To all of you folks at the Times Herald:
After nearly three years as editor of a small-town daily newspaper, I’ve grown confident that the skills I’ve garnered could translate into any variety of reporting roles, simply because I’ve had to pick up the know-how in a variety of genres. I paginate news, I follow it, assign it, edit it, write about it, photograph and video record it and, when necessary, I defend it. And I’ve loved nearly every moment of it all.
But now, I have a hankering to return to exclusively reporting, to return home, and to continue this journalism pursuit in a different manner but with the same ultimate goal — disseminating news that affects change.
It’s been a long time since I’ve only reported on community and local government, but it’s what I want to do the most. If you’d like to check out my history of beat work, examples are readily available. Below are examples of my own recent reporting, in general; what follows is a breakdown of my responsibility as an editor with a methodology I think is applicable to what you’re looking for.
- The last casualty
- Sentenced to 18 years
- Beyond agriculture, Sanguinetti learns
- ‘A little bit easier’
My primary responsibility at the McDonough County Voice in Macomb, Ill., hasn’t been to necessarily report the news asking the toughest questions myself, as reporting is only part of my job. But it’s meant delegating with our small staff and, ultimately, making sure that watchdog role is still fulfilled through the assignments I give, the response to news that we coordinate and how it’s all packaged together.
Inspiring better transparency
1. Soon after I arrived at The Voice, I reported on what is otherwise your run-of-the-mill contract negotiation between Spoon River College faculty and administrators. However, when faculty discussion turned to the potentiality of a strike, we FOIA’d past contracts. A simple practice, yes. But since the fall of 2012, SRC has posted faculty contracts for public download on its FOIA website as well as every FOIA request and FOIA request response — a practice that began with ours.
2. Around the same period of time, I read a state-level audit of Illinois county websites, noting that McDonough County was one of 17 that failed the audit in terms of transparency and public access to information — primarily for not having an active website whatsoever. I assigned a staff reporter to find out what this meant, and why there wasn’t a website for our county; this was a story that went on to earn the reporter an Illinois Press Association editorial contest third-place award. Every year since, we’ve published at least one story, or series of stories, addressing the lack of website. This year, the county finally went live online.
3. In the summer of 2013, the McDonough County Voice followed an alleged attempted armed robbery in a neighboring county, seeking updated information in competition with area television news stations. But that county’s sheriff refused even a confirmation of the incident, let alone additional details, for four days. A colleague and myself took turns drafting an editorial addressing the abhorrent lack of transparency despite our relentless pursuit of information. The piece went on to win first place local editorial for our division in the 2013 IPA Editorial Contest.
Getting to the root of reason
At its simplest, sure, being a watchdog means holding entities and people accountable. But the breadth of issues in any community are more complicated. Holding people, governments, decisions and so on accountable requires a combined patience and persistence — a balance between knowing when to pounce and when to wait and see.
I’ve lost count how many stories I’ve written and assigned that apply to this ideal. So here’s just a recent one: McDonough County officials pushed hard for a tax for road funding, residents pushed back, and the resulting lack of understanding required a remedy. I asked a county official, and supposed sales tax spokesman, to literally take me to see the county’s troublesome rural roads before writing about the decay of infrastructure, the highway department’s depleted resources and why this sales tax was on an upcoming ballot.
Nearer to the election, a colleague and I sat down to decide which side to endorse for our editorial page and, when we disagreed for separate but legitimate reasons, we wrote competing point/counterpoint pieces that were instead published on A1. The decision to write the story as well as the opinion pieces and publish them all on A1 was an easy one — for impact.
I appreciate your patience with my somewhat unorthodox manner of detailing my experience. Pursuing your open local government reporter position isn’t something I’ve taken lightly; it was, however, something I very much wanted. And in turn, evaluating my skills and how they’re applicable has only made me want this more. Thank you so much for your time!