Maryland County Plans Government-Run News Site

Maryland County Plans Government-Run News Site

Montgomery County, Maryland, located just north of Washington, DC, has announced an ambitious plan to start a government-funded news Web site in 2012. The site will host user-generated content and will allow residents to post blogs, photos, and articles online.

Councilman Hans Riemer (D) of Silver Spring says a request for $250,000 will be made to fund the project. The cost is expected to pay for the staff required to operate the site.

Merlyn Reineke, executive director of Montgomery Community Media, which operates the two public access cable channels in the county, told Gazette.net he is unsure whether the county’s idea for a news site is a good one. “My basic concern is that nobody will use it,” he said

Budget Shortfalls
Grants and franchise fees charged to the county’s three cable providers—Comcast, Verizon, and RCN—fund the county’s $24 million Cable Communications Plan. There are some restrictions on how the money in the cable fund can be spent, but council members say they are allowed to transfer the funds.

Like many local governments across the nation, Montgomery County has struggled with declining revenues in recent years. Budget shortfalls have caused the Montgomery Council to transfer money from the county’s cable fund to pay for other government programs.

Officials expect to do the same thing next year. In fiscal 2010, $8.9 million was removed from the cable fund, and in fiscal 2011, about $8.7 million was transferred. Officials estimate another $8 million from the Cable Communications Plan will be used to fund other government expenses this year.

Scarce Public Resources
In a time of declining revenues, critics such as Chris McGregor, director of Information Technology for the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a public-policy think tank located in Dallas, Texas, question whether a county-run news Web site is a good use of scarce public resources.

“At $250,000, that’s more than the IT budgets for most small to mid-size businesses, including the NCPA,” said McGregor. “Hosting costs for Web sites vary on needs, but based on the site description, I would estimate $1,000 to $5,000 per month in hosting costs.”

McGregor added, “Montgomery County may be hiring high-end specialists to design their site and they may be planning on hiring a team of experts to manage the content, which could account for the estimated price, but the projected costs seem very high given that most of the site content will be user-driven. A county with budget shortfalls should closely look at the line item estimates for this project.”

Preferred Newsmaker Access
Steven Titch, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation whose work focuses primarily on telecommunications, information technology, and municipal broadband issues, also expressed doubts about the need for a government-run news Web site.

“I don’t know why a county government would want to fund a news Web site at a cost of $250,000 when resources are in such short supply,” Titch said. “In fact, there are much cheaper ways to do this through any of the social media like Facebook or Twitter.”

Titch continued, “There is so much wrong with this. First of all, anyone who spends $250,000 on a Web site is throwing money down the drain. That is a ridiculous amount to spend. The government doesn’t need to manage a user-content-driven Web site. And since someone from the government will be managing the site, what happens when someone posts something controversial or negative? This is an unnecessary use of resources for a job that can best be accomplished through other means,” he said.

“Who is going to read it?,” he added. “The county’s credibility will be an ongoing issue because the reports are supposed to be about the county government but the county government will be writing and editing these stories. How can there be objective coverage? What kind of quality can we expect? Are they going to cover stories that are controversial?”

Titch notes there are already plenty of bloggers and news Web sites covering local government. “When the government writes the news, what happens if it decides who gets preferred access to newsmakers?” Titch asked.

‘An Absolutely Horrible Idea’
Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Center, said the Montgomery County Web site “is an absolutely horrible idea. It’s Orwellian when you consider that county employees vet submissions,” he said.

“The idea of the news is that it is supposed to be fair and objective,” Summers continued. “I don’t think this is possible when the county government reports on itself. The government shouldn’t be in the news business at all, especially when it’s for a taxpayer-funded Web site. How can it be objective?” he asked.

Summers says the county’s present financial issues indicate to him the Web site is ill-advised. “Since the county can’t currently fund its own core business as outlined under its own charter, why is it branching off into an unrelated area like newsgathering and dissemination?”

Summers concluded, “Gathering the news is not really a function of government. There’s an explosion of new media and bloggers and Web sites covering local government, so it seems really unnecessary for the county government to get involved,” he said.

“Montgomery County is a really big county, but it’s an enormous waste of resources for the county to go into the news business when there are already so many alternatives available,”

Kenneth Artz (iamkenartz@hotmail.com) writes from Dallas, Texas.