People often ask me where ideas for news articles come from.
Often, they come from talking to experts about what is happening in their fields or following a nagging question about what is missing in a story.
I was thinking of the power of ideas during the recent National Newspaper Awards show, where we saw two amazing examples from different ends of the spectrum – both in service of local journalism, where resources are so limited.
The winner for breaking news was the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post for their wall-to-wall coverage that began with a web editor starting her shift early to write about a dangerous person alert on the James Smith Cree Nation.
Even though it was the Sunday of the Labour Day weekend, 17 staffers – the majority of the two newsrooms – jumped in, providing every detail they could to inform a public anxious about what was happening, while police asked people to stay put if they were in a secure place.
In her letter to the National Newspaper Awards, StarPhoenix managing editor Ashley Trask noted that the two papers combined to produce seven files, including two live files that were updated more than 200 times with new information throughout the first 36 hours of one of Canada’s deadliest mass killings.
Stories included the voices of community members, as reporters on the ground in James Smith Cree Nation and in Saskatoon made contact.
What the reader didn’t see was the co-ordination work done by people like Ms. Trask, making sure every angle was covered as the tragedy unfolded in real time – probably the most important story for that region in years. It’s inspiring to see what a small newsroom, instinctively following its ideas and experience, can do for the community.
On the other end of the scale, sometimes ideas come from talking to people with a completely open mind. Globe health reporter Kelly Grant, who won for investigations, recalled her editors asking if she wanted to dig into health care access in the Far North – Nunavut specifically.
And that was her assignment for a year: Go with an open mind and see what you find.
Being there, she noted, was essential. “I learned right away that reporting on Nunavut from afar using phone or Zoom is impossible. I spent the month before my first three-week reporting trip in October of 2021 sending hundreds of e-mails, texts and Facebook messages, trying desperately to set up interviews. Few took me up on the offer. I landed in Iqaluit with nothing prearranged. I didn’t have anything set up in Kimmirut or Pangnirtung either. I chose those fly-in communities on Baffin Island in a panic because they were among the few with hotel rooms available for the time I planned to travel.”
When she arrived with photographer Pat Kane, an experienced northern photographer, “everything changed. Pat swung by Iqaluit City Hall and came back in the front seat of a pickup driven by the city’s then-mayor. The mayor drove us around Iqaluit all afternoon, answering every question I had. We connected with a local elders’ society. They were kind enough to invite us on a clam-digging excursion.”
From that warm welcome, she dug in, asking questions about health care and the community’s concerns. She started with an idea from the local media’s work, particularly CBC North and Nunatsiaq News, that the territory didn’t have nearly enough nursing home capacity to meet the needs of its aging Inuit population.
“On my first visits to fly-in hamlets outside of Iqaluit, most of what I did was just knock on doors and listen. In Pangnirtung, several people, including the mayor, mentioned that the community had an unusual number of tuberculosis cases, but he was fuzzy on the details and said he wasn’t privy to official information that he could share.”
Not getting any information from official sources about tuberculosis cases, Ms. Grant said she was “puzzled and then incensed on behalf of the people of Pangnirtung, who wanted to know what was going on and couldn’t find out.” So she filed multiple access-to-information requests about TB in the territory.
“I returned to Pangnirtung in May of 2022 with my stack of ATIPP documents in hand and spent the week focusing on nothing but TB. By that point I knew the community better. The deputy mayor helped connect me with sources I had missed on my first random door-knocking tour of Pang.”
As with the Saskatoon papers, those stories made a difference in a small community, with the news this year that Pangnirtung will be screened for tuberculosis.
(Personal note here: While I am a past chair of the NNA board of governors, we have no input or say in choosing nominees and winners. That is all done by independent judges.)
So now I turn it back to you. Are there any subjects you think The Globe and Mail should dig into? Ideas will be passed along to our assigning editors, and perhaps some of them will bear fruit.