Government without newspapers?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt,1810s.

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Posted November 21, 2023 | Editorial commentary by: Jennifer Hunt Murty

For the past 30 years, photojournalist Bruce Ackerman has shared the magic of “Light Up Ocala” with the people of Marion County, first through the pages of another publication and now for the “Gazette.’’ So, too, has his colleague Alan Youngblood, another well-respected local photojournalist from another news outlet.

Each year, the two have roamed around the bustling event, capturing the wondrous unscripted moments that bring readers behind the scenes of this iconic holiday tradition.

However, this year both photojournalists were restricted by Ocala officials from the event’s staging area, the best spot to capture the lighting ceremony where city leaders take the stage and flip the switch. It’s also the best spot to photograph the crowd. Instead, this long-standing professional courtesy shown to local media was given to a private photography group, Maven Film. These are talented photographers, but they are not viewing the event through an independent lens. The city paid the group to provide flattering photos of the event.

This may seem like a trivial matter, but it’s just the latest example of how the tide is turning toward more local government control of the flow of information.

This summer, one of the “Gazette’s” sports writers, Mark Pinson, learned that a beloved basketball coach who had taken the College of Central Florida’s basketball team to a championship had returned to Ocala to work for the city’s Parks and Recreation department. Pinson thought, correctly, that the public would like to know about the return of this acclaimed coach.

Being professionals, Pinson and Ackerman followed city of Ocala media protocols and reached out to the city’s media liaison to arrange an interview and photography for a feature article about the coach.

The city’s representative instead told Pinson he must submit a list of written questions and the city would return written answers from the coach. As you can imagine, this is a highly ineffective form of interviewing someone. The answers Pinson got back were so scripted that he and Ackerman both agreed to abandon the story, a loss for both the community and the coach.

To accept scripted, written responses takes away the heartfelt, organic storytelling that we believe the public values in our reporting.

“Gazette” reporter Caroline Brauchler has been covering the school capacity issue for the past two years and, arguably, few others could better explain to you how Marion County, Ocala and the school district have all gotten to a logjam on this vital issue. Recently, she has been asking the city specific, direct questions about their role in the matter.

And three times, her attempts to interview city officials have been ignored.

Being a professional, Brauchler has continued to do her job of reporting for you, the public. Despite this silence from the city, she has instead reflected the city’s stance through the perspectives of the school board, county commission and one city council member.

These are just two examples of how petty and dismissive Ocala management has become toward members of an independent press.

Continuing the theme, City Manager Pete Lee has ignored our request for an explanation about the “Light Up Ocala’’ media restrictions.

City Council President Jim Hilty told the “Gazette” that it was a decision by city management, and not council, to restrict media access from the staging area at the event. He told the “Gazette” that Lee cited “safety” as the reason only contracted photographers, and not local photojournalists, were given access to “Light Up Ocala.’’

We would love to explore the rationale behind this ridiculous assertion, but Lee lacks the backbone to answer difficult questions, apparently.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Fast forward to today: An independent free press has dwindled nationwide as our government has grown larger than Jefferson probably could have ever imagined. Meanwhile, the public’s need for independent reporting has only grown since Jefferson’s time.

While there has always been a somewhat adversarial relationship between government and the press, there remains a mutual, if grudging, respect, between the two. Back in the day, many reporters had desks at police stations and at city halls to be close to their sources and to be able to report quickly and thoroughly to the public. Ackerman assures me it was this way around here not so long ago.

Much of that symbiotic relationship, where government needed reporters to help get the word out and reporters needed access to information, collapsed with the advancement of technology. Social media has made every person with a smartphone a publisher with the capability to reach the masses, without the standard of fact-checking or adhering to journalism ethics.

Government agencies have shifted roles by creating their own production teams (many with budgets much higher than those of any local news outlet). They now produce their own “news” segments, pumping out their preferred messaging out through social media channels.

Now, reporters must navigate public relations policies intended to keep government employees from speaking to the press directly at the risk of losing their job. All communications must now be funneled through a public relations filter that will paint the rosiest picture possible while also deciding whether or not a reporter’s question is worthy of their attention.

As Ackerman rhetorically mused, “Just how many filters do they really need?”

The fact that all of these government employees owe their jobs, and paychecks, to the taxpaying public seems to have been forgotten.

The agencies say this public information funnel is for the sake of accuracy, but reporters and editors are quite capable of sifting through mounds of data to find the truth. Independent reporters always search for context and source material to back up their assertions.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s the sole responsibility of the press to hold the government accountable. Accountability is an act by the people when they vote or protest. But the people cannot deliver that balancing act living off the information they are being spoon-fed from any government agency or some of the powerful players in a community. The public needs a free press bravely going where officials wish we would not so you have it all, the good (and there is a lot of it), the bad, and the ugly.

Being a newspaper publisher is probably the most patriotic role I will ever serve in my lifetime. Like many small newspaper publishers, I’m doing it by making sacrifices and experiencing frequent discomfort that impacts nearly every part of my life. I do it because I believe that we are at a critical stage when it comes to local independent news in Marion County, and I don’t want government agencies being the only outlet for local information.

We are critically shorthanded on reporting for you; and not just at the “Gazette” but at every news outlet covering Marion County collectively.

Government without newspapers? I’m with Jefferson; no, thank you.

Obviously, we are going to keep doing our jobs. Please help us save local news. Only your support can do it.

Demand transparency and access from your elected officials. Buy a subscription. Donate. Buy advertising. Shop at the businesses that advertise with us and thank them for supporting local news. Share our social media posts to encourage more people to stay engaged with local news.

Why? Because it’s not just my patriotic duty to support local news; it’s every American’s.

An independent free press helps keep the balance of power on the side of the people, which, again to echo Jefferson, is where it should be.



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