I have been following the disappearance of 11-year-old Celina Cass since the day she disappeared with interest. It happened in a place I love (the North Country), and it closely resembled a story I covered (the disappearance of Krista Dittmeyer). Each day I’d check the local media and Facebook for updates, and I often heard the latest on NHPR as I drove to work.
Four months ago, when it was Krista Dittmeyer who disappeared, I sent NHPR a note to see if they wanted anything about it. No thanks, they responded, we don’t really cover crime.
I was happy about that, after seeing the television news crews salivating for the latest details (usually gleaned from my reporting in the Sun). I cover crime, but I don’t see day to day coverage of it really adding value to readers’ lives. It’s about feeding their interest, not informing them—probably important from the business side of things, but from the journalistic side of things not that valuable.
But when it came to Celina Cass, NHPR was on it. They had repeated stories about her, right down to when the Attorney General’s office announced it was her body they pulled from the Connecticut River.
I’m not sure anything really changed, however. They have a staff reporter up north, and he had a story to cover. He would have been covering something else if not her disappearance, so they took whatever he could offer.
I, on the other hand, would have been an extra expense. As a stringer, I get paid for what airs. If I covered the Dittmeyer disappearance for them it would have been a hit to their budget. Some part of it may have come down to money.
But also some part of it may have been staff. A few weeks ago I got a note from NHPR saying their news director had left. He’d been there 11 years, and I’d worked for him for two and a half. He’d been the one who got behind my trip to Iraq, and he’d been a great guide on how to improve my radio reporting. Perhaps his news judgement in part effected those decisions.
But ultimately what I take away from this is that reporting is a business, even when that business is a non-profit. There is a bottom line, and every decision that costs money has to be carefully considered. I see that at the Sun too, where business decisions have to be made. If I had a week to dive into every story I wanted to I could do fantastic work, but that isn’t an available luxury. I sometimes have a day to do a story, sometimes a few hours.
At the Reporter I was far enough removed from business decisions to be oblivious to them, but at the Sun, where I walk past the ad people and the publisher every day, I get to peek into their world.
Reporters are free from financial restraints, at least at a well-run paper like the Sun, as I’m sure they are at a well-run station like NHPR. But their impact still makes it into reporting, even if its in a roundabout way like choosing not to cover a big story or a complex story because you don’t have the resources. It’s interesting to see, and something I wouldn’t have noticed were I not on the inside.