12.12.14

3 Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager

For five years now, I have been re-blogging the Highland Villager, a print-edition-only local newspaper that focuses on Saint Paul local issues. I started doing this back in May 2009 because, as I explained at the time:
Basically, the problem is that the best source of local streets / sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager. This wouldn't be a problem, except that it's not available online. The editor / publisher Michael Mischke (who I've never met) clearly doesn't like the internet for some reason. But there's a lot of good stuff in this local bi-weekly about developments and street debates.

So basically, I'm going to have a twice-monthly post about what I discover when reading the Highland Villager. Maybe it'll encourage you to go get your own copy, available anywhere that's anywhere in Saint Paul. Or maybe I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to? Either way...until this newspaper goes online, information must be set free.

So, every two weeks for five years, I’ve been attempting to summarize the main local politics articles in the paper. I haven’t missed very many, and am up to 120 summaries and 8 op-ed reprints at this point. Because I can’t help myself, I also add a bit of commentary into the stories [clearly demarcated in red italics] with either a) important context missing from the piece or, b) sarcastic snark.

From time to time I get a bit of flak about this. (For example, one prolific Highland Villager reporter doesn’t seem to enjoy my summaries, as you can see in the comments here.) For this reason, I thought I’d outline three reasons I think it’s important to re-blog the Highland Villager, and why I intend to keep doing so until they bring their content online.

#1) The Coverage Area Exacerbates Income Disparities


[Highland Villager demographics.]
The Highland Villager focuses primarily on the wealthier parts of the city. Though on the masthead they technically claim to represent “Highland Park, Lex-Ham, Mac-Groveand, Merriam Park, Snelling-Hamline, Summit Hill, Summit-University, West 7th, Longfellow, Nokomis, Lilydale, Mendota, and Mendota Heights, I’d estimate that over half of their content focuses on Highland Park, Grand Avenue, Summit Avenue, and downtown areas: in other words, the wealthiest parts of the city. This disparity is intentional; in order to attract advertisers, the Highland Villager even brags about their reader demographics on their news-less website.  (The inclusion of Mendota Heights, my wealthy suburban hometown, into the readership area seems like proof enough.)

I won’t begrudge anyone for trying to make a profit, especially a print newspaper (dying out everywhere). But the Highland Villager’s thorough coverage of Saint Paul's wealthier areas has the perverse effect of amplifying the voices of the well-off. This means that any time a neighborhood issue pops up on Grand Avenue, Summit Hill, or Highland Park, you can be sure that it will attract more attention. Meanwhile, stories in the poor parts of the city (e.g. the North End, Frogtown, East Side, or the West Side where I live) will not attract much attention.

This is as much about the failure of today’s news media to cover local and neighborhood issues as it is about anything else. The solution is to have economically stable local newspapers in all parts of the city, or to have a city-wide newspaper like the Pioneer Press retain the staffing levels that would allow them to cover every neighborhood equally. Those seem like pipe dreams, and until internet bloggers somehow get paid to do their own reporting about city issues, our local news media seem destined to amplify the voices of the wealthy.



[The Highland Villager's coverage area does not include the city's poorest parts.]

#2) The Highland Villager’s Issues have Extra-Local Relevance

The second big reason to re-blog the Highland Villager is that information is power. Those that are well informed about local political issues - such as plans for a road expansion or a new building - can have more active roles in shaping those outcomes.

But because the Highland Villager is not online, there ends up being unequal access to information. Those people in the Highland Villager coverage area have the information delivered to their doorstep, while those outside the coverage area have to seek it out at the downtown library.

This information disparity is important because Saint Paul local issues are not just for people in the neighborhood, but for everyone in the city (and even the larger region). The classic example is downtown, which doesn’t just "belong" to the people who live or work there, but to the whole city. It’s one of the few places that should be truly public. Anyone in Saint Paul should feel welcome to walk through the streets, parks, and museums downtown.

The same is true of local issues. Though I might sometimes tease Highland Village, I also buy tea, coffee, latkes, cat food, and film tickets there. Ford and Cleveland, or Grand Avenue, or West 7th Street, are important parts of my city, even though live in a completely different part of Saint Paul.

Heck, even someone from Minneapolis who bikes through Saint Paul, or a Macaester Student who only spends four years in Saint Paul, should be allowed a voice in community conversations about its future. In order to make sure that everyone can participate in our community, we need to make information as accessible as possible. To reach a broader audience, especially younger people, the internet is an important tool.

#3) The Highland Villager Has a Bias


Try as we might to be neutral and objective, all newspapers have a bias, as does this blog. A lot of this comes from questions of audience and journalistic methodology: who are we talking to? who do we interview for stories? what kinds of stories do we cover? 

How we answer these kinds of questions is important. But as I’ve been carefully reading the Highland Villager over the last five years, I’ve gradually become more frustrated with the way that the paper frames stories. For example, the Highland Villager seems to amplify concerns about parking and traffic while minimizing voices that view development or change in a more positive light.

Maybe this is intentional, or maybe it’s just giving the readers what they want. Maybe is the inherent nature of media; after all, conflict grabs readers, and nobody wants to read about how everyone agrees with each other. [Well, I do kinda, if it's done well.] But to me, the Highland Villager often frames issues in ways that exacerbate divisions around issues like street design and development that I find to be crucial for the future of Saint Paul.

In fact, having more positive and inclusive urban conversations is one of the main reasons why I helped to start streets.mn, along with a whole bunch of friends and colleagues from across the city. That website is "dedicated to expanding the conversation about land use and transportation issues', but implicit in that mission statement is a critique of existing conversations. I know how hard it is to be a reporter, and I know how difficult these things are. But unfortunately I sometimes feel that the Highland Villager inflames people about parochial issues at the expense of more collective values.

As I’ve said, every kind of media has a bias and specific audiences that they (try to) reach. For example, nobody without internet and a computer can read this blog. I like the Highland Villager and appreciate the fact that it’s out there covering neighborhood meetings that, otherwise, wouldn't get noticed. That's why I believe the Highland Villager is a net positive for Saint Paul.

But I also wish it spoke to, and about, all parts of the city. I worry that its economically unequal coverage and framing of particular voices can sometimes agitate city discussions in negative ways. That’s why I feel compelled to keep re-blogging the Highland Villager. I think its important to make sure that everyone has theoretically equal access to information and that broader perspectives are included in conversations about our city.

See you next fortnight!

[Some Highland Villagers waiting in the cold.]

2 comments:

Kyle Marek-Spartz said...

The Park Bugle seems to address some of these issues, that is, they have an actual website, they include information about other areas of Saint Paul, and they are less biased.

Shannon O'Toole said...

I thought I read, perhaps in the most recent Villager, that Nancy Homans, on behalf of the mayor, said that the mayor now favors a north end connection to 94 on Ayd Mill Road. I think I recycled my copy, so I would be interested if you saw that! Maybe it was a nightmare?