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Local Government’s Failure to Speak Independently and Effectively

There’s a story at the Janesville Gazette that illustrates the inability of Whitewater, Wisconsin’s local government to communicate effectively on its own.  The story, primarily, is about the ongoing search for a stand-alone grocery store to come to Whitewater.  See Whitewater city manager remains ‘optimistic’ city will get a grocery store (Beleckis, reporter; Schwartz, editor).

Routine, periodic. In some respects, the story is the same as others published periodically in which officials predict a grocery in the relatively near future. There’s no reason to doubt that city officials want a grocery store; it’s simply false – and silly, really – to contend otherwise. Indeed, it’s probable that officials would incline to any deal, however profligate, than to no deal.

Business rumors. There will always be occasional rumors in Whitewater (and every other city) about businesses that might be coming or going. Business journals, for example, sometimes mix accurate reporting with analysis of low quality. Part of the Gazette story allows Whitewater’s city manager, Cameron Clapper, to reply to a speculative report of that kind.   

Failure of independence and effectiveness. Underlying all this, a key point: local government in Whitewater displays weakness and misunderstanding when it relies on an out-of-town chain paper to relay its message. A city using social media & an official website should neither need nor want messaging from a decrepit newspaper with a young reporter. The paper undoubtedly skews to an elderly readership. Whitewater’s own publicly-paid officials would be ahead of stories like this, ahead of rumors like this, if they’d only developed a better bond with the city’s residents.

The Gazette is interesting to me because I grew up in a newspaper-respecting family, and the gap between good work and the Gazette’s reporting is evident. As a practical matter, however, stories in the Gazette about Whitewater’s government are mostly inconsequential for Whitewater – the paper has a skewed demographic and low quality. Most people are reasonable and sharp; for that majority, these stories are easily dissected and dismissed.

It’s not this libertarian’s role – and it never will be – to represent local government. And yet, and yet — it should be obvious that local government should be able to speak directly and effectively to the residents from whom it receives authority.

Catch-up, let-me-explain stories like this show how poorly government communicates on its own.

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