Regionalism is hard, but what that’s worth it isn’t?

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I’ve been asked more than once since I began pushing for a regional approach to economic development years ago why the region hasn’t already adopted such an approach if it’s so sensible. There’s a simple answer. Regionalism is hard.

We saw it in the last month when Ballad Health announced its trauma strategy. Ballad’s executive team had gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of its various announcements on the regionalism effort. Yet what I’m sure the company had hoped would merely be a speedbump on the road to regionalism turned instead into a temporary roadblock.

Alan Levine, executive chairman and CEO of Ballad, took the unprecedented step of inviting the region’s major media outlets, including the daily newspapers, the TV stations and this publication for a two-hour long seminar on what the trauma changes would entail. We in the media were treated to a detailed and nuanced look at Ballad’s plans. Levine explained Ballad’s decision-making process in painstaking detail.

We learned about the differences between Level I, Level II and Level III trauma centers. We learned about the difference between trauma care and emergency care. We learned about the relationship between Ballad and the first responders throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

And in the end, what we all reported was, for the most part, accurate. But it was hardly complete.

Thus, within a couple of days, we were reporting that local government officials, most notably the Sullivan County Commission (both trauma centers being dropped to Level III trauma center status are in Sullivan County), were up in arms over their perception of Ballad’s plan.

How did this happen? First, I turn to the great New York philosopher, Reggie Jackson, who said, “Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don’t like it when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon. That’s how you feel when (Nolan) Ryan’s throwing balls by you.”

Well, most reporters like to be spoon-fed a story. But two hours of detail is too much for a TV reporter who has 90 seconds to tell the story on the 6 o’clock news, or a newspaper writer who has 40 column inches. So, reporters picked and chose the biggest details and left out the rest.

When Sullivan County commissioners read the newspaper and Internet accounts of the trauma plan, they didn’t receive the full benefit of a two-hour briefing. So, while Ballad addressed some of their concerns, those reassurances didn’t make the final cut.

Is it a valid criticism of Ballad to say Levine should have done a similar dog-and-pony show for commissioners? Yes and no. Ballad would have had to hold similar seminars for elected officials in every city, town and county in which it operates a hospital. Who has time for that?

And this is why regionalism is hard. Whoever champions the cause – in business and in the media – has to have the time and expertise to reach out to all corners of the region with a specific, honest message about how each community will be affected. They have to be credible – and not just about economic development, but about health care, and manufacturing, and education, and how these things interact regionally. They have to be willing to listen to various, often disparate, points of view and work to show that a greater good can be reached by doing things in a way that appears, on the surface, to be contrary to short-term, individual community interests.

They have to know what and how much each news outlet can handle. They have to know what needs to be communicated through social media instead. They have to be eternally positive. And they have to be us.

Regionalism is a mindset we all need to adopt.

It happens in other markets. It can happen here.

I grant you, ours is not a perfect region any more than ours is a perfect world. TV reporters don’t get to go on the news and take an hour or two to flesh out a story. Print reporters can’t devote entire issues to one story. Business administrators don’t get to take time off from their regular duties to visit with every city and county commission whenever a major decision is looming.

But that doesn’t mean regionalism’s not worth it. Precisely to the contrary, today, it’s more important than it has ever been. We’re facing one of those, “If not now, when? If not us, whom?” moments.

I commend Ballad for making more of an effort than anyone had made to date. I commend my colleagues in the news media for delivering clarity (if not completeness) regarding an intricate, difficult topic. Please, dear reader, be patient with whatever mistakes might have been made. It is my heartfelt belief we are all trying to learn to serve you better in the future.

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