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.
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 Des Moines Register did that when its reporter dug into questionable personnel management decisions by the Waukee school board — decisions that led to firings and resignations, lawsuits and substantial out-of-court settlements the school district had to pay.
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 executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. This column was originally written for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Evans can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.