Don't look for citizen journalism in the next Bell

When the L.A. Times broke the news July 15 that certain employees of blue-collar Bell were paid enormous salaries by their diminutive realm, the outcry was palpable.

People struggling after being laid off from their $9-an-hour city jobs wondered why Bell's chief administrative officer was paid $787,636. Why the police chief pulled down $457,000. Why the part-time city council jobs were compensated at nearly a hundred grand.

Boy howdy, reserve me a place at that public trough!

The swift response was predictable: The curiously self-contained entitlement program came to a screeching halt with the departure of three top city officials and the delicious scrutiny of the check-fat council. The story still has legs, with new! improved! gob-smacking revelations of uncivil servant behavior developing almost daily.

When the planet Bell does return to a normal rotation of public service, it will be because a big metropolitan newspaper spent time and resources digging out facts, putting them into context and illuminating the harsh truth for all to see. In fact, Joe and Jane citizen could have done the same. They could have asked the Bell city clerk for a public records request form and waited the 10 days it took Times reporters to get the information.

And if Joe and Jane didn't get precisely what they sought, if they didn't quite know exactly what to request, they could keep revising what the clerk, on the phone, described to me as "the nature of your request" until they found, say, what The Times found; that city council members got paid thousands more each month for serving on city agencies that sometimes meet for a couple of minutes concurrent with city council meetings. Then the citizens could have done the same, presumably, with the seven other cities whose compensation statistics were used for comparison in the initial LA Times story. Then they could have researched the federal salaries that further enhanced the "wow" factor of paying a guy who runs a 2.6-square-mile city of 36,664 residents nearly double what the president of the United States is paid.

Citizens, of course, don't do this. They're busy working, looking for work, raising families and watching "American Idol." They're busy figuring out how to understand not municipal arcana, but student loan terms. And as much as the concept of "citizen journalism" has been embraced by the digital media keen to capitalize on the population's hunger for local news and to satisfy their own interest in producing journalism at the lowest possible cost (free is best), citizen journalists don't do this.

They're busy working, writing stories about how the city council is dithering over graffiti clean-up, how the local swimming pool is cutting hours, how the local dog park is the best place in town for hooking-up for both kinds of species.

There will come a time when public information such as municipal salaries is Googleable by a 10-year-old; indeed, some of these databases are available online now, although most require some research expertise. Even though citizen journalism is a wonderful addition to the collection and dissemination of news and community development, it isn't going to replace the kinds of stories people need with regularity to expose civil servants gone wild, hold them accountable and effect positive change of a profound and sustained nature.

There was a lot in the first L.A. Times story about Bell you could have found out yourself. But you're not going to, and neither is anybody else who doesn't have the financial support of a publisher willing to fund the effort society requires to make informed decisions and protect public resources from egregious misappropriation. This isn't new, and you're tired of hearing it and what it costs. But it bears repeating because malfeasance never sleeps and because people who live free don't know what they have until they don't have it.


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