By Dan Lorentz
[This was originally posted at My Athens on Aug. 3, 2009]
“For such a small town, this is really a good guide.”
I said that—or something much like it—to my wife last summer about the Flagpole Guide to Athens 2008-2009. We were just moving to town, and happy to keep discovering good things about our new little home city. Like the freakishly large number of good restaurants. Like helpful city planning department employees. Like an unusually fine weekly newspaper that also puts out a very readable, user-friendly guide to enjoying life in town.
Getting good advice on where to eat, drink and play in a particular place is extremely useful, especially for newcomers. Flagpole’s guide delivers the goods. It’s an excellent orientation on how to live the good life here in Athens. But the guide whetted my appetite for an even broader orientation.
The guide’s first section—under the heading “Athens Stuff”—sketches some basics about city history, population, government structure, the university and key local issues and laws. For a guide devoted to dining and entertainment opportunities, this brevity makes sense. Still, as a newcomer, I felt hungry for more after reading it.
So, to satisfy myself, I propose that Flagpole publish a second guide to Athens—something I think might be fun to call the Athens Power Guide.
This guide should give readers a solid orientation to the issues, politics, leaders and government of Athens. But it shouldn’t be content with offering a bland civics lesson. It shouldn’t focus exclusively on official government. It shouldn’t just be a directory city services and departments…and…well, maybe it would be better to put forward some positive—and more specific—suggestions about what the guide should do.
Paint a survey of major issues, but don’t oversimplify. Pick the seven-to-ten biggest issues currently facing the city. For each issue, prepare a text and infographic package that tell readers what the issue is, why it’s important for the city, who’s involved with it and why, what the alternatives are, when action will likely be taken, and how to get involved with the issue. Don’t be afraid of complex issues—just slow down, and be extra inventive about making things clear and interesting. Be fair to all sides, of course, but not at the expense of lending credence to factually dubious assertions.
Tell us who’s in charge officially, and give us “performance reviews”. Head shots, district maps, job description, contact information—yes, give us all that for every local elected and appointed government official. But give us more, too. Tell us about their major efforts while in office, their voting record on major issues, who their main supporters and allies are, what friends and foes have to say about them.
Part the curtains to show behind-the-scenes players, and tell us what they want. Government officials are hardly the only important people in town. Businesspeople, directors of non-profit organizations, church leaders, neighborhood group presidents, lobbyists, campaign managers and even newspaper editors and publishers are frequently very powerful political players in the local scene. Who are these people in Athens? Tell us who they are, who they’re connected to, what they want, and how they go about trying to get it.
Advise us on how to get involved. Tell us how to get heard at city hall. Give us tips on how to be an effective citizen lobbyist and how to testify at public hearings. Lay out election deadlines. Show us, step-by-step, how to become a candidate for office. Provide contact information for non-profits seeking volunteers.
Yes, yes: include a directory of city services. While boring as journalism, residents find such directories useful. This one probably doesn’t need to be as comprehensive as Athens-Clarke County’s ACC from A to Z, but it should contain phone numbers and web addresses for all frequently requested services.
Write it in the style of Flagpole’s local government reporters. Keep the tone informal, but the thinking and reporting precise. Be patient and civilized, but don’t be taken for a fool. Encourage engagement, gently. Despair infrequently. Just like Ben Emanuel, John Huie and Kevan Williams do.
Those are my main suggestions, and they all concern the editorial content of the guide. But I’ve got a few more ideas about other aspects of the guide.
- Supplement the guide with a Web site that keeps the information up-to-date, provides alerts on government hearings and votes, and links to relevant ordinances, laws and administrative rulings.
- Publish the Athens Power Guide every two years just like the Guide to Athens. Pretty soon local history buffs will have a very interesting two-volume biennial series on the city to consult.
- Partner with the Athens Banner-Herald—a newspaper with a handful of its own good local reporters—and University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication to secure all the hands needed to produce the guide.
- Distribute the guide to every household or to every voter in Athens. Include an indexed advertising supplement—maybe an expanded version of Flagpole’s Shopping Guide?—with lots of coupons with the Athens Power Guide to help defray costs. Or round-up a group of philanthropists—some local, some national—to float the effort.
Such a guide would satisfy the need of newcomers like me to get a decent feel for local politics. Frankly, it would probably help many longtime citizens get a firmer grasp, too.
I’d also bet that publishing something like the Athens Power Guide would attract national attention as an innovative local public service journalism project. It would—I can see it!—earn kudos for Athens, the small city whose journalists are forging a new, progressive future for local journalism throughout America even as the local dailies die.
Image by Dan Lorentz