A couple of things on my mind this morning.
I spent the weekend in Halifax. Now, I know not everyone likes that city. As the center of political and economic power for the province, those furthest from its boundaries often feel – and often with cause – neglected by the interests of the urbanites. I like Halifax. I like it a lot. Halifax and the South Shore were my first experiences of Nova Scotia; they were what made me fall in love with this province. That affection continues to this day (only now it’s joined by affection for Cumberland County and the rural and coastal landscapes of Northern Nova Scotia) but I’m not blind to the city’s warts: increased traffic, crime, hipsters (yes, hipters – so self-consciously nerdy-“cool”).
Except the traffic wasn’t very busy at all, and while Halifax has bad crime stats relative to other Canadian communities, so does Amherst. The hipster problem was real, sure, but having been away from the city all winter – having forgotten what it was like, to some extent – I was pleasantly surprised to find it was still the easygoing, charming city I remembered.
The changes I did see were positive ones. Construction was booming downtown – literally booming; explosives were being detonated right in the heart of the city as part of a development project. The thud of the explosions jarred through the ground beneath your feet. You expect bad service in a city, but that wasn’t the case. On the contrary, many of the service people were polite, polished and friendly – joe jobs paying minimum wage, but professionally executed. The reputation for Maritime friendliness is alive and well in Halifax.
The one thing I remain on the fence about is retail. Downtown Halifax remains mediocre as a shopping destination. Perhaps there’s giant growth on the outskirts, but downtown the shopping options remain largely the same. Some doors have closed, some have opened, but it remains slightly underwhelming.
So that was my trip. The takeaway, I guess, is that despite the doom and gloom about this province’s future – and I have my fears, expressed in this blog – Halifax seems open for business: new buildings and upbeat workers. Now hopefully some of those new buildings will mean new small businesses for the city’s core, in addition to condos and office space.
My other topic is a little sensitive. I was sent on an assignment this morning to do what I was told would be a story and picture on the high school band’s trip to Boston this week. When I got there, my contact at the school informed me there would only be a picture, and that we would do a story and picture when the band returned from their trip. The reason for the cancelled story was that the newspaper wouldn’t guarantee the story wouldn’t mention the Boston bombing.
Now, what follows may only be of interest to a few of you. It’s me yammering on about journalistic principles and free speech and all that stuff. So if that bores you, see ya next time.
It was a short exchange with the staff member but it managed to touch on so many issues around what a newspaper is, how they work, how bureaucracies work and the role journalism plays in our society.
For starters, newspapers don’t make promises about what they will or won’t write. We write what we think the story IS, not what someone wants the story to be.
Second, if we want to write a story on bombs blowing up in Boston and a high school trip to that city in the wake of that tragedy, we’ll do it, with or without the cooperation of a teacher or school board.
Third, we’re not idiots. We know ARHS students are not at increased danger because of last week’s events. On the contrary, this coming week is probably the safest Boston has been in years because of the sensitivity of the public and increased vigilance of law enforcement. So any story we did write referencing the bombing wouldn’t be about teachers putting students at risk. It would mostly be about the band trip. But references we did make to the bombings might be about the thoughts of students and teachers as they travel to a city in the wake of tragedy – important, human stories that are, frankly, of greater interest to most of our readers than a story strictly about the band (which is also important and worthwhile, of course, but principally of interest to band members and their families).
Fourth, we put in the paper what we want to put in the paper. The tone of a teacher telling a reporter “this will be in the paper now and that will be in the paper then” is inappropriate. Unlike the aforementioned Halifax service people, my main job isn’t customer service. I’m OK with making people angry. My main job is writing stories that matter. Newspaper coverage of events happens not because organizers want it to happen but because the public wants to hear about it. Yes, we’ll write a story about the band’s trip to Boston, but not because a school staff member has told us to, but because that’s news in this community.
Finally, the teacher’s hope the Boston trip wouldn’t be linked to the events in Boston last week has failed. I wrote about it right here.
I don’t make policy at this newspaper. I am a worker bee, so the following views are mine, not the policies of my employers. My view, however, is that…
1) This is a privately-owned newspaper. Tax dollars do not pay for it. We are not required by any law or other convention to publish any story we don’t want to whatsoever.
2) Yes, a newspaper should be a community booster, but it should also be a critic. The goal of a paper isn’t to make everyone feel good, but to illuminate the stories that matter, good and bad, within the community.
3) Don’t tell us what to write, when to write it, what to include in our stories or make any other attempt to control what appears in our pages. It will almost always fail and may lead to unintended consequences…like a blog post, for example.
4) Do contact us. We want to know what you think about a topic, and why you think other people in Amherst should know about it. We want to hear about your event, your sports team, your seminar, your cause. We love hearing from you. Just don’t tell us how to write our stories.
OK, diatribe over. If you’re annoyed, that’s fine. Don’t be outraged at the paper or the publisher. Be angry at me and write a letter to the editor complaining about me. Maybe we’ll even publish it. And that’s also great. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a newspaper should be a dynamic conversation where speaking up is encouraged. The urge to contain and control stories should be exposed and confronted head-on.