This is not the easiest time to be in the newspaper business, as most people know by now. The consolidation of ownership of local papers into giant groups like Digital First, Gannett, and GateHouse has led to the shrinking and closing of newsrooms and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Everyone who still has a newspaper job is working harder and longer hours than ever before.
And that’s not the only thing that has gotten worse for journalists. This week the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a report on the biggest legal challenges that newspapers face. It found that not only are newsrooms shrinking, but “reporters are increasingly confronting a culture of secrecy in local and state governments that shields data, documents, and other public records.” Another finding: “Members of the news media, government, and the public need training and education about the public’s right to access information.”
Confusion about what is public information and what should be kept private is clearly widespread, even here in our own towns.
A surprising number of people believed that it was wrong for us to report that the Provincetown Recreation Commission, in a public meeting, had voted to rent a major town asset, Motta Field, for the entire summer to a promoter who wanted to keep secret the fact that the deal was really with Cirque du Soleil. The commission members may see things differently now, having learned that the promoter’s assurances that he had informed all the abutters about the plan turned out to be untrue.
A powerful tool in reporters’ and citizens’ efforts to shed light on the workings of local government is public access television. And yet a majority of the Wellfleet Select Board voted the other day to continue to let town boards decide for themselves whether to be videotaped, denying most citizens — and especially those who are trying to keep tabs on town government from afar — the right to see what their representatives are doing and saying.
The reasons given by the select board majority for their votes were revealing. One said board members don’t want to be seen talking about people’s salaries and work performance. Nonsense. Such discussions are held in executive session and not televised. Another said she would have quit the board she previously chaired if its meetings were videotaped. Wow. I’m sorry I missed those meetings. They must have been exciting.
One select board member said those who want to be unseen “have their reasons and it’s not because they’re hiding from transparency.” Okay. So what are they hiding from?