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Politics is so much more than a pastime

Consider this a sequel to the column I wrote a couple weeks back on whether newspapers should give readers what they want or what they need.

And we open with this scene: In the Lansing State Journal newsroom, as in Gannett newsrooms across the country, large TVs are mounted high, visible by every editor and reporter in the room. On those screens, 24 hours a day, are displayed data detailing the number of people actively reading the top stories at any given moment, the average length of time those readers have spent on each story, and the total number of readers on the LSJ website at that moment.

Those figures — actively monitored, analyzed, and discussed by editors and reporters alike — are meant to provide clues to which stories most interest readers. And those clues help reporters and editors decide which stories should be pursued and which should be abandoned.

Very, very rarely was a city hall story, or even any but the most controversial of statehouse stories, at the top of those screens.

And that is why, as newspaper resources have dwindled, newsrooms across America have severely diminished routine coverage of city halls and county boardrooms, especially those in the outlying corners of their coverage areas. Routine stories on contract deliberations and debates over policies on trash pick-up and recycling simply aren’t written, because readers don’t read them.

Every time I saw some such story riding the bottom of the most-read list, I thought about all the friends, acquaintances, teachers, family members — heck, even fellow journalists — who’d say things like, “I’m just not really into politics.”

Too many people treat politics like it’s just another pastime, another hobby, just a section at Barnes & Noble they can pass by on their way to the gardening magazines. They put politics in the same vein as football or NASCAR or arts and crafts, like it’s something for someone else to worry about, like it’s the kind of thing that might come up on a first date and make them decide they have nothing in common with the nerd sitting across the table.

That has always aggravated me.

The average Michigander pays somewhere around 9% of their income to state and local taxes, according to the American Tax Foundation.

As of June, nearly 225,000 military and civilian forces were deployed overseas, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, and another 2.7 million stateside who could be sent into foreign conflict.

At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and 22 million pounds of it end up in the Great Lakes every year, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says traffic crashes killed 1,000 people in 2018 in Michigan.

In 2007, 13 people died when a poorly designed bridge on I-35 collapsed in Minneapolis.

All of that is politics at work, elected officials in Washington and Lansing and city halls and township halls everywhere voting on foreign policy, on tax rates, on public investments in infrastructure, debating whether this intersection or that intersection needs a traffic light or a stop sign.

Yet nearly 88 million Americans old enough to vote didn’t even bother to register, let alone actually show up to the polls. And turnout only goes down the further down the ticket you go.

Every political decision affects every life, if only by creating the threat that lives could be changed drastically by a sudden war or trade dispute.

But local politics affect us more directly, and those are the politics to which we pay the least attention.

That is why newspapers cover politics, and why they should cover more, not less, than we already do.

But it takes money to do so, and readers aren’t handing it over.

My wish is that every home in America subscribed to the local paper, not only to protect the bottom line of those newspapers, but to protect the pocketbooks of those residents by making them more informed and more inspired to get involved in the decisions political leaders make.

That every American would arm themselves with information and exercise that armory at the ballot box.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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