Though I never intended this topic to become a trilogy, ya gotta go where the evidence takes you. But before we continue down this path, let me clearly state for the record that my recent critique of the local press is an effort to ensure their survival and not to seek the opposite.
Because if those smaller newspapers really do fade away, all those suddenly elated city councils will immediately revert to freezing out the public and doing whatever the bleep they want.
Of course, the irony is, those charged with “encouraging” elected officials to improve their behavior generally don’t take it very well whenever that constructive criticism is redirected at them.
So, just to be on the safe side, before I put fingers to keyboard, a former long-time managing editor and I discussed what we’re about to discuss for a full 45 minutes. And even though we came at it from two very different directions, we both ended up in the same place.
I said the local press doesn’t know how to pick their battles and he said, “Forget the five W’s – who, what, where, when, why and sometimes how – too many journalists forget to ask the question, ‘So what?’”
Both statements basically amount to the same thing.
But moving on to the subject at hand, this time we’re talking about the out-of-the-blue Courier-News story on the Attorney General’s determination that the Elgin Council did not violate the Open Meetings Act when they went into executive session to decide whether they’d fill former alderman Anna Moeller’s vacant seat.
The first problem is, I read that piece four times and, with no context, couldn’t figure out what the heck the reporter was trying to say. Part of it was the writing, but it seemed kinda strange to answer a question that nobody asked.
In pursuit of clarity, I called Mayor Kaptain who explained that, as a result of Councilman Terry Gavin’s “persuasion,” the Courier and Daily Herald questioned the City as to whether it was appropriate for the council to go into executive session to discuss the process of appointing an alderman.
While the Open Meetings Act certainly allows you to kick everyone out of the room to discuss a person or persons, you cannot close that door to debate policy or take a final vote.
Elgin Corporate Counsel Bill Cogley did his best to convince both papers that the council did, indeed, discuss specific aldermanic applicants, but that didn’t stop one or both of them from going to the Illinois Press Association (IPA). Though, oddly enough, the Courier makes no mention of who actually took it to Lisa Madigan’s office. One would assume it had to be the IPA.
And the fact that all of that information was missing from the story is somewhat strange.
Then, once the Courier and/or Daily Herald picked this battle, they refused to fight it. I suppose you could choose to take something to the IPA based solely on the fact you think it’s a violation, but given the papers’ precarious staffing situation, that seems like a waste of time.
So you read the story and say “So what?”
Ah! But if you realize that real battle was the Elgin City Council majority probably used the letter of the Open Meetings Act law to minimize Councilmen Gavin and John Prigge’s insistent chest thumping, self-aggrandizing, and time wasting efforts by taking it indoors, well, now you’re on to something.
To be perfectly clear, were I on that city council, I would’ve done the same goddamn thing because what regular folks don’t understand is you have to fight blatant obstructionism with every goddamn tool in the book. And this executive session was a great way to do it.
But without being willing to stake your claim and provide that background, once again, before you pursue this “violation” – or run a story on it – ya gotta ask yourself, “So what?”
And for the City to be exonerated of all charges with no real newspaper context ever being offered makes the local press look kind of inept.
Enlightened by our three day analysis, I can suddenly see why politicians and elected officials are so frustrated with the local newspapers. Stories run that aren’t really news while the real news doesn’t get covered nearly enough. Bad news generally gets hyped while the good news doesn’t make it in and reporters’ efforts sometimes seem somewhat random.
So my short-term final word to all those hardworking reporters and their editors out there is to pick your battles. And, as my former editor friend said, the best way to do that is, whenever you’re considering a story, forget about the five W’s and ask yourself, “So what?”
And if you can’t answer that question…