‘Place economics’ represents unique opportunity to demonstrate journalistic relevancy

In the News

For nearly two years Competitive Wisconsin has worked with local officials and business and civic leaders helping communities to compete more effectively on recruiting and retaining the workforce and populations essential to their wellbeing. If these local and regional renewal efforts succeed, it will be possible to envision a Wisconsin with a robust middle class, an enviable quality of life, and a thriving economy.  If they fail, the erosion of local tax bases, the accompanying crippling of the ability to provide critical services, and the inevitable departure of employers who cannot find workers will all cast dark shadows on the state’s future.

This win or lose crossroads presents a unique opportunity for journalists to demonstrate the value and relevance of focused, informed reporting to the individual and collective wellbeing of the individuals, communities, and regions they serve. Seizing that opportunity necessitates asking some new questions.

To put the moment in perspective, start by recognizing the magnitude of one-time money now being invested in community improvements in Wisconsin. The 2021-2023 Wisconsin State Budget included $1.118 billion in shared revenue payments to counties and municipalities to help pay for essential services such as public health and safety. In April 2021, the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)  led to more than twice that amount ($2.4 billion) being made available to local Wisconsin governments in one-time money to invest in revitalizing their communities within a two to three year timeframe.

Most local officials identified historic workforce shortages as the greatest threat to their community’s economic and social wellbeing. As they focused on what it would take to recruit the new workers and families they needed to rebuild the middle class and re-energize their economies, an overwhelming majority identified eight areas requiring significant improvement, including workforce housing, broadband, early care and education, workforce transportation, health care, energy, rural resurgence, and economic opportunity.

Over the past two years, local officials across the state committed countless hours to addressing the complex and interdependent challenges and intriguing opportunities that ran through the priorities they had identified as central to recruiting and retaining the workers they needed. They also put their ARPA money where their hopes and visions were, investing and allocating hundreds of millions of their ARPA investment dollars in initiatives dedicated to making their counties, cities, villages, and towns more functional, vibrant, and attractive.

Where we stand now is that a lot of very good work, informed by best practices and innovation, has been done. A lot more work still needs to be done and there’s growing recognition that we need to spend more time on transitional management (i.e., getting from where we are to where we want to be).  The margin for error, however, is getting slimmer and slimmer, which means that leaders and the public need to be paying closer attention to the key win/lose indicators. 

In short, we need to recognize that what needs covering here is not only a series of interesting projects, but also an unprecedented, complicated, interdependent, and collaborative process that will determine Wisconsin’s future for generations to come and that warrants significantly more public attention and scrutiny. Doing that requires enhanced news coverage perspective on three fronts. 

First, reporters do a good job of covering the workforce shortages in their market, but now their audiences need to know how workforce shortages in certain employment clusters crucial to accomplishing the community improvement initiatives  (e.g., construction, health care, education) might affect the timing, cost and ultimately the odds for success of the initiatives in their area.

Second, the media does a good job of covering what and how local government spends money. Now we need to take a harder look at how the demographics and finances of the community affect the ability of the community to get money to spend. Looking harder at these critical components of the equation would enable the news media to flag sustainability and capacity to pay issues.

Third, we need more understanding and coverage of the importance and urgency of expediting and scaling up community improvement initiatives.

When the COVID19 pandemic hit, most people were caught off guard and ultimately surprised by the huge impact it had on their personal and work lives. Even a casual search of the literature from that time reveals that the experts and professional associations around the globe had been warning that some sort of pandemic was likely and proposing a variety of predatory responses. Unfortunately, little of this information made its way to the public.

The people of Wisconsin and the communities in which they live now face serious, potentially devastating demographic and economic challenges. Wisconsin journalists have an opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to see that the people are not so cruelly caught off guard and surprised again.  In so doing, they will be providing a powerful demonstration of journalistic importance and relevancy.

Jim Wood
Competitive Wisconsin