Friday, February 11, 2005

The Bonds—Good Background Coverage

(Note: The Blogger software did very strange things this morning, at times locking me out, delaying this post, and erasing the post's contents. As far as I can tell, none of the problems were actually made visible to readers but some records show they should have been. If you encountered a "null" post, my apologies.)

Both the Advertiser and the Advocate cover the complexities behind next Tuesday's scheduled introduction of an ordinance that will govern the fiber-to-the-home bond issue.

The good news is that both papers do the work necessary to provide some real background to the bare-bones story that a governing ordinance will be considered. It is a sign of the growing sophistication of local reporters that they have the background to do so and think it important enough to put before the community. This is a good thing for the community. The "educational" function of newspapers, where they let us know what we need to know, is much more valuable than the "entertainmen,t"where they tell us what they think will amuse, scare, or titillate us.

If you sense that I am about to veer off into one of my occasional "educational" moments myself, you are right. If you want to go directly to the info and skip the lesson, please feel free to do just that. The stories are both well worth your review. @ the Advocate: LUS project groundwork under way and @ the Advertiser: Fiber payment plan to be detailed.

What I find interesting is the different lessons the two articles are presenting. Readers who have developed a taste for sucking the last bit of information from the bones of a newspaper story might want to think about the contrast; it is instructive. The bond issue is complex and just what is worth knowing is not settled. Since there is always more to say than there are column inches, writers have to choose and simplify. What is chosen reveals what the writers think important. This is always the case, of course, but a new, complex story without a traditional 'formula' for writing it up highlights the "intelligent choice" question.

The Advocate piece lays out its premise in the title: LUS project groundwork under way. It views the story as primarily about the way that the bond question fits into and supports the larger framework of the fiber-to-the-home project. It opens with basic descriptions and the upcoming sequence of events. Kevin works to integrate the immediate bond question with material from the feasibility study and past budgets to help the reader understand the practicalities of how the bonds will be used, the kindds of outcomes that might reasonably be anticipated, and how 'problems' might be dealt with. The story closes with reference to the ongoing lawsuit that might affect the bond sale. What the reader comes away with is a sense that there is a series of pots from which any money to deal with surprises will come and that it is very unlikely, in any rationally possible scenario, that it will get so far as to be taken out of the "in lieu of taxes" money that the city already gets. This is not what the author says, of course, but it gives the reader the tools to understand why someone (like me or the city-parish administration) might say that. Giving the reader the full set of tools to understand decision-making (and to participate in that decision-making) counts, in my book, as good 'educational' reporting.

In the Advertiser story (Fiber payment plan to be detailed), the headline similarly reflects the focus of the story. The story begins by laying out all the legally possible outcomes, only indirectly allowing the reader to infer that some of these possibilities exist mostly to reassure purchasers of the bond that the city-parish will never default. (Completely unsaid is the fact that reassuring those purchasers can save millions in interest costs; it must be done.) Mention is made of a contingency plan that would allow an additional $10 million in bonds to be sold to complete the project if necessary. The article closes by outlining the process by which one might object to these bonds and the timeline that would apply. The final lines refer to the recent failed petition. The education that goes on in this story is focused on all the possibilities, with no particular emphasis on how likely these possibilities are or for what reason they were provided. What the author is concerned to reveal is the points of possible opposition and how that opposition might be carried out. It's good reporting, but it anticipates the reader will want to have background to knowledgeably observe the fight to come--not to have the background to decide themselves on whether that fight itself is rationally based.

You'll not be surprised that as both a profiber partisan and a teacher, I like the Advocate's version. In my book, good education should make thoughtful, realistic decision-making possible. And the Advocate wins on that score.

No comments: