There is only one watchdog in this town

Opinion

Back in 2005 I was working as a reporter for a newspaper in the small town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It was the only paper of record in Weyburn, and much of its focus was on generating ads rather than reporting news.

My assignments were the typical types: photos at one of the elementary schools during an athletics event, local curling coverage, energy sector news, etc. I thought the reporters who stood out were the ones looking to find the truth, no matter how ugly it may be.

I was fired from that job after I had witnessed a local police officer sell cocaine to two waitresses at the local bar while he was off duty. I approached my editor professionally, informing her of what I witnessed and suggesting I attempt to purchase cocaine from the officer and secretly record the exchange. The paper responded by sending me home. They fired me the following day, and since I was only there about ten weeks, they did not have to give me a reason for my termination, but I knew why – I had attempted to disrupt the symbiotic relationship between corrupt public officials and the local media who turn a blind eye to egregious behaviour, careful not to jeopardize their share of the town’s annual advertising budget. After all, why come down hard on elected officials if it means risking profits?

The answer, of course, is ethical journalism.

So you could say I was quite surprised when last week, as it was National Newspaper Week, I saw The Valley Gazette using a lot of print ink to praise itself as being a valuable source of local news, given its track record on not holding local officials’ feet to the fire. The VG spent many years before The Current was launched not holding local representatives to task, not investigating issues that could shine a negative light on officials, all the while enjoying a monopoly on the municipality’s ad budget.

Some might say that’s just a coincidence.

Since 2018, the VG has continued to print mostly only what politicians say instead of asking “Why” or looking under the surface. In contrast, The Current has filled a void by taking seriously the obligation to be a community “watchdog” over local institutions — a role that the federal government’s Local Journalism Initiative actively promotes to compensate for the fact that small communities rarely benefit from such scrutiny.

Just as an aside, even though we are officially recognized as a news media outlet by the National NewsMedia Council, we have yet to receive one dollar from Madawaska Valley Township’s ad budget, despite several requests to be considered. We have even been refused permission to tender for it. Apparently, reporting the truth is a concept that has negative ancillary impacts, such as not piercing the monopoly the VG currently enjoys, even though the Township is well aware that The Current is operated on a not-for-profit basis and is distributed free to residents.

The VG has taken shots at us in the past including contemptuously referring to us as a “blog,” but we feel as though we can stand on our own reporting. Several big local stories since The Current’s launch were ignored by The Valley Gazette, such as Mayor Love firing the Integrity Commissioner Jack Rosien after he had told a member of council that he was about to uphold a complaint against her. Rosien then sued the Township, making serious accusations that included misspending of taxpayers’ dollars  as well as allegations which challenged the professional conduct of the Township’s lawyers. The law suit was ended with a settlement which taxpayers were not allowed to know about as Rosien was, he told The Current, required to sign a non disclosure agreement. A source told The Current that he had been paid compensation but we have not been able to verify that.

If you only read The Valley Gazette you probably did not know about that story. Which is surprising as all the sources of information The Current relied on for its reporting were also available to the VG.

A more recent example was the lack of reporting by The Valley Gazette regarding the Township Auditors’ annual financial report. The auditor spotlighted “a number of deficiencies that met the definition of a significant deficiency.” The auditor also mentioned that this was the second year of such deficiencies.

The Valley Gazette did not report on this story either, and I think readers of the Gazette should ask  why they are being kept in the dark, especially when it comes to matters that have a direct impact on the public purse.

The following question is vital to the credibility of The Valley Gazette: why are they calling themselves a “news” paper when they do not investigate and report on such important local news items? Another question I think should be posed to Gazette publisher Michel Lavigne is one he is not likely to answer – how much ad revenue has The Valley Gazette received from the Township since The Current began?

All of this takes me back to my early days as a reporter in Saskatchewan, when it became clear to me that any town with just one media outlet will inevitably become an enabler of the local government, a quiet quid pro quo that allows public officials to go unscrutinized as long as a revenue stream flows towards the outlet.

Until The Valley Gazette decides it should be a full service newspaper and not a media lap dog of local government, The Current will remain the Valley’s sole source for unbiased news complemented by investigative reporting.

Because that’s what you deserve.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Rose M Chapeskie

    How grateful we should all be for The Current, How wonderful to have someone who is not afraid to publish the truth; but why do so many residents choose to ignore the facts and just “look the other way”??

  2. Barb Cardwell

    Very well said, James! Our town desperately needed The Current so we could actually have an understanding of what our Council is really up to. I have long ended my subscription to the VG, for the very reasons you have highlighted. It was only good for finding ads for local businesses/services, not for any relevent and factual news.

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