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Editorial: Fine line divides media and economic development issues

Jay Albrecht
Thursday, May 2, 2013

It’s always a pleasure attending the USDA Rural Development Conference annually held at Tennessee Tech University, and this year’s session in mid-April was no different. Seeing the many faces of economic and community development from across Tennessee personalizes the hard work that goes into making this state – and especially our Upper Cumberland region – such a great place to live and work.

As you can imagine, seeing that the opening session was entitled “The Role of News Media in Economic Development” peaked my interest more than usual. That’s a long-standing debate typically held between members of the media and local officials that has yet to be resolved – and probably never will be. It’s one that I’ve waffled back and forth on for years myself.

The main issue centers around the seemingly fine line between the public’s right to know and protecting sensitive information about a potential prospect interested in a particular community. The public certainly has a right to know about matters related to their tax dollars – and almost always (and necessarily) those tax dollars are a factor when dealing with industrial development prospects. However, on the flip side of that coin, there are many prospects who, for various reasons, do not want information to prematurely leak about their interest in opening, relocating to or expanding in a community. Such news leaks could, in fact, hamper the recruitment of prospects, potentially costing that community jobs, tax revenue and the related ongoing benefits that come with any new business.

So, what gives? Should the news media, such as your very own Upper Cumberland Business Journal, not publish information about potential prospects, even if they have credible, hard facts, in order to give that prospect the greatest chance of creating a benefit for our local community? Or should the news media hold public officials’ feet to the fire and demand information for the good of the public’s right to know and in an effort to allow citizens to chime in on the situation at hand?

When it comes to economic development matters, I’ve always tried to err on the side of jobs creation. To me, that’s golden in any community and I don’t want to be the person who keeps it from happening, especially just for the sake of a news story. Industrial development boards, chambers of commerce and local officials have all been able to trust me over the years with confidential information until it was time to go public, which I always have pushed for at the earliest opportunity. The only exception to that rule is when a potential deal is controversial or involves extenuating circumstances that the public truly needs to know about – those stories will be published if I have the facts in hand.

Now, having said all of that, back to the session held at the conference, which included four distinguished members of the news media. It never ceases to amaze me how bullheaded my colleagues can be about issues such as this. I believe this issue is about common sense and the greater good, not about getting a story at all costs in the name of the public’s right to know. At least a couple of the panelists said to the public officials in the audience, basically, work with us and give us what you know because we’re going to find and run with the story one way or the other. I don’t like that attitude and think that’s often what gives the media a bad reputation.

There’s almost always a middle ground to be established if both parties are willing to work with one another. The media, in most instances, should be willing to give some latitude to local authorities as long as those officials are keeping the media abreast of the general progress of potential development. In turn, those same officials should always be working toward that moment when it is no longer feasible that letting the public know about a project hurts that business in any way – thereby satisfying the public’s right and desire to know.

Yes, it’s all a fine line, but one that can be identified and dealt with appropriately when the media and public officials develop strong relationships and work together for the good of the community. When either side gets too aggressive or protective, though, it almost always goes bad, and that’s anything but serving the community’s best interests. I wish the panelists at the Rural Development Conference would have left our state’s community leaders with a bit more hope in establishing positive relationships with their respective media outlets. We’re all in this together and, thankfully, many communities have already figured that out.

Jay Albrecht is the publisher of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. He can be reached at jay@ucbjournal.com or (931) 528-8852.


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