I have to acknowledge a random stranger for some motivation and inspiration.
Last Tuesday I was in Frankfort, and while I waited for Mike Haydon’s memorial service to begin, a man behind me was engaged in a conversation that piqued my interest.
The word “scrutiny” is what drew me in.
The man, who I didn’t know, was telling those around him that now was a good time to do something because there was less scrutiny than in the past because newspapers were going broke.
Now, let me put a few things out there before I dissect what I heard.
One, like I said, I don’t know who this man is. I’m certain that he’s not a state senator or a state representative. I’ve looked through pictures of all of them.
Two, I don’t know if he’s associated with government in any way, nor do I know if he’s a businessman, farmer or dentist.
Three, I didn’t catch what the thing was that he was referring to. But to me, that doesn’t matter.
Here is my issue: Someone out there thinks that something that used to garner scrutiny from the media is now easier to do because newspapers are going broke, and this person is passing that information along casually in conversation.
The man had no idea I am a reporter. My back was to him and my camera was in front of me. The reporter’s notebook that is usually in my back pocket was concealed in an inside pocket of my sport coat.
When I used my camera to take pictures of the memorial service, his conversation grew quieter. He started whispering to those around him. It might not have been because he figured out his gaffe, but I’d like to think it was.
There are several things about this scenario that bother me.
Someone out there is rejoicing that the newspaper industry is dying because now it’s easier to do something because no one is looking. Does that bother anyone else except me? People are happy because they can more easily get away with something?
Let’s just pretend that this man works for the government, or that he was advising someone that something in government is easier to do because of less scrutiny from the newspaper.
We all pay taxes: local taxes, state taxes and federal taxes. Where do those taxes go? They go to the government: local, state and federal.
There are numerous negative associations with taxes, but there is one amazing thing that comes as a result from paying taxes. We get to see how that money is spent. We, as citizens, have access to how government money is spent. For instance, if you wanted to see the salaries for anyone in the local government, you could do that. If you filed an open records request with any government office requesting employee salaries, you would be entitled to those numbers.
You can’t do that for private companies, but you can for government employees. That’s just an example, don’t think I’m on a witch hunt about local government employee salaries. I’m not.
The point is, you have access to government documents. Reporters and editors aren’t the only people that can request those documents.
This includes police records, nursing home inspections, environmental reports, property values and on and on and on.
Open records can help reporters and citizens better understand government. Why just take the word of government officials? You can look at information and make your own decisions.
And, now that I’ve been privileged enough to overhear this man’s conversation, I plan to use open records to our advantage more often.
This newspaper doesn’t plan to lay down and avoid critiquing something or someone that needs it.
As for going broke: yes, some newspapers obviously are.
Too many great newspapers have either reduced the number of days they publish or cease to exist altogether.
Newspapers have felt the sting of a poor economy like most industries.
But we, The Springfield Sun, are still here.
I wish I were more brazen on the day I overhead this.
I wish I had found out who the man was and where he worked.
What I wouldn’t do to know who he is and pull an old-fashioned investigation on any paper trail I could find with his name on it.
Surely someone that rejoices in a lack of scrutiny has something that could be uncovered by some strong reporting.
But, I wasn’t that brazen. And now I have to keep my eyes open for others who may be excited that “newspapers are going broke” and that the power of the press is dying.
Until then, I’ll keep my ears open. When readers call or write in with news tips, I’ll look into them. When something seems askew, I’ll ask the right questions.
For this newspaper, the days of serving as a public watch dog and providing needed scrutiny are far from over.