Carolanne Norris took this shot as she and her family hiked to safety on Valley Manor. Shot is looking back down Woods Estates. Kings Forest Pool is on right.

Decline in Readers and Ads Leads Hundreds of Newspapers to Fold. So What’s the Connection to Flooding?

A lengthy Associated Press article today talked about the long, slow demise of community newspapers around the country. Now you may ask, “What does this have to do with flooding?” It doesn’t directly relate. But indirectly, it does…or at least with the slow pace of recovery from disasters, such as Harvey.

Carolanne Norris took this shot as she and her family hiked to safety on Valley Manor. Shot is looking back down Woods Estates. Kings Forest Pool is on right.
Carolanne Norris took this shot as she and her family hiked to safety. Shot is looking back down Woods Estates near Valley Manor. Kings Forest Pool is on right. 568 days after Hurricane Harvey, her family’s flood risk remains just as high as it did before Harvey and the value of her home is half what it used to be.

Our founding fathers considered the press so important that they talked about it in terms of “The Fourth Estate,” a fourth branch of government (after the executive, legislative and judicial branches).

But with so many newspapers folding or cutting back, who’s ensuring government is doing its job?

Press as Government’s Report Card

Without someone looking over the shoulders of officials, would they act fairly? Would they spend your money wisely? Would they always follow rules?

Even with the press attending public meetings, it’s often difficult to learn how your money is being spent. Even big city newsrooms are on life support these days. Few editors rush out to do investigative stories on financial irregularities at city hall (I’m using city hall in the generic sense here). That could take months. They have a deadline at five. It’s much easier and more profitable to run a story on grandma’s nut bread recipe, or the best barbecue in Houston. Now there’s some real meat for people to sink their teeth into.

Link Between Editorial Costs and Ad Revenues

One of my local heroes is Cynthia Calvert, owner of the Tribune newspapers. I’ve seen Cynthia and her reporters at many local meetings when not one other soul shows up. School board meetings have to be the worst. This costs Calvert money. Not only to cover the meeting. But to print the story later and distribute it. And since she distributes her paper free of charge, she needs to sell a lot of ads to cover the cost.

Most newspapers closely watch their advertising-to-editorial ratio. If ad revenue dips, editorial must get trimmed. It takes financial courage to have a reporter investigate a story for weeks that may lead nowhere and have no payoff.

Mitigation Molasses

Against this backdrop, ask yourself why the city has been so slow to implement mitigation efforts since Harvey. Is it all the fault of other branches of government moving too slowly as the City would have you believe? Or is the City missing opportunities? Why can’t we get weekly updates on the status of mitigation efforts? Why will no one set deadlines and stick to them?

One thing is for sure. When Dave Martin holds his town hall meeting on March 21st, we’ll get the story that he, Costello and the Mayor want us to hear. Members of the press will dutifully report whatever they say. But how many will report what they don’t say and why?

How to Get Better Government

If you want better government, if you want faster flood mitigation, subscribe to your local newspaper and tell the editor you want answers. And for paper’s like Cynthia’s, make sure you tell local merchants how much you appreciate merchants who support their local papers with advertising. The payoff may not be immediate. But the connection is there. When officials know someone is watching, they’re on their best behavior.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 10, 2019

558 Days since Hurricane Harvey