as PR ethics and law, and I commend Ottawa County for this new service. I disagree that it conflicts with the role of traditional newspaper and other news outlets, and I would assert that there are many positives to a subscription news service for residents.

Let me first address the Tribune's complaints.

First, the Tribune needs to reconsider the arrogant posture that only it and other journalistic organizations have a corner on 'news.' News comes from newspapers and broadcast media, sure, but it also comes directly from organizations, institutions and individuals. Newspapers report news, they don't create it, invent it, or own it. The Constitution guarantees "freedom of the press" to any individual to print and disseminate information, not just "journalists." The residents or any other audience are the ones who should determine what is newsworthy.

On a related point, the communications professionals at Ottawa County are professionals. The Tribune expressed concern about the County circumventing "professional" media. But public relations professionals--whether in the government, nonprofit, or business sector--also have professional degrees and standards of practice.

What Ottawa County is doing is not new. It is good PR practice. PR practitioners have long communicated with a mix of forms of media, characterized by the acronym PESO--paid, earned, shared, and owned. Paid media is advertising or anything that must be paid for. Earned media is conventional media relations, sending news releases to journalists with the hope that the editors and reporters who receive it will do a story as a result. Owned media includes the newsletters, annual reports, brochures, web sites and anything else an organization owns and controls as a form of communication. And recently shared media is the digital forum where tweets and posts are passed along by individual users in their respective networks. If you go to the news page on the Ottawa County web site you can sign up for these news releases as well as newsletters, annual reports and other forms of information.

A third point is the fact that not all news is covered. Even though journalists call themselves the watchdogs of government, they have limits in what they can cover. There is a volume of information available from Ottawa County and I doubt the Tribune has the capacity to cover all of it. They have to make decisions as to what is of must value to their readers and the community at large. The county subscription service doesn't compete with newspapers, it complements them and allows small groups of individuals to subscribe to very specific information of particular interest to them which may not get any attention in mainstream media.

Finally, the Tribune should acknowledge that Ottawa County exists in the same media environment that conventional newspapers do. Just as the Tribune has expanded online and into the social media landscape, so must all institutions. Digital media enables interaction, individually tailored information across multiple platforms and formats. If newspapers do this, why not the government? The county will likely garner an assortment of small audiences for various forms of information. The Tribune will still be needed to bring the most relevant and important information to broad audiences who would not otherwise seek it. And if the county does fall into the temptation to control information like Pravda, that's where the watchdog role comes in. I'm sure that the Tribune staff will still be sitting in on open county meetings and reporting on them, going beyond what the news releases say.

Meanwhile, there are many positives for the county's information subscription service. They do not pass over the conventional media, they merely offer specific and direct delivery of information to their constituents--a laudable goal. They are providing more transparency and accountability. They are staying up to date with technology. They are serving their constituents. Sounds to me like good "news."

In fact, the county did make the news recently for winning another award for its website. I'm not concerned, I'm grateful. In time I think the Tribune will be also.


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