A friend of mine once described me as a “lapsed journalist.” I corrected him and said I was a “recovering journalist.” In either case, the title gives me the credentials to tell you a story about the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota.
Last Sunday, the Forum Communications Company’s North Dakota papers ran a story written by a young reporter that was generated by a blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. (My blog, coincidentally, is hosted by Forum Communications, and shows up on the Area Voices sections of the websites of their newspapers, four of which—The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun and The Dickinson Press—are in North Dakota. It’s on their websites for now, at least. That may change after I finish writing this. I hope not, though.) In the blog post, I was pretty critical of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The issue was the list of “Special Places” the North Dakota Industrial Commission is compiling, places which may or may not get special consideration when the Commission issues oil and gas drilling permits. You can read the story here if you want to.
The story was a summary of a long interview the reporter did with the Attorney General. Wayne defended what he had been doing that I was critical of, refuted a few things I said, but generally was kinder to me than I had been to him. That’s his style, and it’s why I still kind of like him. The reporter, however, was not so kind. He summarized what my blog had said in two sentences and then wrote “Fuglie did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.”
As I said, the story ran on Sunday. Three days after he said he left me a message. Except that he didn’t leave me a message. Because I don’t have a phone at my home. When Lillian and I moved back to Bismarck in 2009, we both had cell phones, all of our friends had our numbers, and we couldn’t see wasting 50 or 60 bucks a month on a land line. So we didn’t.
Now, the fact that the story said I didn’t return the reporter’s call could have left, and probably did leave, a bad impression of me with the readers. Hmmm, Fuglie was afraid to respond to Stenehjem, or didn’t care enough to tell his side of the story, or something like that. Because the story ran on Sunday, and he got the message way back on Thursday. Surely Fuglie had time to return the call in three days.
All I know is, it really pissed me off. Not that I had much more to say (although I am usually not at a loss for words when a microphone is waved in front of my face), but that readers got a bad impression of me for not responding. So when I read the story, I found the reporter’s e-mail address and sent him an e-mail telling him I had no home phone and had never received a phone message from him. After a brief exchange of e-mails (all of which included my cell phone number) he explained that he had done something called a Lexis/Nexis search for me which turned up an old phone number which had been assigned to me back in 1982 and which was disconnected when I moved out to western North Dakota in 2004. His search showed my correct current address, with no current phone number, but it did show the old phone number listed by Lexis/Nexis with a previous address where I had lived when I had that phone number—nine years ago. So he called that number and left a message. On the voice mail of the person who now has that phone number. And then waited for me to respond. And that was the extent of his search for me, to include my comments in his story.
In his e-mail response to me, when he sent me his Lexis/Nexis search story, he ended his e-mail with “Just curious, is the other Jim Fuglie (wife Rose) a relative of yours?”
I wrote back that my wife’s name is Lillian, and that there is only one other Jim Fuglie in the whole world, my third cousin in Minneapolis, whose wife’s name is Kaye. But I puzzled over that question for a while, and then decided to become a reporter and do some investigating. I wanted to know whose voice mail he had left a message for me on. So I went to the online White Pages directory and did a reverse phone look-up for the number that used to be mine. Sure enough, it has been reassigned. To James Rose. Hmmm. James Rose. Hmmm. Jim Rose. Light bulb came on. I called the number. Got a voice mail message: “Hello, this is Jim Rose. I can’t come to the phone right now . . .” Not “Jim and Rose.” Just “Jim Rose.” Articulated very clearly. Mystery solved. I did not leave a message.
Well, that, unfortunately, has become the standard for reporting the news in North Dakota. Write a story, make a half-hearted effort to contact people named in the story, then run it. My, how things have changed since my days as a reporter and editor. My editor at the Dickinson Press once told me “It is not good enough to say someone was ‘unavailable for comment’ (which I once tried to do in a story about coal development in 1975) until you have exhausted every possibility that you might be able to track them down.” In our case, that meant staying on the phone right up until our 9:30 or 10 p.m. deadline, or driving to the bowling alley where they might be in a league, or calling their cousin in Bowman to see if he knew where the person might be. I often was able to reach someone who was a principal in a story by simply staying with the effort. And in pretty much every case, it made the story better. Sometimes, when you could not get both sides of the story, you had to just hold the story until the next day (or until Sunday), until you finally reached everybody. Not in 2013. Today, you just say “Well, we left a message for the asshole, but he didn’t call us back, so screw him.” Usually, though, I think the reporters try to make sure they leave the message at the right house. Usually. Not always. Of course, in my day there was no such thing as voice mail, so you couldn’t just say “He did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.” You actually had to keep calling back until you either reached someone or you reached your deadline.
There’s a story I used to tell reporters who worked for me, or with me, that bears repeating. It was election night, 1972 at The Dickinson Press. The entire Press staff was working the phones, tracking down election results, including a young high school senior, who was a paid part-time staffer, but I suppose would be called an intern today. County auditors in southwest North Dakota had been asked to call in the results of the election in their county. The Press was not only doing its own story, but forwarding the results to the Associated Press, which was compiling the results statewide and announcing the winners. There was a very close race for Governor between Art Link and Richard Larsen, and it was not going to be decided until every county’s results had been tabulated.
As the paper’s deadline neared, The Press staff had results from all of its assigned counties except Adams County, in extreme southwest North Dakota. There was no answer at the county auditor’s office. The office had been closed for the night and everyone gone home, without reporting in. What to do? Put the paper to bed without the Adams County results? Nope, said the editor, keep trying. We’ll hold the presses.
Well, it turns out one reporter happened to be from Adams County, and he told the young intern the auditor’s name and said to call her home. He did. No answer. Well, then, call the bars in Hettinger, starting with the Pastime, the reporter said to the intern. Sometimes they go out for a drink after they are done working.
Bingo. She was at the Pastime. She had the results in her car. She got them and gave them to the intern over the phone from the bar. With that, the story was complete and the paper went to print. In the morning, everyone knew that in spite of the fact Richard Larsen had beaten Art Link by 16 votes out of almost 2,000 cast in Adams County, Art Link had been elected Governor, by less than 5,000 votes statewide. (And, as an aside, that Byron Dorgan beat Richard Lommen for State Tax Commissioner by a vote of 1,350 to 377 in Adams County.)
It would have been easy for The Press to report “Results from Adams County were not available because the county auditor failed to report them.” Would have made the auditor look pretty bad. But the newspaper’s job is to gather the news, and report it. Not reporting it is cheating the newspaper’s subscribers, who paid to learn who won the election. And because that young high school senior, Clay Jenkinson, listened to that former Adams County resident across the desk from him, Jim Fuglie, and got back on the phone and started calling bars, earning himself the nickname “Scoop” from that day forward, the story was complete. That’s good journalism, the way it used to be practiced. And should still be. But these days, a voice mail is sufficient. Even if it is pretty clear that the voice mail was left on someone else’s phone.
In this case, the reporter tried to reach me on a Thursday. I did not respond immediately because I did not get the message. But the story did not run until Sunday. So he had Friday and Saturday to try to track me down to ask me whatever it was he was going to ask me. He didn’t do that. These days, it is pretty easy to track someone down, with all the communications devices available. I communicate regularly with a number of Forum Communications employees by e-mail and phone. I am Facebook friends with many of them, including both Bill Marcils. My e-mail is on my Facebook page. I have a comment section on my blog, which sends me an e-mail when someone comments, as he should have known, since the blog is on all the Forum Communications websites. Pretty much everyone who knows me or knows of me knows that I worked for the Democratic-NPL Party and the Medora Foundation, so they would surely know how to find me. I could go on.
But you know what? I don’t just fault the reporter. That story appeared in four North Dakota newspapers. It had to get past four city editors before it got into the papers. Every one of those editors should have said “Wait a minute, how hard did you try to reach Fuglie? Try again. The story is not complete, and you have a couple days to fix it.” But instead, they just ran with what they had. Bad journalism. Top to bottom.
To their credit, senior editors at the Grand Forks Herald, by far the state’s best newspaper, took a look at the story when it appeared in the paper and said “Well, that’s not good enough.” So they ran an editorial the next day, which you can read here. The Dickinson Press also reprinted it a couple days later. The Forum ran a correction in the paper the next day which said “A message left Thursday for former North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party executive director Jim Fuglie was left at the wrong phone number, so Fuglie did not have an opportunity to respond to a request for comment. This information was incorrect in a story on Page C1 of Sunday’s Forum about North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s effort to compile a list of ‘extraordinary places’ in the state for protection from energy development and other impacts.” I wasn’t able to get printed copies of the other three papers so I don’t know if they also ran the correction. None of them ran it on their website, where I first read the story, that I can tell.
Now, I hope readers don’t get the impression I’m feeling picked on or feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. This isn’t really about me, and it really isn’t about the young reporter who did this story. I’ve been bemoaning the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota for a long time, and this is a classic example of how the news media here operates today. Next time you read a newspaper story, and you come to the line “Fred did not respond to a request for comment” you’ll likely know that the reporter did not really make much of an effort to reach Fred, and his or her editor did not care. I am a newspaper junkie, having been raised in the profession. But I have a lot of friends who have just given up on subscribing to their local paper because of the quality of journalism they see, and have come to expect. Instead, they glance through the news online. They watch “The Daily Show” (but not the six o’clock news). Newspaper circulation continues to decline. So do television news ratings. There’s a reason. You just finished reading about it.
Footnote: A short crime story in Friday’s Bismarck Tribune, by an Associated Press writer, contained these three statements:
- The man’s attorney, Henry Howe, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
- Pembina County State’s Attorney Barbara Whelan also did not immediately return a call seeking more information on the case.
- The woman did not immediately respond to requests for comment made Thursday through Facebook. (!!!) (emphasis and exclamatory incredibility mine)
I checked online, and it ran in pretty much every paper in the state. Just like that. Apparently this is indeed the new standard for news reporting (and editing) in North Dakota. Isn’t that sad?