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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Light Snow
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Citizen Dave: Student newspapers strive for more local coverage, State Journal should rethink local news page

A recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial described me as a "self-appointed media critic." Well, of course I'm self-appointed. Who else would appoint me?

This self-appointed critic wants to credit the State Journal for a strong effort on Sunday. The front page held four stories, all locally produced and all on important topics. A late-breaking story on allegations of performance enhancing drug use by Brewer star and MVP Ryan Braun deserved the top of the fold treatment it got. Ron Seeley's story on fracking and the implications for rural Wisconsin was detailed and timely. Matt DeFour's piece on the proposed Madison Prep Academy rounded up the latest on the most important and contentious local issue in play right now. And Dean Mosiman did a nice job profiling the most powerful behind-the-scenes mover and shaker in Madison, George Austin.

So give the guys on Fish Hatchery an "A" for the front page. But the Sunday "Local" section continues to come out thin. There was only one hard news story in Local. Now, you could make an argument that everything that made the front page could just as easily have run as a local or state story. But each of those stories deserved the attention they got. Some local news is also siphoned off onto the business page. So what to do about the struggling Local section? What's the reason for its existence?

Well, one thing to consider is to bring back a Sunday magazine. The Journal buys the awful Parade national publication that features stories along the lines of "Why is the USA the Number One Best Nation on Earth?!" Most of what appears in the Local section could just as easily be expanded and placed in a locally-produced Sunday magazine, and Parade could be dropped without anyone noticing.

Then the Journal could devote a revamped Local section to hard news stories about local issues. It's just a matter of cost, which thankfully isn't my problem.

But when it comes to covering local news, at least by volume, you can't beat the student newspapers. While the writing and the accuracy of their coverage is often uneven (hey, they're students learning their craft, so cut them some slack) there's much more coverage of local events, especially city issues, in the student newspapers than in either of the professional daily papers. They are particularly vigilant about covering the many public meetings that the regular papers often ignore. And sometimes their writers are very good. For example, when I was mayor, Matt Marx was an excellent city hall reporter.

Last week I served as an invited guest on the Badger Herald editorial board. I came away with a renewed sense of optimism about the future of journalism.

Sitting in on the Herald editorial board meetings I was struck by the earnestness of their efforts. Every line of an editorial was vetted for accuracy. Words were weighed carefully. Conclusions were challenged. There was an air of toughness and fairness and high ideals leavened with just the right healthy amount of skepticism that never crossed the line into cynicism. They took their job very seriously and were careful not to make unsubstantiated charges.

And they even listened to some of my take on what was going on in our city, and when I drifted off base they were very polite about ignoring me.

Most of the editorial board members wanted a career in straight-ahead objective journalism. My hope is that that struggling industry can find a place for them. Who knows? Maybe writing for a new local Sunday magazine.

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