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Our founders wanted the press to shine its spotlight

October 9, 2019
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Fifty-three years ago, I was a high school kid in southern Iowa who knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: I wanted to be a journalist.

The first step on that journey occurred when I walked into the offices of the Bloomfield Democrat and introduced myself to Gary Spurgeon.

He was the editor. But Gary ended up being my "professor" at the Spurgeon School of ,Journalism. Working for him my final two years of high school and during vacations when I was in college, I learned lessons from Professor Spurgeon that I am now preaching to others a half century later.

Gary was motivated by a higher purpose as a newspaper editor and publisher. He believed a newspaper is much more than merely a business. He believed the newspaper was a vital part of the health and future of its community, something that should be a force for good.

During National Newspaper Week, Oct. 6 to 12, all of us should take time to reflect on Gary Spurgeon's assessment of the important role these publications play in our communities large and small.

The newspaper tells people what is going on, what the 4-H clubs and school groups are doing, what the city council and board of supervisors are up to, the new initiatives in the local schools, the latest musical the community theater group is producing, the interesting projects the science kids and FFA kids are involved in, the accomplishments of local athletes, musicians, farmers and business people.

Fact Box

Iowa Juvenile Home property?-

Deserves transparency

For reasons in Randy Evans' accompanying comments, and more, that's why The Chronicle is calling upon - the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Department of General Services, Department of Human Services, or whatever state department it is decided is taking responsibility for the Iowa Juvenile Home / State Training School for Girls property in Toledo - to be transparent about what, if anything is going on.

Our legislators, Rep. Dean Fisher and Senator Jeff Edler, need to step forward to make clear what they are doing to facilitate new use for the 27 acres in the heart of Toledo - the site of buildings and infrastructure which has had more than $20 million in improvements completed less than 10 years ago.

It's been said here before, but many towns the size of Toledo would feel blessed to have the opportunity the IJH property affords.

A call by The Chronicle after the 2014 closing of IJH to consider the property as a nursing school to fulfill the predicted 2020 shortage crisis in the nursing profession in Iowa apparently fell on deaf ears.

Likewise, The Chronicle suggestion the IJH property would make a fine site for relocation of a portion of the U.S.?Department of Agriculture in Washington which Secretary Sonny Perdue wanted in "farm country" went unheard. Of all the public officials a Chronicle letter suggesting consideration of such a move, only Senator Chuck Grassley acknowledged receipt.

The use of the property to replace the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy at Camp Dodge was said to not fit its needs. Judy Bradshaw, Law Enforcement Academy director, said the Toledo property didn't afford a shooting range in one of the reasons for not considering it further.

That makes one wonder if the tunnel system at IJH was explored.

A Sept. 25 press release from the Iowa Economic Development Authority touts funding of up to $6 million available for "vacant state building demolition" and "vacant state building rehabilitation."

To demolish should not be an option for IJH property. 27 vacant acres would not serve the economic interests of the Toledo area as well as a focused use of the existing facilities.

-J. Speer

Gary also believed the newspaper's editorial voice is important in keeping the community pointed in the right direction and moving forward. He wasn't afraid of stepping on some toes, if necessary, in expressing a strong editorial voice -- a voice that celebrated local successes, soothed the community in difficult times, and that gave the community and its leaders a stern talking-to at other times.

One of the lessons he drummed into this eager student was the importance of our coverage of government. Very few people have the time to attend meetings of the city council, the board of supervisors or the local school board and to take the time to personally monitor how their local tax money is being used or misused.

That's where the newspaper has a vital role to play, he would say.

He said journalists should be a watchdog over government -- serving as the public's eyes and ears, examining questionable or controversial decisions, asking "why" or "why not" questions, and keeping readers informed.

Journalists need to ask the questions taxpayers would want answers to if they were at government meetings. Journalists need to tell citizens what the options are for addressing local issues and what those options would cost.

America's newspapers have been pursuing this important role as a government watchdog going back to our Founding Fathers when those leaders of the new nation wrote the Bill of Rights, notably the rights incorporated into the First Amendment. Those rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the government -- are the foundation on which our liberty and our form of government are built.

Today, journalists are still shining their spotlight on our governments, informing the citizenry about important matters the public might not know about otherwise.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald did that when it successfully persuaded city leaders to cancel the private discussions at which the city's long-range plans were going to be discussed and, instead, have those discussions in public, where residents could follow along.

The Burlington Hawk Eye did that when it gathered statistics about officer-involved police shootings in Iowa in the aftermath of the accidental shooting death of Autumn Steele by a police officer there.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette did that when it reported on the secret payments University of Iowa Hospitals receives from a for-profit company operating the helicopter ambulances based at the Iowa City hospital.

The Storm Lake Times did that when the newspaper refused to take "no" for an answer after officials in three Iowa counties refused to talk about the cost or payment arrangements for defending the counties against a water pollution lawsuit filed over contamination of the Raccoon River by agricultural runoff.

Government officials rarely are eager to be in the spotlight when there is controversy, and they have little interest in the citizens and journalists snooping around too much.

But together, the public and the press can use Iowa's open meetings law and our public records law to make sure our government is being held accountable for its actions or inactions and is operating in the best interests of the people.

That's what our Founding Fathers would want.

And that's what Professor Gary Spurgeon would want, too.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. This column was originally written for The Dubuque Telegraph Herald.



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