Commentary: The End of Governing (Magazine)

For the last three decades, Governing magazine has produced stories that are wonky, earnest, nuanced and wonderfully interested in the details of public policy. No wonder it didn’t survive.

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With impeccable timing, the final issue of Governing magazine landed in my mailbox about a week before impeachment fully consumed the news. “Goodbye, Governing” ran the headline in the farewell edition. As goes the magazine, so goes American politics.

Governing has unfortunately proven unsustainable in the current media environment,” wrote editor Zach Patton. No kidding. He was referring to the magazine, but he might as well have been talking about the concept.

Eric Johnson, the author

For the last three decades, the magazine’s writers and editors have produced stories that are wonky, earnest, nuanced and wonderfully interested in the details of public policy. More or less the inverse of broader political trends.

Governing was never meant to be entertaining, and it never was. I mean that as the highest compliment. You didn’t skim Governing to fill mindless screen time. You read Governing to learn about complicated stuff.

It was a magazine for and about public employees, the millions of people who report to work in the country’s school districts, municipal water companies, state agencies, and legislative research divisions. These are the kind of readers who might thrill to a cover story on local preemption doctrine (April 2016), or take notes on how governments are using blockchain technology (September 2017).

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15 years with Governing, it’s that the vast majority of men and women in state and local government are smart, dedicated, passionate and creative,” Patton wrote in his sign-off letter. “The good work of these individuals will go on.”

That’s true, at least for now. But that work is getting ever less recognition, undermining public support. Local newspapers are in rapid decline across the country, losing staff and circulation. And magazines like Governing are finding out the hard way that political coverage has to come in distinct flavors, and preferably in ALL CAPS ALERTS!, to pay the bills.

I’m glad that a handful of national news organizations have found a working business model. But a revenue strategy based on predictable patterns of online outrage leaves little space for state and local coverage. A 1,700-word piece on municipal procurement strategies (March 2018) isn’t going to top the ChartBeat rankings in any national newsroom.

Donald Trump’s genius was realizing that a permanent campaign was infinitely more clickable than governing or Governing. To the extent Trump made it into the magazine’s pages, it was largely as a strange weather pattern, an outside force requiring creative forbearance from actual policymakers.

The exception was a fascinating story in June of this year about the Trump administration’s highly competent outreach to county commissioners — the kind of people who rarely get covered by national media and are increasingly ignored by cash-strapped local outlets. “Most key state and federal programs have to be executed by counties when they get to the local level — transportation, Medicaid, public health, mental health and services for children, youth and seniors among them,” wrote Governing reporter Alan Greenblatt. “Yet presidents and governors routinely have given them short shrift.” Not the Trump administration. And not Governing.

As an ever-larger share of attention gets pulled into the vortex of national politics-as-entertainment, there is a real risk that we’ll blind ourselves to stories like these. Stories that explain what’s happening in the vast expanse of America that isn’t consumed with political hot takes.

The merging of politics and entertainment is not new, but the impact on actual governance is building. Among the many issues that Governing has covered over the years, there’s the looming crisis of public sector retirements. The image of “government” as nothing more than a Twittering circus is exerting a real cost in terms of where talented, public-spirited people want to devote their lives.

I work on a public college campus, and I hear regular complaints about how the rising generation isn’t interested in public service. Young people are supposedly too shallow, narcissistic, and media-obsessed to care about politics. In my experience, this gets things exactly backward. The earnest, nerdy students I encounter see a form of politics that’s too shallow, narcissistic, and media-obsessed to warrant their devotion. They’re plenty interested in the kinds of things Governing once covered, but they don’t see much real governance represented in the addled dependency between today’s media and politics.

The algorithms that run the modern world are primed to deliver more of whatever commands our attention. Fair warning, then — we didn’t pay much attention to Governing, so we’re about to get even less of it.

Eric Johnson is a writer and newspaper columnist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He works for the University of North Carolina College of Arts & Sciences.

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