Too much Wal-Mart?

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 144 views 

Fortunately, The City Wire doesn’t receive many substantive complaints about our coverage. We certainly get our fair share of nitpicking from The Gallery of the Never Satisfied, of which our ameliorative attempts are never, well, satisfactory.

The Gallery are often immovable in their belief that we’ve been either too mean or too nice to a Democrat or a Republican; or that we are too aggressive or not aggressive enough in how we cover local government; or that our porridge is too hot or it’s too cold. The Gallery are convinced that rampant corruption exists and we’re blind to it or that all is right in the world and our coverage should be more upbeat. Specific and detailed proof of our coverage failures are not necessary because we’re (A) in the back pocket of the big business good-old-boys club; (B) Card-carrying members of the elite and out-of-touch liberal media, or (C) so vastly incompetent we should not be allowed near anything that could be used to produce journalism.

Gallery numbers are small, but damn if they ain’t equal parts loud and certain.

That we push out too many stories about Wal-Mart is a reasonable critique heard on occasion from folks in the Fort Smith area, and it deserves a response.

We believe a majority of those in the Fort Smith area who read The City Wire understand why we cover Wal-Mart, and appreciate the coverage that is more frequent and deeper than what may be obtained from other news outlets. Indeed, we do write a lot of stories about Sam’s little company. There are several good reasons why we do so. Here are a just a few.

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world’s largest retailer, and the corporate headquarters of the company that employs more than 2.3 million folks is located just 90 minutes away from the Fort Smith region. One can’t live within the shadow of a Sequoia and pretend it’s not there.

• If you consider the number of stores and distribution centers in the area, the company employs an estimated 2,000 – a rough calculation made by The City Wire – people in the Fort Smith region. That number does not include the professional services firms – lawyers, accountants, etc. – based in the Fort Smith area that conduct business in Northwest Arkansas because of the Wal-Mart economic influence in that area. That number also does not include companies who may do business in Northwest Arkansas – swimming pool contractors, interior designers, construction firms, etc. – because of the Wal-Mart economic influence in that area.

• Some of the gravel, and and other raw commodities offloaded at ports in Fort Smith and Van Buren end up in Northwest Arkansas. And some of that is to support the commercial and residential development there that is fed by the economic influence of Wal-Mart.

• The Wal-Mart effect has created numerous wealthy individuals who provide money to or mentoring for a wide range of aggressive and innovative entrepreneurial start-up programs. It is not a stretch to suggest that in 3-5 years Northwest Arkansas will be known globally as one of the top fertile areas for entrepreneurs. Being less than an hour away from this rich entrepreneurial ground holds potential for the Fort Smith region that we should be doing more to tap.

• Until the Fort Smith metro area expands economic opportunities for college graduates and other young adults, some of the best career opportunities for them is just up the road a bit. Parents of young children yet to mature into the workforce should find some solace in that.

What’s more, that we push out too many stories about Wal-Mart is not a fact. On the Fort Smith version of The City Wire, we cranked out 159 news stories between March 1 and April 19 – not feature or event stories or news briefs, but complete news stories.

Of the 159, 21 were about Wal-Mart, and two of those had a Fort Smith area angle. And some of those stories we would have written if Wal-Mart were based in Toronto – like the retailer’s push to change credit card technology and the retailer’s broader entry into the money transfer industry.

In that six-week period, just 13.2% of our news stories were about Wal-Mart – and that percentage would be smaller if we included our Arts & Events stories. Considering the impact the retail giant has on not just the Fort Smith region, but the entire state, that may not be enough.

More than 20 years after the death of Sam Walton, nearly 1,300 suppliers have set up offices within a 27-mile radius of Wal-Mart’s home office in Bentonville. The supplier community provides roughly 5,800 high-income jobs and brings further socio-economic development and cultural diversity to the region.

Having the supplier offices in Northwest Arkansas is one of the catalysts that buoys income levels and home prices higher than in surrounding counties. This sector also creates a critical mass of top talent from a vast array of industries related to products, services and supply-chain logistics. Not only does this sector support Wal-Mart, but many of the suppliers in Northwest Arkansas also do business with other large national and regional retail companies.

Possibly a more correct critique of The City Wire is that we have not written enough stories as to why business and government leaders in the Fort Smith region are not doing more to capitalize on the dynamic economic solar system swirling about 8th and Walton in Bentonville.