Best: If we don't have local news what we will have is people in City halls cranking out press releases

By Pepper Parr

August 30th , 2023



Earlier this month we did a piece on Bill Kelly’s radio program on what was his last broadcast from CHML. A part of that program included a conversation between Kelly and John Best, Editor of the Bay Observer. The two have known and worked with each other for years.

Best made a comment on what media was like – and what it is like today. We set that out below and then write about how media is “managed” by the Communications department in Burlington.

John Best, Publisher of the Bay Observer

John Best: “But if we don’t have local news Bill, what we’re going to have is all these people in City halls cranking out press releases that we all get by the dozens: there will no longer be any kind of an observing filter. It’ll simply go from the PR people directly to the public, and at some point it will be taken as gospel.

“And that’s really dangerous. That’s almost Orwellian to guys like me that have worked around the media for most of our adult lives. The concern is that the answers are not readily at hand.

“There was a time when they were reporters. I mean, they were people that were employed to go out and get the story to talk to the newsmakers to report on this.

“But when newsrooms are decimated as they have been, especially as you say in some small markets with local news, the people that are left, and there’s not that many of them, have no choice but to simply, you know, reprint the press releases that the politicians or others are putting out.

“The few reporters that are left don’t have time to question – basically all they’re doing is repeating the spin that these people are putting on it. And that’s not good for the public. That’s not good for us to be informed and know what’s going on. There’s a valuable piece of that that’s starting to erode right now and I think we all need to be concerned about the implications of that.

“Reporters actually speak to people, to ask them questions and get answers and you can’t do it all by email, and text. It’s too impersonal and you don’t get to the truth. If you can’t look people in the eye when you’re asking them questions you probably don’t have a news story.”

The comments John Best made sum up what the Gazette has to deal with from the City hall communications department.

If I sent a note to a city staff member – I get an answer from the Communications people who offer to get me an answer.

There is rarely an opportunity to actually talk to a staff member. At a Performing Arts event recently I ran into a person I used to have lunch with – the person was always very responsive when questions were asked.

But at the Performing Arts event the comment was “I am not allowed to talk to you.” We once got the same from a member of Council. That one stunned me. When the Council member was running for office we met frequently and talked about his plans. He wrote two Opinion pieces for the Gazette.

That Council member turned out to be a major disappointment – there was hope when an election campaign was taking place but it didn’t take long for people to realize that there wasn’t much to the image – he ended up becoming a lap dog for the Mayor.

Council did formally recognize and support free press day. That was the equivalent of a Mayor who talked up her experience as a journalist but has yet to hold a wide open media event. Her preference is to appear on programs that will never ask her a hard question,

This approach to the managing of how the city decides to work with media comes right from the top. City Manager Tim Commisso determines what the policy is going to be.

He basically continued the practice that James Ridge had in place.

While individual members of Council have their issues with Commisso – they have not taken any steps to open up the way the city hands out information. They like it the way it is.

Some Councillors, early in their first term of office, were a bit forthcoming. One got into the practice of talking about matters that were discussed in closed sessions of council. This kind of thing is like icing on a chocolate cake for a reporter – but you have to be very very careful when you get this kind of information.

You don’t want to burn the source.

We work from the premise that an informed society can make informed decisions. People in Burlington do talk about what they don’t like – but they seem to need time to figure out what to do. Rarely does a candidate lose office after just one term; the exception would be Cam Jackson who was out the door after four years.

Burlington is in the process of going through a very significant change. There will be thousands of people who will live in apartments many of whom will use GO trains to get to where they work. Their involvement in local community events might turn out to be limited.

The current City Council

Gifted leadership learns what drives a community; what people want and what they don’t want and has the communication skills to build bridges between the different points of view.

Burlington doesn’t have that kind of leadership and there is no one on the current council that shows signs of having the royal jelly.

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