The following commentary has been written by Derek Ruttle, reporter/photographer/columnist for The Outlook:
I love my job.
I know that’s the stock thing that so many people say, but I truly do love my job.
I do for a living what I’ve wanted to do for a living since I was a kid; I get paid to write. More so, I get paid to write about everything going on in the community area that I grew up in. Not many reporters can say that, as they often leave journalism school and simply go where the work is.
But then the events of this past week happened. To put it mildly, my patience has been tested to its limits.
I won’t bore you with the finite details all over again in this space, I’ll simply refer you to the response we received from the Town of Outlook, whether it’s in the pages of this newspaper or on our website.
The nuts and bolts of it are that we were interested in running a Q&A section with the Mayor of Outlook, so we emailed Ross Derdall a list of eight detailed questions. Eleven days later, the response we received back from the Town of Outlook was a motion that was made at the March 27 council meeting that labeled our tactics as “malicious”. Not only that, but the Town intended to notify our higher-ups in Prairie Newspaper Group of said “malicious tactics”.
Well, we kind of beat them to the punch in that last part because we called up one of our higher-ups in PNG ourselves and received his full support.
And I must clarify that by ‘response’, I mean that in the most technical and stripped-down definition of the word in the sense that we received *something* back, because in no way, shape or form did any of our questions get answered.
Unless you received the Town’s newsletter included in the most recent water bills that were sent out, in which case they did address the matter of in-camera meetings. I guess one out of eight ain’t bad!
To say that my colleagues and I were flabbergasted at the reaction from the Town would be an understatement. We fail to see what is malicious about a community newspaper asking questions pertaining to the goings-on of said community. Are the questions tough? Absolutely! That’s because the tough questions sometimes need to be asked, and when it comes to the Town of Outlook, it’s been perhaps long overdue for these kinds of issues to be addressed by the people who were elected to be in such positions to address them.
Instead, what we have is a local government that appears to have an issue with the local newspaper doing its job, and for the life of us, we simply don’t know why.
Perhaps there is an issue being taken with the way we tried to go about asking questions, in this case by email. Well, the only response I can give to that is this; if we had sat down with the Mayor face-to-face and asked these questions, would we have gotten anything, other than perhaps a look of shell shock? My guess is no, and so by calling ahead, telling him what we wanted to do, and acquiring his email address, we were able to craft detailed questions speaking to a myriad of topics and issues in this community. If he needed a few days or maybe even a week to gather his thoughts and respond, so be it. We were told our questions would be taken to council, and that was perfectly fine by us because we understood that different perspectives on different topics might’ve been required.
And now you know the rest of the story.
We posted the response, as well as our original questions and a timeline of events to our website and Facebook page, void of any editorializing or additional commentary. We were delighted to find that the article, as the kids today like to say, “went viral”. On top of that, the feedback and response from the public has been largely in support of what we were trying to accomplish.
We’ve even had requests for comment from other media outlets across the province, but our response to those requests was simple; we directed them to contact the Town if they so choose, and if we were going to give a response of any kind, it would be in our medium, meaning the pages of our newspaper and on our website and social media page.
For the incredulous and overwhelming support, my colleagues and I are grateful, and we thank those who’ve reached out to us. We didn’t ask for this bizarre and almost hostile situation, but all the same, we’re humbled by the response of our readers and the public, as well as the support from our media contemporaries across the province and beyond.
I don’t really know where things go from here. In the meantime though, we’re going to move on and keep doing what we do here at The Outlook because there are so many other stories to tell out there. In this particular matter, we tried, and we ended up getting nowhere. Oh well. It happens. Life goes on.
If I do have one concrete thing to say to the elected officials in this town, it’s that it’s high time for the ‘rose-colored glasses’ to be removed when it comes to the customer satisfaction of many of Outlook’s taxpaying citizens. Everything is not hunky-dory out there. We didn’t sit around in a circle and concoct these tough questions to attack anyone, we compiled them because this is what’s being talked about around town, and these are the issues that people bring to us in the hopes that we ask the tough questions to begin with.
If you really want to know where this all starts with me, I’ll tell you what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, at least from my own personal perspective. During the March 13 town council meeting that I attended, the topic moved over to the town lagoon. During the discussion, councillors began sharing their thoughts and views on the matter. Soon enough, one councillor spoke up and said that the matter should be moved to in-camera talks, which everyone else eventually agreed to. The rest of the meeting went on as usual, but inside, I was quite upset. The vibe in the room on that night went from “spirited discussion on important issues” to “We better clam up because Derek’s here”. This has happened a multitude of times over the years, but it was this particular instance where I personally felt so unwelcome in an environment, all because I’d chosen to give up select Wednesday evenings to take notes and report back to the public.
Upon telling my coworkers of my experience, this got the ball rolling to the point where we decided to come up with questions with the intention of presenting a special Q&A section to our readers and the public, and like I’ve said already, you know the rest of the story.
It’s been said to me by one person who sides with the Town on this matter that some of our questions contained false and misleading information. That remains to be seen, but even if that’s the case, then would it not be even more imperative for the Town to actually answer them in the first place? To get the right facts out there, and help present the overall big picture on certain topics and issues?
This same person also suggested to me that the “shameful” approach we took in trying to acquire answers ultimately got the response we were looking for, insinuating that we actually somehow engineered this ridiculous, bizarre situation.
People, we simply wanted some answers to some questions. Nothing more, nothing less.
The resolution that council passed at the March 27 meeting included the verbiage that the newspaper “is not in the position to answer inquiries such as these.” I couldn’t agree more; we’re in the position to MAKE inquiries such as these, and the Town is in the position to ANSWER them.
We wouldn’t ask the tough questions if we didn’t think Outlook’s elected officials could handle them. As it turns out, it would appear that, at least on the surface of things, they can’t.
I should also point out that after the most recent public meeting organized by the Town that was held on January 30, our coverage of the event was criticized for being essentially “too nice”. I suppose that’s fair, but I could only present what I’d seen and heard. Whether the answers to questions or the information provided that night satisfied anyone is perhaps another matter.
I’ve covered town council meetings for two and a half years, and to my direct knowledge, there has been only one instance where I got something wrong as it related to printing information related to a motion or a bylaw. When it happened, we printed a correction and life went on. Hey, it happens. Once in a span of 2.5 years is pretty good odds.
More so, The Outlook has been something of an institution for over 110 years, dating back to the very beginnings of the community itself. Newspapers that are “malicious” simply don’t survive for that long.
It is my personal opinion that the Town of Outlook overstepped the bounds of common decency by labeling us as malicious, as well as attempting to sic the proverbial hounds on us by saying they would send a letter to our superiors. This entire situation has become the living definition of making a mountain out of a molehill, and The Outlook is not the one who has made this scenario worse.
It’s never been more important in this day and age for community newspapers and local governments to work together and foster a strong relationship to ensure that the truthful facts and information are released to the public. That’s what we’ve always wanted from this administration. Contrary to what some may believe, we’re not the enemy. In fact, we’re a resource. Use us! Put us in, Coach, we’re ready to play!
At the end of it all, what we were looking for was the Town of Outlook to practice their go-to phrases of ‘openness and transparency’, and we wanted some answers to some tough questions by the people whose responsibility it is to answer the tough questions, but that didn’t appear to be in the cards in this matter.
Maybe next time.