Local Media are Essential to Strong Communities

Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

Before John Hickenlooper became governor of Colorado in 2011, the Democrat served eight years as mayor of Denver. A restaurateur who helped revitalize a forgotten part of downtown Denver, Gov. Hickenlooper spoke with The Catalyst this spring about revitalizing civic engagement, including why communities need strong local media.

You once said that almost all government starts at a local level, so why is it that most people know more about the president and national issues than they know about their city councils, their school boards, or even their mayor? 

Part of that is just the disintegration of the media over the past 10 or 20 years, especially when you consider the incredible power of social networks and social media. Facebook, Google, they have become the go-to place for people to get their news. And you have all these cable news channels that are all national. 

Local newspapers, which were the last bastion of local issues, have been savaged. That includes the Denver Post, which just went through more layoffs. 

This is eviscerating democracy. We’ve got to figure out the right monetary model so local journalists can go out and cover issues about their city council, school board, and mayor. Elected officials like me will never find all the places the government is making mistakes unless we have aggressive journalists. 

Most people are getting accustomed to not paying attention to who’s on the school board or who’s on the City Council and what they’re doing. It’s funny because when I first ran for mayor in 2003 there was so much more intense scrutiny and discussion. 

The mayor’s race in Denver was followed by the whole metropolitan area. Now much less so. 

How do you get people more engaged with local issues? That’s one way to get people to know each other as neighbors and not as partisans. 

There are a bunch of ways we do civic engagement. Each year we have about 75 interns in the governor’s office and various agencies. Their company allows them to come in one day a month to shadow one of my cabinet members or myself. And they make a commitment that they’ll spend a couple of years in public service at some point in their lives. 

Also, I appoint roughly 10,000 people to 970 boards and commissions. Their views and experience become relevant to the decisions we make. People begin to trust government once they’re part of it. 

We also use technology so that every agency puts out their goals, what they’re going to get done this month, quarter, or year. We try to be transparent with where we are in achieving a goal. We try to explain what we thought was going to happen, why we’re behind, and what we’re going to do about it. 

This helps get people to believe. If we can’t do that, we’re going to have a hard time building the infrastructure Colorado needs and the workforce this country needs. So much of this comes down to believing.