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This was National Sunshine Week, the annual celebration that takes place during the week of James Madison, considered the “Father of our Constitution” and a proponent of open government.

Naturally, as in years past, we couldn’t let this week pass by without comment on the importance of transparency in government, something that’s lacking at just about every level, from school boards to town halls, to the corridors and meeting rooms of county, state and federal governments.

Lack of transparency in government takes many forms:

  • the private discussion of public business behind closed doors or by phone, email and text messages, rather than in open meetings.
  • the failure to post meeting agendas and minutes on government websites.
  • the unnecessarily slow response to a Freedom of Information Law request — or the failure to respond at all.
  • the government press office that doesn’t return calls or emails.
  • the designated media contact who insists on not being quoted except “on background” when asked a straightforward question about any matter of public interest.
  • the elected official who insists that all press requests for information — regardless of the agency from which information is sought and no matter how simple or routine the request — be handled by his central communications office.
  • the press officer’s non-responsive “response” to questions submitted by email — which are submitted by email because they refuse to take questions by phone.
  • government officials who just plain ignore calls, emails and texts seeking information.

Rest assured it makes it hard to obtain the facts and documents we need to report accurately and comprehensively on any issue. And that’s exactly the point. Politicians and their spokespersons would like to communicate by press releases written to make sure they come off smelling sweet — especially when something stinks. And they like a compliant press that contents itself with publishing those press releases without too many questions.

But that’s not how to do this job right.

Often doing the job right results in being “punished” by officials who freeze you out by never returning a call or, say, calling a press conference and excluding you, or “giving” a story to a “friendly” reporter.

We don’t practice “access journalism,” where a reporter’s top goal is maintaining access to willing officials by cozying up. If it means we have to work longer and harder to dig out the truth, so be it.

We believe that public officials have an obligation to the public to answer our questions and provide the information we seek from them. We do what we do on behalf of the public, because we believe in the public’s right to know. When they won’t answer questions or provide information, we’ll inform you of that, because we believe it’s your right to know that, too.

As print newspaper revenues decline and newsrooms shrink, and publishers chase novel revenue streams that have little or nothing to do with news, there are fewer reporters out there to ask the tough questions about important issues. The reporters who are still employed — their numbers have declined by more than half since 2004 — have more beats to cover and less time to devote to each. Enterprise projects and investigative reporting suffers. And when this happens — as it has been happening — government transparency suffers, civic engagement suffers, and, make no mistake, our democracy itself suffers.

People in the Riverhead community are always telling us they don’t know what they’d do without us here to inform them about important local issues. We appreciate that so much. It keeps us going. Unfortunately, too many communities across our state have no local newspaper, whether print or digital, to inform them. And the numbers keep shrinking.

Advocates for local news in New York are pushing for passage of the “Local Journalism Sustainability Act,” which is pending in both chambers of the State Legislature. The proposed legislation would create a payroll tax credit for news organizations — print, digital and broadcast — that employ at least one full-time journalist who covers local news. The tax credit would equal 50% of wages paid to news journalists for up to $12,500 in wages per quarter. The credit would expire after five years.

Below is a fact sheet about the pending legislation that’s being circulated by the Rebuild Local News Coalition, various journalism unions and other organizations such as Local Independent Online News Publishers, of which I am a founding member. Please look it over. It presents some very sobering information.

We ask you to show your support for the “Local Journalism Sustainability Act” by sending an email to your state legislators today. The “Support Local Journalism. Protect Our Democracy” campaign offers a pre-written email you can send to your state legislators just by filling in your name and address on this form.

The email urges your assembly member and state senator to support the legislation.

If you’re reading this, you know how much #LocalNewsMatters. Please take a moment today to send that message to your representatives in Albany.


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