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The Ruttle Report - The good & the bad of small town media

"Being selective isn't in a journalist's work description." - The Ruttle Report
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I'm fortunate to say that I've enjoyed probably about 90% of my job in the 17 years that I've been doing this.

Well, 17 years as of March 27.

I've enjoyed gaining a whole different perspective on small town living, widening my knowledge on the ins and outs of all the communities of this area. Not just Outlook, but Conquest, Milden, Dinsmore, Macrorie, Birsay, Lucky Lake, Demaine, Beechy, Elbow, Loreburn, Strongfield, Hawarden, Kenaston, Hanley, Dundurn, Glenside, and Broderick.

Stories about community life. Stories about sports. Stories about school happenings. Stories about current events. Stories about local politics and issues. Stories about anniversaries. Stories about achievements. Stories about those little 'slices of life' that make everyday existence so interesting. Stories about the places, streets and neighborhoods that we all call home.

I'm so happy to be able to say that I've written all such stories and more in the years that I've been doing this.

But there can also be a dark side to this job.

If you're a news provider in a city, whether it's as a print/web journalist or a TV or radio anchor, then the odds of you running into someone who you've written about or produced a story on become much lower. However, if you live in a town of maybe 2500 people, and in a regional area comprised of smaller villages, some with a population of maybe 400 people at the most, then the odds of you running into your story subject become much, much higher.

Hey, that can be a good thing. Maybe the story was a hit, maybe the subject is grateful for the exposure, and maybe that person wants to say thank-you to the journalist in question.

The flip side of that coin is when it can be a bad or even an embarrassing thing.

I used to write a bi-weekly feature in our newspaper called the Court Report. It's pretty self-explanatory; highlights from the most recent court sessions in the Town of Outlook building, held every couple of Thursdays per month. Being a small town area, the crimes and the ensuing punishments largely ran the same. Someone drove drunk, someone got in a fight, someone broke public property, someone shot a deer on land where hunting was prohibited, that sort of stuff.

Same itinerary, different week.

But it was apparently a hit with readers, notably the Coffee Row crowds.

"Hey, did you read what that one kid got for drunk driving? Or what that woman got for breaking those fence posts? Man, those parents didn't raise those kids right!"

Over time though, it started to get to me. Especially when I came to the realization that all I was doing was publicizing the embarrassing actions of people who were mostly doing stupid things while intoxicated or angry. So one week, I just decided that I'd had enough and I stopped. Court proceedings in small towns everywhere are already open to the public unless it's stated otherwise, so if those Coffee Row gossips wanted to know what happened, then THEY could dedicate their entire Thursday mornings to it. In my mind, I was done with it. It just stopped being interesting and instead, became something of a gossip column.

Besides, in my career, I've already had my fair share of harsh news to tell that involved local people.

Like four years ago at the beginning of 2020, just before the Covid pandemic altered our world forever.

There was a troublesome issue surrounding the finances of Outlook Minor Sports, and it was discovered that the then-treasurer had misappropriated funds to the tune of almost $175,000, dating back as far as 2013. I can remember Daniel Erlandson, who was President of the minor sports board at the time, being open and honest with me during a phone interview about all that had happened, and it was really a bizarre and shocking situation that had unfolded and surprised everybody when the facts were brought to light.

It turned out that the money thefts had been successful by involving written cheques and e-transfer payments, with cheques written to the treasurer from the organization's bank account, and then there were e-transfers that weren't transferred into the account.

Erlandson shared that at that time, Minor Sports had recouped nearly $113,000 of the funds, and they were hopeful to have it all collected by the end of that January.

Now, being a small town newspaper and online media outlet, I had phone calls both at the office and on my personal time at home from people connected with this particular story, as well as a couple of in-person visits at work. Some told me not to run the story, while others gave me unrelated gossip fodder that just wasted my time. Of course, being a newspaper and news site, we ran the story after I got my interviews and all my facts straight.

I could understand the viewpoint of those deeply connected with what had happened, with some pleading with me not to run the story, but I wished that those same people would at least see things from my perspective. You're asking me to shelve the details of a very public crime in the community that affected a very sizable contingent of people and be all "hush-hush" about it, and you're expecting me to be okay with it on a professional and personal level? Sorry folks, but I have a job to do, and it doesn't involve being selective with major stories just because I know the people who are directly involved.

The news world just doesn't work that way. And it never should.

We ran the story, people bought copies of the paper in droves, and our website and social media collected gobs of traffic left and right. People were interested because those same people were invested in what was happening in their own backyard. They had a right to know what had happened, and I was grateful that I had the chance to present a story that was balanced and provided insight into what had happened.

All the same, there was some backlash against me and the paper for, well, doing our job, and a feeling of awkwardness followed for some time, but then people got over it.

Lately, those same feelings have returned because there's now a story floating around online about a young man from the Outlook area having committed some serious and disturbing crimes. I won't get into too much detail here, only that the crimes involve very young children. You can find the story on our website, not written by myself, and that's all that I choose to say surrounding that.

Just know that sometimes in our line of work, writing the harshest news takes its toll on journalists, and not just the reading public.

For this week, that's been the Ruttle Report.