Austin at Large: You Can Handle the Truth
Austin’s local news, like its rock & roll, need never die, if we do our jobs right
Five years ago last week, on June 1, I was lying barely conscious in an emergency room; it would be nearly a week before I could stand up without assistance. That was a milestone on a long midlife journey of breakdown and recovery that brought me back to these pages, and back to a role in journalism that I had thought would no longer exist by the time I hit 50. So when I read or hear, as one often does, that "local news is dying" ... it hits a little different for me.
In 2016, as I was working myself to death, my non-journalism career was deeply entwined with City Hall. I labored alongside Steve Adler, the Austin Transportation Department, and a cast of hundreds to position Austin to win the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge. (That honor went to our swing-state friends in Columbus, Ohio, although Austin did get some consolation prizes.) And I had just presented to Council the final report of its Task Force on Community Engagement, which I chaired. Its top recommendation? Fix the city website.
And here we are! The TFCE was staffed by the same city comms shop that co-oversees austintexas.gov, and as we heard from Austinites over months of work how bad the site was and how obvious the fixes were, those folks nodded their heads in agreement. They knew what was wrong, and as fate would have it, none of them are still here to fix the hellsite that remains.
When Brant Bingamon was working on this week's cover story, he obtained a bunch of documents from the city via a public information request. Those did not include several key items that we asked for, that were responsive to the request, which we obtained through other means. The city is currently asking the Office of the Attorney General whether it is required to turn over one set of documents, which we already have – but sure, let's ask Ken Paxton what he thinks. Meanwhile, that same comms shop, under new management, is tasked with responding to our inquiries about its own performance. Awkward? A little bit.
I rehearse all this to lay out clearly just how the Chronicle News Desk under my stewardship tries to approach its relationship with City Hall. I've written before about how, as Austin's counterculture has become its dominant culture, the "alternative" perspective provided by the Chronicle has instead made us the city's paper of record. I know that other journalists consider this a flaw on our part, feeling we're too nice to our friends on Council and in local government, that we've gone native. Certainly, my past work as a consultant and a campaign operative makes it important to check myself, that I'm not failing to be as fair, as honest, and as authentic as readers need the Chronicle to be.
We've All Got Work to Do
To my mind, the Chronicle's role in the local news ecosystem is to explain why things around here are the way they are, and why people with power proceed along certain paths and not others, and which problems are new and which are longstanding, and the like. We provide situational awareness, knowledge management, and institutional memory along with the details of current events. We do not, really, indulge in the performance of "investigative" or "watchdog" journalism that consumes so much of the time and treasure that both journalists and audiences can afford to devote to local news, all across the country. It's a common item on the menu of most alt-weeklies – a genre that remains distinct as a type of journalistic product, whatever each paper's role in its local political environment may be. I think investigative reporting has clear and vital uses; witness our friend Tony Plohetski at the Statesman and KVUE, who has dragged into the light instances of shocking police misconduct that had begun to be normalized, of which the death of Javier Ambler is just one example. But too often, it's a corny pose, and we all know it.
That barking watchdog act is what KXAN delivered when it reported on the massive fail of the city's online COVID vaccination portal, as Bingamon describes in our story. This isn't a dunk on them in particular, because it's baked into the cake for local journos, especially on TV, to be crusaders, to be "on your side!" railing against waste and fraud and abuse and corruption. However, as our story shows, that framing led KXAN to get things exactly backward, thus not helping anyone understand why things are the way they are. You can handle the truth.
Such frames and poses, designed to appeal to a focus-group version of the average Central Texas TV news watcher (who, the data would suggest, likely lives outside the Austin city limits) are omnipresent, so it's always a little maddening to hear the wailing and garment-rending about how "local news is dying!" and thus good government will as well. I generally feel that the shrinkage of the news industry, which is inevitable due to technological change and increased audience diversity (usually framed negatively as "fragmentation"), has led to a new and welcome atmosphere of collaboration where once was pointless competition, and the profession's letting go of a lot of systemic baggage that we'd convinced ourselves was gospel. Those of us who've stuck with it – or in my case, returned to it – care mostly about serving Austinites and Texans (there's increasing overlap between the local and state press corps) with the time and resources we are able to wrangle from our out-of-town corporate overseers, or beg and borrow from our philanthropic friends, or carefully scrimp and save over the decades like your thrifty independent Chronicle. If we remember to put your needs first and not ours, and to not cling to worn-out foundations and frames, local news in Austin, at least, need never die.