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How Communities Can Thrive in a Post-Newspaper World

As a suburb of Atlanta has shown, the key is creating an army of informed and engaged citizens.

I understand why most local-government officials and many other civic leaders don't like reporters. Some journalists can be uninformed, easily distracted by the sensational, or strangely uninterested in the bigger and better stories that are happening around them. But, man, are you going to miss these folks when they are gone.

That's because the void left by the loss of independent, professional reporters will be filled by far less reliable sources of news and other information: rumor, gossip and particularly social media, which so often are dominated by angry or frightened people with little interest in facts. And this will be much, much worse.

This isn't a warning about the future. It's happening now as newspapers reduce coverage or simply close up shop, so that local governments that were once covered daily are left in silence. The situation is so dire in New Jersey that the state legislature recently put up $5 million to encourage somebody, anybody, to start covering these "news deserts."

But assuming no one starts a professional news organization in your community, what can a local government do to connect with its citizens in a post-newspaper world?

I put this question to a former mayor of a city known for its tight bond with citizens. Decatur is a close-in suburb of Atlanta that's beloved by urbanists for its walkable, transit-oriented downtown and pleasant neighborhoods. It has a well-run local government and was recently named an All-America City by the National Civic League.

Call a meeting in Decatur and the citizens will turn out. I know this because I was involved in a planning effort there in 2010 that began with a large-scale citizen engagement effort. Hundreds of people participated in long meetings about what the city could be. Many of their ideas are being realized today.

Not that you would know any of this if you lived elsewhere in the Atlanta area. That's because the daily newspapers stopped covering Decatur's city commission meetings long ago. The only time reporters show up at Decatur City Hall today is when something bad happens, which is blessedly infrequent.

So how has Decatur maintained such a tight bond with its citizens in a post-newspaper era? That's what I wanted to know from Bill Floyd, who was a city commissioner for 22 years and mayor for most of that time.

I started by asking about a colorful monthly newsletter called Decatur Focus that the city mails to every household. Was this the way Decatur kept citizens informed, basically by starting its own publication?

Well, Floyd said in his polite way, Decatur Focus was useful for communicating the city's plans. "You have to stay in touch with people," he said. And he was amazed by how many people read the newsletter and commented on it.

But, no, it wasn't the newsletter alone. In fact, Floyd went on, there is no single way cities can communicate in a social media world. Nor would a single communicator be effective, even one at City Hall. Rather, he said, you need an army of communicators in the social media, most of them residents. And Decatur has built just such an army through its endless citizen-engagement efforts.

The bedrocks are Decatur 101 and the Citizens Police Academy. Decatur 101 is what it sounds like, two-hour classes on how the city works, delivered over a seven-week period. Other cities have programs like this; this one is simply done better. Started in 2000, Decatur 101 became so popular that in 2006 the city began running two classes, with morning and evening sessions. There's a waiting list of citizens who want a spot. Later, Decatur 101 inspired the Citizens Police Academy, a 10-week course on the local police and criminal-justice systems. (There's even a Junior Police Academy for 11-to-14-year-olds.)

The result of these and other city programs, Floyd said, is that there are hundreds of citizens who know how to get information from the city. So, if a rumor starts on a neighborhood website about, say, car break-ins, or if someone spreads falsehoods about a rezoning case, a citizen who has been through Decatur 101 or the Police Academy is bound to see it, call a city official and have the facts in short order. "And when somebody says, 'Here's what the city says,' it just stops the rumors cold," Floyd added.

Decatur did not create its citizen-engagement programs in response to social media. There were no social media in 2000. It started them because it believed that informed, involved citizens made it a better place. That the city discovered a way to thrive in a post-newspaper world was a happy, unintended benefit. Wouldn't accomplishing the same thing be good news for your community?

President of Civic Strategies Inc.
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