Last weekend, Globe and Mail senior media writer Simon Houpt wrote about how the Ontario city of Guelph is coping without its newspaper. While alternatives have sprung up, that community has lost a vital source of information.
Newsrooms are shrinking as advertising dollars fade, but it's important to consider the heroic work being done in small newsrooms – work that might not be known if those papers don't survive.
A few recent journalism-award winners make that case loud and clear. When the city of Penticton, B.C., announced a deal with the Penticton Indian Band that would give the band $160,000 a year – a tenth of the annual grant the city receives from the local casino – in exchange for "co-operation on joint initiatives," reporter Joe Fries covered the announcement for the Penticton Herald, but right away he suspected there was much more to it.
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"My editor and I knew in our guts there was much more to the story than the City of Penticton was letting on when it announced it would give 10 per cent of its casino grant to the Penticton Indian Band for seemingly little in exchange. As it turned out, we were right. Everything I reported, from the mayor getting a major campaign donation from the casino developer to the Penticton Indian Band holding the casino relocation hostage, is part of an important chapter in the city's history, and the public has a right to know about it. It's offensive to me when government bodies withhold information from the public simply because it doesn't reflect well on them," he told me in an e-mail.
Mr. Fries was a finalist in the National Newspaper Awards for local reporting this year. He had spent six months working through access-to-information requests, reading hundreds of pages of documents and calling key people, all while writing about 15 news stories a week.
The NNA judges said "Fries was able to tell readers that the Penticton band had threatened to sue over the relocation of the city's casino because it had planned to build a casino of its own, and that the gaming operator had also made payments to the band to buy its co-operation. As with many entries in this category, the reporter clearly spent a great deal of time on the story over and above 'normal duties,' which in Fries's case was everything. He was the Herald's only news reporter. The insight into how government bodies respond to access requests reminds us of why we need dedicated reporters in all our cities and towns."
The winner in the category was Paul Schliesmann of the Kingston Whig-Standard, who spent two months living among 36 men, some disabled, who were living in deplorable conditions in a motel. A local legal-aid group took up the men's cause and challenged the landlord.
In a somewhat larger newsroom, reporter Randy Richmond spent two years – also while filing regularly – on London Free Press series that would win the Michener Award for public-service journalism. In a newsroom of just 7 1/2 reporters, the entire team took on a heavier load to allow Mr. Richmond the time to investigate a story about a successful realtor named Jamie High who was found unresponsive on a police cell floor and within an hour was pronounced dead. Mr. High suffered from addiction and mental-health problems, and Mr. Richmond's series showed a system that didn't seem to care about his fate.
"Mental illness, addiction and a broken system turned Jamie High's perfect life into a perfect nightmare," read the headline on the first part of the series. It was the third death in just over a year at the local prison.
"We had a sense from the beginning that Jamie High's death could tell us much about the mental-health and justice system in our community," Mr. Richmond said.
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In all these cases, there is an important right of the public to know what is happening in their communities. You don't want to imagine what governments, jails and other institutions might do without the important checks and balances imposed on their power and responsibilities by journalists. Authorities instinctively put a positive spin on everything and avoid talking about painful problems. The journalist's instinct is to pick at that scab.
Whether you prefer your news in print or digital, as a subscriber you are supporting this important work in communities across Canada. You see how important it is.