The Source and The Story: Lessons Learned in Hyperlocal Reporting

Nearly two years ago, early in 2010, I heard a rumor. As a longtime Downers Grove resident, and then a hyperlocal blogger, hearing rumors was part and parcel of almost every day. This rumor, however, was detailed, specific and the source was unimpeachable.

But The Source was a government official, and didn't want to be named. The Source was concerned about what would happen once The Story was revealed. I brooded over it for a few months, and later that summer, I submitted a tremendously-wide Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to mine documentation, wanting to confirm details without exposing The Source of The Story.

I was new to the ethics of such undertaking and, with no editor or mentor to guide me, was naive and inexperienced. I wanted to do the right thing, and protect my source and tell the story. I wanted to learn The Truth.

As it turns out, I never got the document I was seeking. What I received instead was a mishmash of internal memos and something completely unexpected: evidence of an internal investigation in the Downers Grove Police Department, one involving a hyperlocal website other than my own.

I read cell phone records, internal investigative reports, commentary, timelines and quotes documenting who said what. I was shocked by the amount of effort and concern a department would spend - like a witchhunt, really - to squash what it didn't want its employees to reveal to a reporter.

And I did nothing.

Since taking an interest in what happens in Downers Grove and reporting on it, I mark my silence as one of my most regrettable mistakes.

I don't know how many times I've thought about it these past two years. Countless hours. I wondered if I should report it. (And if so, how?) But The Story was old, and getting older, and, well, I didn't have the energy for it. Or so I thought.

I've spoken with colleagues, looking for guidance. What is The Story, really? That a village employee may or may not have broken departmental policy, and spoken with a reporter without permission? Not a story. It happens all the time. Maybe if I had learned about it when it actually happened, it might be worth a story. But this late in the day? Naaah. Old news.

In the two years since I read those documents, I've continued to note a tightening in the control of information released from the Village of Downers Grove.

I once interviewed a police sergeant about domestic violence and a department spokesman joined us. I've interviewed Village department heads - and you'd think they could handle simple questions - and the director of communications is always there.

Once, I was doing something village-y and casually spoke to an employee who told me a great story, in passing. I stopped him and told him who I am ... and the look of panic on his face remains with me. He begged (and I use that word decidedly) me not to repeat what he had said, especially to anyone who mattered.

In truth, his story didn't carry consequence. His reaction did. His concern that he had somehow spoken out of turn mattered far more than what he said. It was the look he gave me, and the knowledge he knew ... that the Village might conduct an internal investigation simply because an employee spoke to a reporter.

I want The Story, but not at the expense of an innocent. That undoubtedly makes me a crappy reporter. Columnist. Blogger. Whatever.

These are government agencies, funded by taxdollars. They place restrictions on employees talking to the media. I understand the need to communicate a unified message. However, municipal government does not risk national security if a public works employee speaks, without a chaperone, to a reporter.

Recently, I FOIA'd the Village of Downers Grove for documents concerning another controversy, and I found a letter written by an affected resident, who is also a village employee. He wrote concerns, in an email to Village council members, about speaking up. As I read that letter I thought, well now, here it is again.

One of the reasons I've mourned the loss of TribLocal - besides losing a paying gig as a "TribLocal Blogger"- is because my community lost a reporter, backed by the power and might of the Chicago Tribune. Then, heads lifted and sphincters tightened when a reporter from the Tribune called on small town government. There was an aura of authority that followed from the Tribune's long history, even its youthful hyperlocal division.

In a time when Patch is busy running contests about who has the best pizza in town, and when the local paper is run by Gatehouse Media, and when the Tribune fills its TribLocal pages with crap written only God knows where, or by whom ... what, then, do residents of a small town rely upon for news coverage?

Who is responsible for the news? Or filtering through the rites and rituals of public relations? Why do we need reporters anyway?

Maybe if I discovered the police department investigation when it was occurring, I could have made a difference. We could have, as a community, talked about what we expect from local government in terms of transparency and allowing dissension among ranks. We could have discussed whether it's appropriate for local government to invest time and money - launching an internal investigation - when an employee comments on a local blog. Maybe, we could have changed the atmosphere, so sources aren't afraid to talk to a reporter.

Anyway, this is all old news. And I'm sure will continue to be.

Filed under: Opinion, politics


Leave a comment
  • You sound pretty dejected, but I find this post really inspiring. I had a one-on-one meeting with my Alderman at City Hall last week and learned the nuance of a local problem. I wasn't going to blog about it because I didn't think it would make a difference, but you changed my mind.

    Thank you, Lucy! Keep up your great work!

Leave a comment