Do our news media still care about significant local civic projects? With smaller staffs and fewer resources, are they capable of providing good, in-depth coverage? Will they ignore important stories that aren’t gripping, sexy, or controversial? Answers: Maybe, maybe not, and apparently so.
Case in point: I went to the Seattle Foundation/CityClub lunch on June 4 at the Hyatt at Olive 8, a great new downtown venue. The place was packed. I hadn’t pre-registered, so they sat me at the Press Table in the back. I thought great, I can chat with the reporters covering the event. Guess what? I was alone at the table.
A Seattle Times reporter finally showed up (late). She had to ask who was on the panel because she had missed the introductions. Then she left (early), during the Q&A session. Too bad, because I mentioned her when I asked in the Q&A how important press coverage was to achieving the Foundation’s goals. “The media are the lifeblood of democracy,” I said. It’s essential that they cover efforts like this so public consensus can be built. That’s what the media used to do in this town. Will they cover this project?
It certainly seemed newsworthy. The event was billed as “The Official Debut of The Seattle Foundation’s 2009 Healthy Community Report.” The report, a year in the making, bore the title, “A Healthy Community: Strategies for Effective Giving.” Gee, aren’t the media interested in having a healthy community? They ought to be: Their survival is at stake, too.
Bob Watt, a leading civic figure and incoming board chair of The Seattle Foundation, spoke of the “crisis of integrity” in today’s world. Molly Stearns, senior vice president of The Foundation, said the report provided guidance on “where to invest our philanthropic dollars.” It’s an impressive document: nearly 100 pages, with lots of great photographs, pie charts and bar graphs, regional trends, personal profiles, donors’ stories, “expert opinions” (by seven local notables), and two pages of “giving strategies — an index of recommended philanthropic approaches.”
The report focuses on seven “Elements of a Healthy Community,” which the Foundation deemed essential. They are, alphabetically: arts & culture, basic needs, economy, education, environment, health & wellness, and neighborhoods & communities. The report declares: “The Foundation supports each element individually and as part of an interconnected, holistic system. In that system, every living part strengthens the whole.”
Tayloe Washburn, chair of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said it was a “very thoughtful, big picture, eloquent summary” of the region’s challenges, and a “strategic” recognition of our “interdependence.” Washburn noted that “We have to do things very differently” to survive and thrive in the current economy, including “really growing the number one job generator” in the region: aerospace. He also said that many elements in the report were “based on a strong economy” that was “built on the backs of companies, big and small.” He sounded a note of urgency, given the recession and Boeing jitters.
Trish Millines Dziko, executive director of the Technology Access Foundation, called the report “very large,” but added: “Let’s figure out how to put this plan into action.” She put great stress on the shortcomings in local public education, particularly in helping racial minorities. Others talked about "zones of positive energy" in the community, such as place-making and neighborhood community-building, as well as the spirit of compromise among interest groups that produced a resolution of the Viaduct controversy.
As I left the event, I wondered how much (if any) press coverage it would receive. I checked the next morning’s Seattle Times: nothing. I checked the blogs: nothing. The only things I could find were some brief “tweets” on Twitter — written by the CityClub’s program coordinator, Sarah Neppl.
Not so long ago, newspapers would have done a major Sunday piece on a report like this, with editorial comment and maybe a guest column or two. They would have invited public feedback. Stir the pot, get some discussion going, encourage debate. The weekly newspapers might have weighed in, plus local talk radio and maybe even a TV station or two.
Today, we have to settle for a few “tweets” and maybe a blog or two. Can we have an informed and engaged public this way? Can we have a civic dialogue that will lead to a healthy community? Can “the new news ecosystem” cover critical issues and vital efforts like this?
Answers: Maybe, maybe not, — and, if it can’t, we’re in deep trouble.
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