Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Why being a community newspaper reporter is too easy

July 13, 2012 Comments off

God knows I’ve moaned enough about different aspects of community journalism, but I think it’s time to admit something: being a reporter or editor at a community paper can be pretty damn easy.

Now there are the usual caveats: we often have to work irregular hours, deal with difficult people (including difficult colleagues), and adhere to strict and inflexible deadlines; the future of community newspapering only looks half-decent because we compare it to the state of daily newspapers, which are dying quicker than the hopes of Toronto Maple Leafs fans in spring; our newsrooms are often dark holes filled with obsolete equipment; our budgets are nil and our pay middling.

But despite all that, community journalism is easy and usually low-stress.

This is a problem, of a sort. But if it’s not easy, that’s also a problem, because it kind of should be.

If you find the basics of the job hard, you’re probably new. Because after you have written a couple hundred stories, the next thousand become blindingly easy to write. Finding them can be difficult, depending on the day, but there is usually something to fill that hole.

And when it comes down to community newspapers, it is all about filling holes—or at least it can be, if you’re not careful.

(Another note: All this is not to discount the fact that finding a full-time, permanent job may be extremely difficult; in fact, it may be one of the reasons that very good reporters often can’t find work.)

This job is easy because it’s exceedingly rare for reporters and editors to be dismissed because they’re not good enough. Sure, the three I’s—idiocy, incompetence and insubordination—may be enough to get you fired. But if you’re an OK reporter or editor, you’re not going to be replaced by a good reporter or editor.

And that is what makes this job easy. If you are a good reporter, it is easy to work at an OK level and not tax yourself. If you’re a fair reporter, it’s still not that hard.

Lead, explanatory paragraph, human element, quote, repeat. That’s all you’ve got to do.

It’s up to editors, of course, to get a high quality product out of their writers. But editors are often just as guilty of taking the easy way out as their reporters. It’s up to publishers to get their editors to produce good content. But many publishers don’t seem to care about the actual editorial content of their paper. And the bosses at the chains don’t—can’t—read all their papers enough to enforce high standards they don’t have in the first place.

So in the end a paper’s editorial quality can only be as good as each of its journalists are willing to make it.

It’s easy for an editor to accept his or her staff’s writing as good enough. It’s more difficult—especially when head offices always want to focus on online shovelwork—to actually work with those reporters to improve their writing and news-gathering skills.

It’s also easy for a reporter—especially one who (probably justifiably) doesn’t envision a career at a daily newspaper—to bang out stories quickly and spend the rest of their time surfing the Internet. God knows I’m not all that innocent on that front. Filing freedom of information requests, spending hours with interview subjects, and polishing a story until it shines aren’t nearly as soothing.

The payoff, though, for taking the difficult route is, well, not as clear.

It’s sure the fuck not bonuses or pay hikes. Sometimes the payoffs come in the form of awards and half-decent free meals. But more often your hard work will get the exact same reception as your half-assed work.

And yet, taking the easy way out is just too easy.

And there are some rewards, lame as they may sound. Making your job a little bit more difficult WILL improve your skills and—maybe not today, maybe not this year or even next—eventually lead to something good: a story you can hang on your wall, a shiny award you’ve never won, a sense of accomplishment, or a positive public response.

Failing all that, just be guilty. Be guilty that you have a job and occupy a position that might otherwise be filled by somebody who would work hard and—maybe not now, but probably down the road—contribute a hell of a lot more than your lazy ass.

Leave a comment.

Categories: Columns Tags: , ,

The thievery must stop

April 8, 2011 3 comments

The “big city media” is hardly perfect. In fact, they can be pretty damn annoying sometimes but one thing can’t be said about them: they sure aren’t insecure. Community newspaper reporters could take a cue.

The problem is this: reporters who cite a “report” from another journalist in their stories, while not giving credit for those reports. I’m sorry, but if you do so, you’re just stealing another reporter’s work.

I’ll explain, but first, a couple of exceptions.

First, if more than one outlet is reporting the story, I think it’s fair to just say something like “reports that such and such is happening…” It’s still delicate territory but you’re not stealing someone’s scoop. And the fact that multiple outlets are reporting something, is important to note. Also, if every newspaper is reporting something except for you, you can’t very well be expected to list all those papers (although you might want to consider another profession).

The second reason to not name the outher outlet is if your only motive in referencing the other report is to shoot it down. This, in fact, is just doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless the misinformed report is especially egregious, there’s no reason beating the other over the head with it. They’re going to feel bad enough as is. (This goes back to Rule No. 47 of journalism: don’t be a jerkwad without reason). This rule can be abused, though. To exercise it, you or somebody you quote has to either debunk or give a stated opinion that the report isn’t true. You can’t cite the “report” then write that there’s no way to know if it’s true. You also can’t cite a “report,” then have somebody else say they don’t know if it’s true or not. In such a case, you’re both stealing and drawing attention to your lack of information. (You can always cite the report if you state the media outlet from which it came.)

That’s it, I think. If you can think of another excuse, post a comment.

Stop! Before you comment, read on.

Do not write: “I can’t very well credit the competition in my paper.” That might be true. There’s a solution for that: don’t use their reporting. It’s easy. Just don’t steal someone else’s work. If you can’t confirm their report don’t write that you can’t confirm “reports in other media” when that other media is only your direct competition. If they have something that you don’t, let them go and do a better job next time. Also, writing “other media” when you’re referring to just one other news outlet isn’t just dishonest, lazy and immoral, it’s also grammatically incorrect. “Media” is plural. If you want to steal another paper’s scoop, at least have the common sense to write “another medium is reporting.”

Why it’s wrong

We know plagiarism is wrong, but somehow we accept the theft of a major component of what we do. It’s not right. Not only that, but it’s bad journalism. We don’t report information from “sources,” unless a person asks to not be named, and has a good reason for doing so. The reason is not only because names make for better reading, it’s to prevent the gratuitous spreading of incorrect information by holding people accountable. If you cite a “report” that turns out to be false, and you’re not the one who shot it down, then you did even worse than the journalist who reported a falsity. A report from a named news source is worthy of the “report” designation. If you don’t name that news source, you can only call it a rumour, at which point you stop being a journalist and start being a paid rumourmonger.

I know this all sounds harsh, especially since many of us have been that person who cites “another media report.” But this practice is way too widespread. (It’s widespread enough so that if you’re reading this thinking that I’m reacting to something in particular that you wrote or published, you’re probably wrong.) Sure, it’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to not do. First we have to accept that, and know why, it’s wrong. Which it is. Period.

N.B. I’ve also spotted references to “a reporter from a national daily newspaper” or something like that. The vagueness only draws attention to itself and the reporter. Name the newspaper, nobody will think less of you.

Why race matters before, but not after, arrests

March 11, 2011 1 comment

The Northern Reporter has an interesting post on race in police stories. He noted that his paper had run a story on an arrest of a man and had identified the man as a First Nations person. You’re not supposed to do this after the person is arrested.

NR was briefed by his boss on the issue and it was dropped.

It did get me wondering, though, exactly what the purpose of the rule was. How much different can it be to call someone First Nations, or white, or whatever, than it is to call them a man or woman in a report? And what about when police are looking for someone? It seems odd we can say Joe Shmoe, Caucasian, wanted by police, but once nabbed, that little detail has to be dropped.

On the other hand, I have so little experience with real race issues that I can respect the fact that I’m talking out of my privileged ass and wouldn’t know what it’s like to be profiled based on the colour of my skin.

So, unless I hear a compelling argument otherwise, I’ll trust the CP on this one. When reporting on crime, may as well just stick to the crime and leave race out of it.


There is, it turns out, a reason for the seemingly contradictory rule and I think it’s worth sharing with this blog’s readers (again, check out the BRR’s BFF, NR.)

As I commented on his blog:

The detail is useful for helping the public help the police identify a suspect but once they’re arrested, that rationale is lost. You might as well write “a 160-pound man was arrested” or “a man wearing a black sweater” was arrested or so on.

If you don’t use those descriptors to describe people who are arrested, it doesn’t make sense to use race.

Gender is needed if only so you can use the correct pronoun. Age is also usually referred to and is probably less justifiable, but can sometimes provide colour. And since everybody ages at the same rate, it’s hard for it to be discriminatory.

The main reason race is sensitive is because when people see minorities (any minorities) constantly referred to in police reports, they tend to jump to racist conclusions like “All natives are criminals” when it is more accurate to say “impoverished people with few job prospects or training are more likely to be criminals and, at this particular point in Canadian history, First Nations men are more likely to be impoverished and have few job prospects than white men.”

Most also would probably overlook how many crimes are committed by our own race and focus on “the other.”


This blog had more visitors in February than any previous months. It’s still a one-person show, though, so any help would be great. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

Categories: Ethics Tags: , ,

Gators, pinball wizards, school boards and animal people

February 28, 2011 Comments off

Lotsa stuff from around the Lower Mainland last week. (Two more posts coming later today).

Superb story, in the Burnaby Now, by Jennifer Moreau on an autistic pinball genius and aspiring poker king.

Robert’s latest passion is poker. For the past three or four months, he’s been teaching himself how to play by watching YouTube videos and has already ranked No. 11 in one of B.C.’s amateur leagues. With his natural ability to handle numbers, statistics and probabilities, Robert seems cut out for the game.

“If you ask him, ‘What are the chances of getting royal flush?’ He’ll probably say, ‘One in 650,000,’ ” Maurizio says. “He tells me this stuff, and it goes over my head.”


The poker thing blows me away because it’s generally assumed that a large part of that game is the ability to read competitors’ intentions. And yet, a major symptom of autism is the inability to pick up such social cues.

Also in the Burnaby Now, Janaya Fuller-Evans reports on allegations of bullying, infighting and other alleged misdeeds that one normally expects to see in the arts community, rather than among animal lovers.

Arnold noted many instances of harassment, from board members directly confronting her over issues to moments where she felt threatened, including when her truck was vandalized while parked at the association’s barns.



The new Black Press front pages are improved, but the stories themselves badly need paragraph breaks. I imagine someone’s working on that. Meanwhile the WordPress Theme for Black Press blogs is truly horrible and gloomy and makes me not want to read on even when the content is quite good. Please change it.


The phrase “board of education” sounds stupid. They’re school boards, they should be called as such.


I just noticed the sleazy weekly editorials in the Delta Optimist. How do you get your editorial percentage when the copy is so obviously an advertisement? The Optimist is the only Postmedia paper with a business column down the right hand side of its news page. Why? Why? Why?


A crazy crime spree in the Chilliwack area included, as Robert Freeman of the Chilliwack Progress puts it, “one woman’s emergency 911 call, one vehicle burning under the Agassiz/Rosedale bridge, one dust-up with a Chilliwack car dealer, one startled shopper in the Chilliwack Safeway parking lot – and one alligator.” Oh, yeah, and there was a marijuana grow-op involved (although I guess the presence of drugs isn’t all that surprising).

In a similar vein comes this beauty of a headline from the North Shore Outlook: “Stinky thieves steal laundry loot.” And yes, the thieves were actually smelly.


Two stories — one in the Richmond News, the other in the Coquitlam Now — about stutterers are hooked on last night’s Oscars and The King’s Speech. I think a smart PR person is probably behind each, given that they both mention Columbia Speech and Language Services, but that’s OK; the stories are good.


The Richmond Review has published its 30 under 30 section. These features about all these high-flying young achievers always depress the hell out of me, but are fun to read anyways.


Your webinar of the day:

Be like Delta Leader photog Evan Seal and turn your camera on an angle.

This Tri-City News file photo of an ambulance at a hospital is awesome. File photos don’t have to be boring.

And for some reason community newspapers forget that the simple Q and A format can make for great reading and very easy writing. Marisa Babic of the Surrey Now puts questions to under-fire Vanoc head John Furlong.

(One thing, though: we Canadians don’t have a timid sense of patriotism. We just like to pretend we do. If we weren’t patriotic Molson’s I Am Canadian commercials wouldn’t be so successful. Hopefully the Olympics ends the charade.)


Nice story (and lede) by the Vancouver Courier’s Naoibh O’Connor on a First Nations school that has rebranded itself as an “Earth School.”

Rainwater drips like a broken tap off the corner of the First Nation long house roof into a concrete barrel. Droplets barely ripple the surface of six-inch deep water pooled above a bed of rocks, sand and debris. Fidgety Grade 2 and 3 students gather around Brent Mansfield on this cool late-January morning at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh elementary. Mansfield, the school’s garden project coordinator, hoped for more of a downpour for today’s lesson, but a drizzle will do.



Finally, in case you missed the Black Press shuffle, the North Shore Outlook and WestEnder have got new editors.

Photo by Ryan Somma via Flickr.


That was a pretty good post, eh? Or not? Either way keep them coming by helping me out. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

Wolves, love, and murderball

February 14, 2011 Comments off

Photo (!) by Robert Dewar via Flickr

Teresa Bird (I assume, by the cutline) of the North Island Gazette reports on a guy who fought off a wolf attacking his dog and who was then surrounded and chased by a whole pack of wolves. The story is intense.

He found his dog with a huge wolf at his neck. Passmore started yelling at the wolf he estimated to be 150 pounds.

“He didn’t even look at me, didn’t know I was there,” said Passmore who was above the wolf on the log jam. Thinking his dog was dead, Passmore took a quick photo of the wolf with his cell phone. Then he saw Huey’s chest heave.

“I knew then he was alive, so then I just launched myself onto the wolf’s back,” said Passmore.

“The wolf went one way and I landed on my back,” said Passmore. “Suddenly five more heads showed up in a half circle around us. It all happened in a millisecond. The lead dog ran and the rest followed.”


(One commenter asked, “where is THAT photo?”) The guy and both dogs escaped and conservation officers have issued a warning for the area.  (Wild area up there: in the same paper is the headline “Cougar kills livestock in Hyde Creek.)


Two good Valentine’s stories: Saanich News reporter Natalie North pens a nice, timely feature on a couple who met online a decade ago, when internet dating was just catching on; and Christine van Reeuwyk of the Peninsula News Review writes about a widow and widower who got together in their 70s.

Ken Hutchin counts himself lucky to have a good-lookin’ girl.

“I’m twice blessed,” he says, eyes crinkling as he slips a sidelong glance at his bride of 10 years.

Jean Jackson wasn’t looking for love.

“It was friendship that developed,” she explained. “Something just grew, there was no big flash. I’d been on my own for 15 years and I wasn’t looking for a partner.”

Judging by the way they readily smooch like unchaperoned teenagers for a photograph, the love is strong.


That’s some groovy writing.


There’s a nice little narrative by Alistair Taylor in the Campbell River Mirror about the release into the wild of a rehabbed injured hawk. Nothing big, but a nice, clean, simple story told in a unique way.


Ferret filched in Comox.


Interesting letter to the editor also in the Comox Valley Echo. Ann Foster writes to say: “Occasionally letters from an ‘A. Foster’ appear in your letter section. Please let it be known that this person is not me.” Funny. You never think about the people who have the same names as the crazy letter-writers and who must spend uncommon amounts of time telling friends ‘No, I don’t think Stephen Harper is a Joseph Stalin reincarnation with the sole aim of putting local lettuce growers out of business.'”


Sorry, but I just don’t get what this Comox Valley Record story is about:

The lede:

A successful marketer with international connections who could have lived anywhere in Canada chose the Comox Valley.


It’s a business story, I think, but one that’s more an advertorial for a single person, which seems weird. Sorry, but I just don’t get it.


Erin DeCoste of the Ladysmith Chronicle tries out murderball, otherwise known as wheelchair rugby. She survives.


A general rule of journalism is not to lead with a question. You can break it, but rarely. I certainly shouldn’t come across multiple question leads in the space of half-an-hour of story surfing. (On the other hand, questions are great for online headlines).


Finally, the following screen grab, in the Victoria News, makes the headline “Officer in YouTube kicking video won’t be charged: Crown counsel” all the more powerful.

My take? I can see how kicking could be needed in some circumstances. But perhaps police departments should outlaw it just because it looks really freakin’ bad when an officer kicks someone who’s on the ground.

Williams Lake strippers shut down

January 24, 2011 Comments off

Only one story in today’s northern B.C. roundup. But it features strippers, so it counts twice.

According to this unbylined article in the Williams Lake Tribune, two single mothers who own a Williams Lake strip joint say their business may not reopen after being forced to close down for 26 days for a variety of infractions, including allowing contact between customer and stripper and letting drunks stick around.

I like business stories that are actual stories not fluff pieces.


On a semi-related note, and to fill some space: I don’t like the following paragraph construction in community papers:

“Mike Jones is a local firefighter whose parents died in a horrendous fire 10 years ago. He thinks people shouldn’t smoke in bed.”

The X is Y introduction is awkward in a newspaper article. It’s fine in some magazine pieces, and is a common construct on TV. But it’s weird in a newspaper, which is why you don’t see it often. (I just made up this paragraph.)

A better sentence (in my opinion): “Mike Jones, a local firefighter whose parents died in a horrendous fire 10 years ago, thinks people shouldn’t smoke in bed.”

Categories: Roundup, Writing Tags: ,

Why is there so much bullshit in community newspapers?

January 18, 2011 Comments off

Last week, the James Weldon of the North Shore News quoted former Solicitor-General Kash Heed as saying: “Even the reporter (who shot it) will tell you it’s complete bullshit,” in reference to television coverage of the suspension of a local Mountie.

The use of bullshit is surprisingly common, even in typically family-oriented community newspapers. Insert own joke here.

People swear. Some people (and, especially, reporters) swear a lot.

As reporters whose jobs revolve around writing down what people say, it’s inevitable that an expletive will, on occasion, make it into our notebooks. And because those quotes in which people swear often contain the most emotion (like that Heed statement), they are most likely to end up in a newspaper. Still things can get tricky.

Most editors don’t have much of a problem allowing a little shit into their pages. I did a quick search of the Black Press papers and, even excusing the profane Westender and Monday Magazine, came up with more than a dozen different shits in the last six months of 2010. Whether small papers or large, shit happens

“Bullshit” is also fine, having appeared recently in the Peace Arch News, Rossland News, Revelstoke Times-Review and a plethora of papers that ran a Tom Fletcher column that proclaimed: “This, as Bennett would say, is bullshit” (about Bennett’s claim of reluctantly seeking public office). In fact, “bullshit” may be used more than the bovine-free version. (Is this a sign of something? Does the transition from shit to bullshit reflect something about your culture? Our language? Our politics? Our politicians? Possibly. Or maybe not. Somebody should investigate.)

But punch “fuck” into the same search engine and you get back nothing. Switch that to “expletive” and you see that the word is clearly not fucking acceptable.

A sample:

Parent’s outburst disrupts Bantam League hockey game
10 Jan 2011
Lake Cowichan Gazette
Unhappy with a referee’s call, a hockeytook it upon himself to express, in a loud expletive-filled rant, his disagreement. ¶The incident took place during Lake Cowichan’s Bantam League 


Well-known Youbou elk killed by poachers
03 Jan 2011
Lake Cowichan Gazette
Fondly referred to as Pretty Boy,not-so-fondly known as Stinky and a more expletive-filled nick-name, a well-known Youbou elk has been killed. ¶“I know that they shot it with 


Osoyoos man sentenced for threats
21 Dec 2010
Penticton Western News
in my lifeI have never hurt anyone in any way,” said Lemay, speaking to the judge. “These (expletive) treat me like I am (expletive) Osama bin Laden and you just ride along with them.”¶In Septe 


Osoyoos man sentenced for uttering threats
18 Dec 2010
Penticton Western News
fly in my lifeI have never hurt anyone in any way,” said Lemay, speaking to the judge. “These (expletive) treat me like I am (expletive) Osama bin Laden and you just ride along with them.” ¶In Septem 


Manners dumped at local landfill
30 Nov 2010
Salmon Arm Observer
e morning,” Taylor tells her.¶“It’s miserablethere, I don’t even have heat in my (expletive) van,” says the female angrily. “I was waiting for the light to turn green.” ¶Taylor say

I’m not going to get upset that “fuck” doesn’t appear in a community newspaper. I agree that the word is still a little too risqué for your average paper. However, I would rather see f— or f***in place of the seemingly preferred [expletive]. (A search for “f—” and “f***” turned up nothing.) In certain instances, like the above “(expletive) van” one can think of at least two different swears that could fill in the blank. Sure, it’s not a big deal, but it seems to me that if quotes are pretty much sacred, there should be no ambiguity, even when someone drops an f-bomb.

Unleash a shitstorm of discussion by leaving a comment with your fucking thoughts.

Photo by Newton Graffiti via Flickr.


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Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll duly update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

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