Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The value of mainstream media

The paper version of the JS finally, finally, finally covered the proposal to allow all billboards in the city to be converted to changing digital message boards.

The first story ran Tuesday, the day of the council vote on the issue.

And it made a difference.

The worst version of the ordinance -- caving in to the billboard industry entirely -- was well on its way to becoming law after more than a year of debate that wasn't covered by the the paper.
Then JS columnist Mary Louise Schumacher caught up with the issue on her blog last month, (crediting Milwaukee Rising -- thanks, Mary Louise!).

Then, on Tuesday, the JS finally ran a story in the newspaper and aldermen were suddenly much more receptive to additional protection for residential neighborhoods.

Ald. Michale Murphy and Ald. Robert Bauman worked hard to make the ordinance better than the original proposal, and a big round of applause to them. I do believe, though, that the JS' coverage made a difference in the debate. A lot more people were aware of what was going on and it was not so very easy for the council to throw basic homeowner interests and protections overboard once that big kid started shining its journalistic spotlight on them.

The downside to all this is that the JS waited until the day of the final vote to run the story. Digital billboards will have a huge impact, for good or ill, on the face of Milwaukee. (Some people argue that digital billboards are an aesthetic improvement over old, tired static versions of the same thing, although why anyone would believe that digital billboards won't grow old and tired is a puzzler.) The version of the ordinance that came so damned close to passage could well have had a hugely deleterious impact on residential neighborhoods.

What about this issue wasn't worth covering until it was too late for Milwaukee residents to have any real input? Is coverage of every possible angle of Brett Favre's retirement the most we can expect? Does a newspaper's function still include providing the information citizens need to make informed decisions about their community's civic life?

I'm kind of afraid of the answer.

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