Stockton is broke. The California city of nearly 300,000 is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and no one seems to know quite what do. The financial crisis isn’t the first time Stockton has faced big challenges. Not long ago declared by Forbes Magazine to be America’s most miserable city, Stockton boasts the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, a $35-million deficit and an ever-escalating homicide rate. In a recent interview with the region’s newspaper, city manager Bob Deis contended that it was a “long-standing culture at City Hall where secrecy and personal favors won out over public service and transparency” that quietly dug the city into its current hole. “The level of mediocrity and sheer incompetence I have never seen in any organization before,” Deis, a 32-year veteran of government service, told The Record.
If Stockton declares bankruptcy, it will be the largest city in the nation to take the plunge. What that means for the rest of the country is simple: We should be paying more attention. There are hundreds of thousands of people who will lose public services because of the city’s inability to pay its bills. Already, Stockton has cut 25 percent of its police force and seen violent crimes rise. At a long-overdue public meeting on Tuesday, residents warned the City Council that public service cuts were a threat to their safety. One high school senior, Damian Perez, 17, said that he felt unsafe on his block. His brother had been robbed twice in the past year, he told The Huffington Post. Declaring bankruptcy will only mean more cuts—and less stability in the future, as the city will certainly struggle to regain the credit rating it needs to qualify for the bonds and financing that typically grease municipal improvements.
None of this is surprising. What is surprising is that it’s gotten to this point. It didn’t have to be this way. This was a slow-moving train wreck. For years, the city has struggled to pay its bills. Yet the local press has kept tactfully objective about the matter. Sure, there were stories detailing the problems facing the city and editorials urging change. But there was no real campaign around reform and little investigative reporting on the ills that city manager Deis so simply referenced. Why not? Well, that’s complicated. First off, Stockton does not have its own newsroom and instead depends on a regional newspaper to report on its happenings, as well as those in neighboring towns. Secondly, even if it did have its own newsroom, would that newsroom have the freedom to take a stand against the status quo? Unclear. The archives of The Record tell the story of a city desperately trying to rebound from a multi-generational cycle of poverty and inadequate leadership, but often falling short. Headlines describe a city with a federally recognized homicide rate and a lot of potential for reinvention. Reading over them now as the city stands on the brink of bankruptcy, it’s clear that neither the newspaper’s boosterism nor its fatalistic crime beat coverage did the city much of a favor. An in-between was needed, reporting that would realistically address the deep problems facing the city while bearing in mind the city’s potential.
On Tuesday, Minnpost.com founder Joel Kramer gave a talk sponsored by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University here in Philadelphia. Kramer, a former newspaper publisher who built Minnpost.com into a popular and financially sustainable public affairs forum in Minneapolis, emphasized the bias inherent in his work. Minnpost.com succeeded, he said, because it didn’t adopt the milquetoast neutrality of the traditional local newspaper model and instead took stands on issue that matter to his readers. MinnPost reports the facts, but isn’t afraid to let its audience know when the facts lead to a particular judgement. “We aren’t objective,” he said.“We have attitude.”
Objectivity, he said, was a construct created in the 19th century to suit a business imperative. Newspaper publishers were paying to print newspapers and they needed to sell them to widest audience possible, regardless of potential political disagreements. More than 100 years later, a new business imperative has come to forefront: The imperative to save cities. To do that, we simply may have to give up on the shield of objectivity. We may have to take a stand. MinnPost and other independent newsrooms in cities around the country—many of which, like The Lens, City Limits and Greater Greater Washington, are NAC partners—are doing exactly that in their communities. In Stockton, the need for such a public service is there. Let’s hope someone starts paying attention to it.
Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.