A 2018 study found that when communities lose their local newspapers, city finances are dealt a major blow. This is why the work done by the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun is especially important and impactful.
A series of investigative news stories published in late 2019 follow reporter Adam Friedman as he explored the city’s revenue and expenses, as well as the loans it was taking out to maintain the city, revealing a situation he calls “absurd.”
The pile of documents Friedman and his colleagues examined, including 20 years-worth of city audits and 12 years of budget amendments, exposed “a pattern of over-funding nonessential projects as well as deliberate complexities that made it so only professionals could discern what was taking place.”
First, Friedman noticed that the construction and repair of essential elements (parking lots, sidewalks and sewer systems) for a proposed new animal care center had been cut from the budget. To get the price down, Friedman learned, (now former) Jackson Mayor Jerry Gist had cut these essential items from the proposal.
But the animal care center wasn’t the only victim of Gist’s extreme cost-cutting measures: He also cut line items for “parking lot, sidewalks, a stormwater system and internet access” from the city court’s final cost projection, all of which are required for the court to operate.
Friedman, who had only been on the beat for six or eight months at the start of the story, believes that being new helped him. “Coming in from the outside made it easier to see things with fresh eyes,” he explained. “I wanted to focus on hyperlocal [issues] and get to know everything I could about the local government so I could be a resource for the community.”
Friedman’s desire and drive to be part of the community helped him stay on top of the story, even when digging deep complicated his relationships with readers and with city council. “When I first started, it felt like people didn’t like or trust [the newspaper staff], but as we’ve done more work, it seems that they’re seeing the value we add to the community,” he said. “Holding people accountable has gotten us respect from the community.”
Friedman’s commitment paid off: His articles led to “a series of reforms by the city council to reign in the power of the mayor through a new budget and audit committee. The council also adopted an ordinance that brings all payments over $10K to the city council for approval, essentially ending the practice of hidden payments.”
Seeing that their work was in the best interest of the community, city council members realized they could trust Friedman and his Jackson Sun colleagues – even if it sometimes made things harder for council members. The new mayor was also impressed and has committed to being more transparent in how his administration handles things – a win for the Sun and the people of Jackson.
Post-series, Friedman is back on the beat every day, continuing to keep his neighbors informed. “Being on the beat like usual has helped the government see me as a decent reporter and has made the community want to keep reading about what’s happening,” he said. “People are engaging now and reaching out more, and that helps me as a reporter.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.