Getting answers in a small town

QUESTION: When officials in a small town stop talking, how do you do your job?

Threatening to cut off a reporter – or even a whole media outlet – from an official flow of information is sometimes used as a tactic in order to kill an unflattering portrayal in a story.

Usually, that threat is just a bluff. But not always. Officials do sometimes decide to retaliate by cutting off all contact with a reporter or media outlet. When that perceived slight against the official is real and undeserved, whether due to poor reporting or to an intentionally malicious attack on the official’s reputation, then the solutions are obvious. Under those circumstances, the media outlet has to take the necessary steps to correct the situation. Those steps might include a public apology and disciplinary measures taken against the journalist.

It’s a lot harder to know what to do when the official is just power-tripping. When the mayor decides to stop talking because of a reported scandal at city hall, or the fire chief refuses interviews because of reported allegations of unsafe practices in the fire department, then the reporter’s job becomes that much more difficult.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of things a reporter can do to get around these petty gag orders. Even in small towns.

The first thing to remember is to keep open the lines of communication with that official and maintain an attitude of good will. Even if the mayor isn’t talking to you today, that might change tomorrow. A good way to overcome a breakdown in communications with an official is to show that there wasn’t anything personal in the story that created the friction in the first place. That official should still be contacted and asked for comment on relevant stories, either by phone, e-mail or letter, and given ample time to respond.

Since it’s unlikely he or she will respond – at least for a while – alternate sources of information have to be found to get at the news. A police scanner is a great way to hear about breaking crime or emergencies. Court officers and the dockets are another source. Disgruntled government employees love to talk about waste, bad management practices, and upcoming announcements that they don’t particularly like. In-house newsletters are usually out-of-date but e-mail listservs can sometimes be useful when you can subscribe to them. Access to Information requests can also be a gold mine, letting a journalist get his or her hands on documents that may – or admittedly may not – lead to great stories without ever having to talk to the official who issued the gag order.

Of course, there’s always simple observation. A reporter who is kicked out of a meeting can often just stand right in the doorway – or just behind the door – and still hear almost everything going on. The group holding the meeting might simply be unable to have the reporter banned from the hallway or sidewalk outside the meeting room.

Getting out into the community vastly increases the likelihood of coming across something newsworthy. Forest fires can’t be hidden. Streets blocked off by police cars with flashing lights are a pretty clear sign something is going on. Flags flying at half mast usually indicate that someone important has died.

Personal web pages and blogs usually don’t contain much that’s newsworthy for a small-town reporter. But every so often, someone goes off on a rant or otherwise mentions something that’s worth picking up and researching for a story. It’s good to know if anyone in town has a decent blog or web page.

When these leads come up, they can often be fleshed out by talking to the hangers-on at city hall. Every small community seems to have at least one of these folks, perpetually dissatisfied with elected municipal officials and plugged into the community in ways that are often amazing and frequently bizarre.

Sometimes, this hanger-on is the fellow who’s run for the mayoralty unsuccessfully for a decade. Other times, it’s the black sheep of the big local family that’s got someone in just about every important government job. Often, these people know what’s going on before anyone else and they love to talk. Look for them in coffee shops, bars, and barber shops or hair salons.

And make a habit of regularly calling contacts with the various social and recreational clubs and asking them what they’ve seen and heard around town. These volunteers are usually very well connected — and are therefore good sources.

A gag order handed down by a small-town official can actually be a great thing. All too often, these officials fail to appreciate that a gag order against the media usually only forces a good reporter to dig in deeper and uncover new ways to get the information.

In short, uncooperative sources make us better journalists.

A seasoned journalist, James Risdon has edited and/or reported for newspapers, magazines and web sites across Canada, including New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal, the Winnipeg Free Press, and Timmins’ The Daily Press. Gag orders and tight-lipped officials have forced him to find other ways to get at the news while working for community newspapers, including the Opasquia Times in The Pas, Manitoba and The News in New Westminster, British Columbia.