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Does Publishing Our Own “Pravda!” Make Any Sense?

By Greg L | 23 January 2013 | Prince William County | 1 Comment

The apparent mission of the county’s “Office of Communications,” or whatever Orwellian name it has these days, is to be a specialized news publisher with preferred access to quotable public figures.  The value returned to taxpayers from this badly-conceived purpose, not to mention the usefulness of such an enterprise to county government is pitifully low, to the point county government has so far never even tried to objectively measure the results of this taxpayer investment.  Despite the complete lack of results, County Executive Melissa Peacor seems determined to keep investing our tax dollars into building our local equivalent of Pravda! and the Board of Supervisors is meekly following her lead.

“The goal of our recommendation to you is to provide information to the citizens in the way they want to receive information,” Peacor said.

Peacor said the information would provide a “newsy” feel. She believes it will add to the transparency of Prince William County Government, but she also specified, “Transparency is the job of everyone.” (link)

Set aside for a moment the laughable notion that government at any level, much less this one, is interested in “transparency.”  That’s about as believable as Pravda! being interested in truth, as anyone who has engaged in the arduous process of getting the county to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request can relate.

The fundamental problem here is this “newsy” objective of the County Communications office, which extends to the Communications Department of the School Board.  They aren’t news organizations, they cannot be news organizations, and trying to be one of them is a waste of time, effort, and above all, taxpayer dollars.

A news organization answers to the people who consume that information, even if that answering comes by means of the interest of advertisers have in running ads.  It isn’t beholden to what anyone in government might think, as it doesn’t answer to government.  Having a news organization answer to government instead makes it inherently and inescapably untrustworthy.

A news organization has independence.  That independence allows them to select information to report on that is of interest to their clients, regardless of whether government is interested in that information being published.  Because there’s a motive directed towards growing or at least maintaining readership and advertisers, that information is likely valuable to the public.  The list of things government itself thinks it needs to burden the public with has little relation to what a news organization would choose to publish, leading to massive and inevitable  inefficiency.  It will create mountains of informational content that hardly anyone finds worth consuming, and actively avoids creating content that information consumers would want when it doesn’t fit the bureaucratic objectives of those who hold power over it.

A news organization actively avoids conflicts of interest, but a governmental agency “doing newsy stuff” about other parts of that same governmental agency is designed entirely around a massive conflict of interest.  The content crafted around this built-in conflict can be nothing other than thin propaganda.  If this kind of “news” was interesting, news publishers would dispense with the idea of committing journalism and just publish the press releases, as it’s a lot less expensive.  Those that obviously do this with much of their content, such as was the case with the News & Messenger, don’t tend to last very long.

So what do we get from all this taxpayer money spent crafting “newsy” content?  Content no one wants to waste their time with.  The county maintains a television studio in the basement of Chinn Library that they use to produce content for audience-starved Channel 23 and periodic “newsy” video programming for the web with rather sparse viewership. One of these “newsy” video production efforts is called “Prince William Edition News,” something hardly anyone watches other than to reel in shock at how mind-numbingly goofy the while thing is.  Below is the latest edition.  Let’s see how many people can slog through to the end of it.

For your fill of pure propaganda, in case you happen to miss Pravda!, check out the latest “Community Focus” program.  Here’s where a rotating cast of District Supervisors get to talk about anything they want as long as the Communications Department approves of every part of the production in a total inversion of the master-servant relationship that’s supposed to be in place between county staff and our elected officials.

Seriously, the county would garner a whole lot more community interest and deliver greater value taking videos of people’s cats.

Then there’s the print publishing arm, which does everything from publish quarterly newsletters chock full of examples of how our county government is just so efficient and smart with the money the taxpayers are forced to hand over to it, to such captivating informational missives as when the next “Living Well With Diabetes” class is going to be held.  Although I don’t have information about how often these are read, I have little doubt that the less “newsy” these are, the more useful they tend to be.

All of this is costing taxpayers about $1.1 million, and the Board of Supervisors just approved an increase in the payroll for this department so they could continue to produce even more “newsy” transparency.  We are told that it won’t cost taxpayers any additional money because funds were shifted from printing and postage towards payroll, but there’s an open question about whether the budget calculations for this include employee benefits and retirement costs.  Given how well county government has been on this “transparency” thing in the past, I am awfully skeptical.

Why are we doing this?  Why are we spending any money at all producing this stuff?  This mission makes no sense at all, entirely lacks any objective metrics we can use to judge the value of what is being produced, doesn’t seem to accomplish anything of value for the taxpayers, and functions only to provide employment security for people who apparently are not in much demand with an actual news organizations.  Before we consider whether shuffling money around within the Office of Communications makes some sense, we might want to consider whether what the department is doing makes any sense at all.

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous said on 23 Jan 2013 at 9:50 pm:
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    The whole office is a taxpayer rip-off. Jason Grant, the Director, was embarrassingly incoherent in his presentation, and Melissa Peacor was her typically irritating self in talking down to everyone.

    The BOCS does it because they can — not because it is a good use of taxpayer money.

    Put the saving to the police and fire departments.

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