Our community doesn’t know itself anymore.
So said a resident in a town where the local newspaper went out of business. Since 2005, over 2,000 American communities have experienced that loss, according to a study of our nationwide decline in local news publications.
Studies have also shown that, when there are few or no reporters in communities, corruption inevitably starts to grow, taxes start to go up and voter participation starts to drop.
So why would some Rio Rancho city leaders adopt an adversarial posture in their dealings with the Rio Rancho Observer?
Of course, there is an innate tension between governments and the media that report on them. The former favor stories that make them look good. The latter have no such interest, and are in fact inclined to dig for inconvenient truths. That interplay, when it’s based in mutual respect, fulfills the intent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
And yet, the city’s relationship with the Observer lately has been profoundly disrespectful. For months, Observer staffers have felt the city withholds or delays information and access.
Then recently, a local businessman told the Observer he was moving his operation to Albuquerque because the city was “not business-friendly.” The city felt the Observer’s coverage favored the business owner and responded in this email:
“Moving forward, the city will not participate in Observer articles that are nothing more than he said/she said narratives. You will receive little or no comment. If information or documents are needed, the Observer will need to put in a request for public records.”
That declaration was outrageous. Information on the operation of city government does not belong to public officials. It belongs to the people.
And for the Observer, with its small staff and many media competitors, the IPRA process is slow and cumbersome. Plainly put, it’s another challenge piled on top of what our community newspaper already faces.
In reality, the city and the Observer have more in common than not. Both are staffed by dedicated professionals. And both have to do more with less. The Observer has limited staff to cover a large, diverse area. The city has the lowest revenue-to-population ratio in all comparable cities around the state. Both have nonetheless succeeded in delivering value to the community.
This past year, the Observer has expanded and livened its news and feature stories. The city, for its part, has continued to modernize its water utility. Roadwork is going on all over the city. Our police continue to deliver a low crime rate. Major development is happening in our city center and, most recently, a new biomedical technology firm announced its relocation to Enchanted Hills.
Sadly, all of that is discredited by the city’s refusal to respect the Observer’s independence on its news and editorial pages. But there’s no good reason why these two forces in city life can’t push “reset” and forge a positive working relationship.
On the heels of its provocative email, it’s the city’s move.
(Cheryl Everett is a Rio Rancho resident and former city councilor.)