What is and isn’t news and why local newspapers are failing

Before we start, I want to make it abundantly clear that, not only do I enjoy engaging in my regular and civil journalistic debates with reporter Jim Fuller, but when it comes to news coverage, the Daily Herald generally does a pretty good job of applying the appropriate discretion.

To sideways quote Elaine Benes, not everything is print worthy.

Tom Hartwell

Tom Hartwell

So the fact that Jim and I just disagreed on the merits of one particular DH story is nothing more than a disagreement on the merits of one particular DH news story. Ah! But when it comes to the philosophical ramifications of our dialogue, they go so much further.

The article in question covered Kane County Circuit Clerk Tom Hartwell’s hiring of his out-of-state adult math teacher son to do some office scanning. In the end, the gig pays $9 an hour with no benefits and runs for a maximum of 235 hours.

Now, if you’re a purist like Jim, this is a problem because any elected official who hires any relative automatically exudes the appearance of impropriety. That is hard to disagree with. Were I the aforementioned Mr. Hartwell, I would not have pursued this purely on that basis alone. There are more than enough distractions out there as it is..

But the problem with purism is that purism is always a problem. Because if you fail to take mitigating circumstances into account, then it comes across as crying wolf. And once you start calling out absolutely everything, it all becomes white noise.

This job pays barely above minimum wage, I’d rather be forced to watch the grass grow, working at the windowless Clerk’s office is no one’s idea of fun, and it’s terminally temporary.

Not only that, but having been charged with securing temporary scanners for the other Clerk’s office, I can personally attest that the job market must be much better than some pundits say because my attempts at finding willing similar salary folks frequently felt like pulling chicken teeth.

There’s this too, when it comes to vital or court records, you can’t hire a screw up because that’ll come around to bite you in the butt too.

So Tom Hartwell hired his son for minimum wage because he was a known quantity for a time sensitive project. To kinda quote Harry Chapin, it’s certainly ain’t the kind of thing to make the folks write home.

Jim also rightfully posed the “where do I draw the line” quandary, asking, “Isn’t it better just to cover everything?”

First of all, no newspaper can cover everything. The manpower isn’t there. But beyond that basic limit, I would argue that editors draw that bleepin’ line every single bleepin’ day.

To wit, every last Kane County office, elected or not, is about as incestuous as it gets. Not counting the folks who met at work, the number of married couples working for the County is so far beyond the scope of random probability that it’s not even funny.

When you get past the family member thing, depending on the office, the rest of the hires are 80 to 90 percent political. Give me any department roster and I will tell you exactly which camp each employee came from. So where’s all the coverage?

Like Bill Daley said on the radio show, “not all patronage is bad,” and most editors and reporters understand that. Regardless of what we all like to say about government employees, Kane County works. So newspapers tend to avoid covering this kind of thing until a hire doesn’t work.

Thus, this is only a news story if Tom’s son screws up.

Ironically, this light patronage methodology works better than the private sector does because of the built in feedback loop. If an employee lets their “sponsor” down, that sponsor’s future recommendations are relegated to the trash bin and they know it.  So they don’t generally put forth idiots.

The third purist conundrum is that the implicit equivalency requirement sets up a virtually impossible standard.

When a previous County administration hired an utterly inexperienced, but well-connected Animal Control director at a nearly six-figure salary, no one said boo. It wasn’t until former reporter Dan Campana and I caught on to those hires that the local papers started picking up on it.

This is another really good reason you don’t want to sweat the small stuff because it looks really bad when you already missed the big stuff.

Another problem with “the same standard applies to everyone” theory is that you can no longer, as my sainted mother used to say, “consider the source.” Is the Circuit Clerk’s “crime” really the same thing as Cook County Assessor Juan Berrios hiring multiple family members at exorbitant salaries?

No it isn’t! As any judge will tell you, past history always has a bearing on the issue at hand. This, of course, means that, with the exception of the most egregious malfeasance, different standards almost always apply whether you say they do or not.

Which brings me to my final anti-purist point! If an elected official feels that a reporter is not being fair or reasonable – they’ll never forget it – so you can kiss that relationship goodbye. And a relationship-less reporter never gets the real goods.

Despite our differences, I will give Jim credit for taking a stand here because I’ve seen far too many reporters who, out of fear of future silence, become nauseatingly obsequious. But he completely missed the real story here.

And the real story is Circuit Clerk Hartwell spent only $6,863,232.24 of his allotted $7,958,359 FY2013 budget. That means he just put $1,095,126.76 right back into the Kane County coffers and that ain’t chump change.

Please take all the time you need to come up with one at least other county, state, city, school board, or township elected official who came in 14 percent under budget in the last decade… Can’t do it, can ya?

Trust me, I know that previous good deeds never absolve anyone from future screw ups, but isn’t the real news here the savings to taxpayers? And the reason I got it and the local newspapers did not was, though I’ve certainly written some tough stuff over the years, I have a reputation for a willingness to listen and being fair.

In that same regard, the one qualm I do have with the Daily Herald in general, and Jim specifically, is they tend towards the contentious and negative side of a story even if it doesn’t don’t really demand it.

So if they really felt the need to wade in on this one, what the DH should’ve done is run an editorial that acknowledged the good that Hartwell’s accomplished, the aplomb with which he’s run his office, and then said they expect more from a politician of his caliber.

But a headline that reads, “Kane County Circuit Clerk puts son on payroll*” for this non-story? That just makes a reporter’s life far more difficult and undermines the newspaper’s long-term cause.

 

* I want to make it clear that neither reporters nor columnists choose the headlines – the editors do!

One thought on “What is and isn’t news and why local newspapers are failing

  1. They actually wasted a professional’s time and the space and ink for THIS????? This is LESS than a non-story. He probably twisted his son’s arm to do it. “Hey, help me out, we need to get this stuff scanned and I can’t find anyone to do it.” He’s sure not about to get rich off this. If he survives the boredom.

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