We are often inspired by the more romanticized jobs in journalism: foreign correspondents who charge into war or earthquake zones, investigative reporters who uncover malfeasance on a national level. But some of the most heroic work being done today is in local newsrooms.
This month, I was inspired by two journalists whose work made a big difference in their communities and who were honoured with national journalism awards.
From a newsroom of just five reporters, the St. Catharines Standard’s Grant LaFleche worked for months exposing a tainted process to hire Carmen D’Angelo, Niagara Region’s former chief administrative officer. The job paid $250,000 a year and The Standard was able to show through confidential documents and secret meetings with whistle-blowers that Mr. D’Angelo, the regional chair’s favoured candidate, got direct help from the chair’s office before and during the hiring process.
Like most news stories that rattle the powerful or partisan, there was push-back, threats and personal attacks.
Mr. LaFleche said it included councillors and the chair refusing to be interviewed by his paper while instead speaking to partisan controlled websites (similar to Ontario News Now, a partisan service managed by the Progressive Conservative staff, but on a local level). They hunted for the whistle-blowers and threatened that it was illegal to publish confidential documents. (It isn’t.) He was trolled by anonymous people on Twitter and had a coffee cup thrown at him by someone shouting, “You are fake news!” (You can see the parallels here to many other news investigations, national and international.)
As Mr. LaFleche said, “the same issues the national press finds exist at the local level, except there aren’t investigative teams with heavy resources. Often there is a small newsroom with extremely limited resources. … The result is that in these ‘news deserts’ governments can act without effective oversight.”
Fortunately there was effective oversight with his reporting. Most of the city’s councillors were defeated in the 2018 election, key bureaucrats left their jobs and the Ontario Ombudsman has launched a probe.
Mr. LaFleche won the George Brown Award for Investigations at the National Newspaper Awards (NNA) this month and he is up for the Michener Award for public-service journalism in June. (Disclosure note. I am chair of the NNA board of directors but not involved in the judging, which is independent.)
In their write up, the NNA judges said the year-long series relied on Mr. LaFleche “gaining the trust of an extensive network of confidential sources, using everything from code names to encrypted e-mails and burner cellphones to protect insiders who feared reprisals for telling their stories. … It had him dive deep into a cache of old documents and files, digging into the digital metadata for clues.”
Another example of important local reporting came from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and its sports editor/reporter Kevin Mitchell, who won not only the Sports award at the NNAs but also Journalist of the Year for his writing about the Humboldt Broncos crash, which killed 16 players and staff from the junior hockey team. His newsroom is made up of about 20 journalists, with two in sports. But last year, the Broncos was the only story that mattered and they keep reporting on it, even now, well after the most of the national media has moved on.
Mr. Mitchell noted to me that, both in Saskatchewan and elsewhere, “everyone wanted to read about those involved in the tragedy. Here many people had a personal connection, whether it’s a distant relative or friend of a friend or a kid you saw play at the local rink. They were just kids on a bus like so many other buses and then everything fell apart.”
One reader wrote to him saying: “You became a part of our daily fabric for the days/weeks following. I feel our province is a ‘small town’ and you sir were that one person … that informed everyone, no BS, tons of facts and feelings and the quality to purvey the deepest emotions of those affected.”
It was at times like these that an entire province needed to heal together and the paper helped them in that very long and continuing process. Mr. Mitchell praised the entire newsroom. “I think we helped people process what had happened, the best we could, and overwhelming (and often tearful) feedback has told us that it’s very deeply appreciated. Sure wish it hadn’t happened, though – I’ve never stopped thinking that, helplessly, just like everybody else here.”
The Journalist of the Year judges spoke eloquently about how Mr. Mitchell was transcendent in setting the standard for covering a tragedy, focusing not on politicians but on “real people who were touched in one way or another by the crash. … [One judge said] Kevin made it all seem effortless, with stories that spoke both to the head and the heart.”
Mr. LaFleche and Mr. Mitchell show the highest standards of journalism practised at the local and national level, which can inform, help heal, question authority, inspire, uplift and give you what you need to know. Without it our communities and democracy would be poorer.