About a year ago, I wrote a post on an off-campus meeting at which local notables and a search consultant (Jessica Kozloff) discussed a replacement for Richard Telfer. A story on that meeting, published in the Daily Union, is one of the best accounts of insiders’ thinking. See, from that newspaper, UW-Whitewater chancellor session held, http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_f042575e-a63a-11e4-bcd8-939679ffcc09.html.
(The Daily Union may be a mediocre paper, but it’s a clear window into town notables’ inflated views of themselves, mistaken notions of quality, and willingness to say and believe any number of tall tales about the city. See, along these lines, The Last Inside Accounts.)
The DU story quotes Kozloff as dismissing the assertiveness of the local press, seeing that not as a problem, but as a benefit:
“One of the trends we’re finding in the search is that the role of the president is, to some degree, less attractive today because it’s everything from social media to the volatility of politics today,” she said. “All of that has sort of had an impact and made the role much more stressful, especially in a place that has a very, very negative media. However, that’s not going to be true here, so I think that’s going to help.”
Kozloff is right that the local press here is laughably weak (what she’s describing as ‘a very, very negative media’ would undoubtedly be investigative journalism and inquisitive reporting elsewhere). Gazette, DU, and the Banner (an online imitation, if not a parody, of a newspaper) have played critical roles in supporting local authorities at almost every turn.
(For those who doubt that the Banner‘s publisher could possibly imagine himself as a journalist of sorts, there’s confirmation of those pretensions in a Gazette story still online, in which he poses with a reporter’s notebook and a voice recorder: http://www.gazettextra.com/news/2008/jan/20/ambassador-records-community-life/. At the time, this must have seemed almost precious to the Gazette; it would have been closer to the truth to say that it was a foretaste of where quality of inquiry was headed, in a race to the bottom among declining newspapers and their imitators. The political-press relationship is so distorted here that one can be a candidate, and report on one’s candidacy, while describing oneself in the third-person in a childish attempt to downplay the conflict.)
Where Kozloff’s wrong, however, is in her implication of how news actually travels in this community. She wants to reassure her audience of notables that they needn’t worry about ‘negative’ news, but of course she’s reassuring only in the way a doctor would be reassuring when telling a morbidly obese patient that he’s fit and looks great: a few people will believe anything.
One can consider the contrast between what a few seem to think and how information actually travels.
What A Few Seem to Think. Even now – it’s 2016 – one can find examples of officials who must think (or hope, really) that information comes from only a few sources: DU, Gazette, and Banner. They’d also know that there’s word-of-mouth discussion, but would have less worry about it except in personal terms. (If there’s anyone left who thinks that the Register is a meaningful source of information, well…)
How Information Actually Travels. People read stories in the DU, Gazette, and Banner, to be sure. (Candidly, though, the actual penetration of either the DU or Gazette into the community is almost certainly far lower than their publishers would have one believe. That’s more true of the Gazette – sales of the paper locally or online subscriptions for Whitewater’s residents are surely small. Doubt this? Potential advertisers should ask for independent readership figures for Whitewater, that is, figures specific to the city. They’ll be surprised, if they even get anything.
But there are other ways that news travels, from email, blogs, Facebook, text messages, etc. On the blogging side, a post that mentions local policy (or responds to mention of local policy discussed elsewhere) reaches a significant audience within twenty-four to thirty-six hours of posting. That doesn’t mean everyone in the relevant group (city, school district, whatever) sees every post, but it’s about a day to a day-and-a-half before the post reaches a critical mass, to speak.
There are undoubtedly officials who would deny this, or at least hope it’s not true. They are committed to a strong perimeter fence, and desperate to live as there is no discussion – or life – beyond it. See, The Perimeter Fence and How a Perimeter Fence Dooms Elites Within to Impossible Tasks, Exhaustion.
Their denial has never bothered me. In fact, it’s been a great advantage.
First, when a few carry on as though no one has heard a counter-argument, when in fact many have heard the counter-argument, those who pretend nothing in reply has been said look ridiculous. Even a few episodes like this makes a person look absurd. It leads to a situation part silly, part sad.
Second, I don’t think that Whitewater’s public policy differences are merely a choice between alternatives of equal quality. What officials say about something, and what one writes in reply, is not what will carry the day: the underlying soundness of a position is what matters most. Many of Whitewater’s policymakers evidently believe that it’s enough to sell something. No, and no again: only close alignment between one’s views and the fundamentals of policy and human nature can assure a view’s ultimate vindication. That’s why I see blogging – or any advocacy if undertaken properly – as both Commentary & Chronicle.
Third, remaining distant from local ‘movers and shakers’ assures that one will not be influenced, biased, or compromised by personal relationships. Most insiders in Whitewater are individually talented but – when part of a collective group – produce work below their individual abilities. See, Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).
Given the choice, I would for both principled and practical reasons never trade my aerie for one at the Gazette, Daily Union, or Banner. Newspaper-oriented publications are on the wrong side of history. Part of that historically disadvantageous position comes from the costs of printing, but just as much from the top-down, authority-boosting perspectives they hold. One measures the strength of a position by considering whether one would trade it for another. There’s no reason to trade to a weaker position.
Groups – at least political or social groups with serious concerns – wanting to advance a message in this unfolding, new environment need to create their own messages with their own media. Relying on others’ media, when those media lack the energy or acumen to drive a serious political or social concern – is a recipe for failure.
One should do one’s own work.