Who Should Rate Communities: Experts, the Public — or Both?
The “new class” of local news sites got off to strong starts in recent years because they totally get how their cities are being transformed by 21st-century expectations and possibilities. Sites like Billy Penn in Philadelphia, The Agenda in Charlotte and Denverite in Denver have attracted both audience and revenue because they examine their cities – their interrelated present, past and future – with admirable clarity.
Here, for example, is an article from Billy Penn, one from The Agenda, and another from Denverite that typify what “new class” means and why I think it is central to the sustainability of local news in these trying times for news. The three articles, in their individual ways, bring a fresh approach to what’s news locally and present it in entire readable and viewable ways that don’t scant detail or context.
Across America, bold and creative local leaderships, with generally strong support support from citizens, are transforming their communities into urban environments that promise to be more livable, more equal and more economically healthy. Brookings has identified 100 such cities across the country that it groups under the catchy rubrics of “New Heartland,” “Diverse Giants,” “Next Frontier,” “Border Growth,” “Mid-Sized Magnets,” “Skilled Anchors” and “Industrial Core.”
It’s not hard to imagine ambitious local publishers — running the gamut from entrepreneurs to corporate newspaper chains and pure-play networks — producing one after another instructive and often entertaining stories about the tremendous changes in their communities, on every scale from micro to mega.
But as urban change accelerates and multiplies in this era of what Brookings calls the “New Localism,” publishers have a very tough job. When their publications report on so much that’s new, will they have the resources to look behind and beyond the promises — by local governments, by school systems, by developers, by for- and not-for-profit businesses? Will they be able to sort PR from real change, to see not only what succeeds but falls short and how it might be fixed?
One emerging group that might be able to help publishers answers such tough questions is the nonprofit group STAR Communities, which “works to evaluate, improve, and certify sustainable communities.” The company helps cities and counties “achieve a healthy environment, a strong economy, and well being for their residents.”
STAR Communities has a rating system that looks at how cities and counties are performing. The system is broken into seven categories that include 49 data points. That’s a lot, but when you want to measure how a community is performing in climate adaptation, arts and culture, civil and human rights, quality jobs and living wages, its aging population and so many other areas that affect residents so directly, I don’t know how you could prune the list down.
STAR gives each category a fixed number of points, and communities are ranked on how well they perform in each one. A perfect total score would be 750.
A meaningful rating system would be a gold mine for local news sites, but STAR’s falls short because its scores are toted up by a publicly unidentified “technical team” assembled by STAR. There is no public involvement in the ratings.
I appreciate that STAR’s job is difficult. I have tried to create a city rating system myself and soft-launched a pilot in Charleston, S.C., where I live. It included many categories and data points that covered the same general ground as STAR’s, but my goal was to have experts and the public contribute to the ratings. I hit a brick wall in trying to collect all pertinent numbers for the data points and then run them through an algorithm that would produce ratings dynamically – as often as the feedback came in.
The back-end system was to include “sentiment” software to translate positive and negative comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media into hard values which would also be weighted by their substance versus unsupported rants.
It’s only been recently that technology has advanced to the point where most of these rating goals can be achieved. But even today, a fair and dynamic rating system that could scoop up everything a city was doing right and not so right – based on what both the public and experts thought – would be a challenge and a half. In the face of this reality, I was forced to put my project in hibernation.
STAR Communities chose a simpler, more static approach with its rating system. But while it has scored and certified 57 communities, it doesn’t seem to have caused much interest among residents in those localities. Nor do local news sites seem to be paying much attention to how well their communities are rated. The biggest city to be rated by STAR is Houston, which received three stars in 2015, but my search of the Houston Chronicle turned up only one story about STAR — from Jan. 4, 2016 — and it didn’t even mention the city’s three-star rating.
This is not good because a STAR rating system was transparent and invited and included public opinion would be good for the communities and their news sites — and for STAR in its long-term goal to certify and rate 500 cities and counties.
We’ve gotten recent new lessons on how messy democracy can be. But conducting what should be public business behind closed doors is not a pathway to better ratings.
I give STAR Communities an A for building a comprehensive framework for ratings and attracting numerous cities and counties to seek certification But I don’t think it earns better than a C- for how it has implemented its rating system — using only an unidentified “technical team” and providing no opportunity for the public to contribute to the scoring.
Maybe local news sites in STAR-certified communities can ask the organization about bringing transparency and democracy to its worthy goal of helping America’s cities and counties “achieve a healthy environment, a strong economy, and well being for their residents.”
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.