Prairie Lights: Who will do the work newspapers once did?

Sometimes, one of the best things a newspaper can do for its readers is to assign reporters to watch paint dry.

During the years I covered City Hall for the Billings Gazette, I spent hundreds of hours so employed, and even when the process was stupefyingly boring it never seemed like a waste of time.


Ed Kemmick

These thoughts were triggered by an article in the Gazette last week, which described City Council members discussing the extent to which they should be involved in negotiations with the city’s three unions—police, fire and Teamsters.

City Administrator Tina Volek told them that all bargaining sessions are open to the public, though only people involved in the negotiations are allowed to speak. And, the story continued, “Volek compared the sessions—7 or 8 all-day sessions is the norm—to ‘watching paint dry.’”

I was told the same thing by city officials when I first started covering labor talks from start to finish, but I soon found it wasn’t true. Before I became familiar with the terminology and the processes I was indeed sometimes quite bored, and the negotiations might drift into trivialities and technicalities for hours at a time.

But as with so many other things in life, sticking it out paid dividends. The more time I spent covering labor talks, the better I became at understanding what was important and worth emphasizing, and at discerning meaningful observations from mere grandstanding and special pleading.

People on the City Council had jobs; you could hardly expect them to spend long hours monitoring labor talks. But that was my job and I enjoyed it, and I did what newspapers traditionally took pride in doing: acting as the eyes and ears of the community.

I don’t know if Volek was trying to discourage anyone on the council from sitting in on the talks, but in my experience city officials prefer to conduct negotiations in private as much as possible. They’d prefer to summarize things for City Council members rather than having any of them gain firsthand knowledge of the tedious process.

But if I was there, they and other readers could follow the talks step by step, learning not only what was included in the evolving contracts, but what had been discarded or traded away. When you’re talking about millions of dollars and the provision of essential services, these are good things to know.

Even then, it was more a personal choice than a job requirement. I covered labor talks because I managed to make the time and because I thought it was important. It also helped all my other reporting. I came to know dozens of administrators and union members quite well, and learned by osmosis a thousand and one things about how the city worked that I could not have learned any other way.

I also picked up lots of other story ideas, as inevitably happens when you spend hours talking with people. But wait, why was I talking with people when only those involved were supposed to chime in? Because the formal talks were constantly interrupted by the need to caucus—for both sides to go into private conferences to work on their strategies and discuss specific offers.

These caucuses didn’t have to be open to the public and the city teams routinely barred me from attending theirs, but the unions rarely did, until things got down to the wire and it was necessary for each side to have some surprises to spring on the other.

Often, the union teams would exhaust their own discussions and then sit and shoot the breeze while waiting for the city to end its caucus. It was during these times that I became privy to so much interesting information unrelated to the contract talks, when I learned how things worked and what went on behind the scenes in various city departments.

Here’s what worries me: There’s no way Last Best News can cover any subject in that much depth, and increasingly it is almost as impossible for the Gazette, with its never-ending cutbacks, to do so, either. And TV and radio have never even tried to provide that kind of depth.

There is a lot of “news” that can be covered in short bursts, crime and sports being especially conducive to that kind of coverage. But the nitty-gritty details, the tedious discussions and serpentine processes—all those things that might seem as interesting as watching paint dry—need to be covered, too, and covered well if we want our civic institutions to work well and to be accountable.

I hope the need for fair, thorough coverage of how things work is still there, even if changing technology is dismantling an industry that used to be organized around meeting that need.

Newspaper executives evidently have lost their way, and because they seem clueless about how to deal with a changing world, they have set their sights on getting what they can out of the industry before it collapses.

There’s so much drying paint that someone needs to watch. I hope readers will demand, and pay for, the kind of coverage that newspapers, the good ones anyway, used to provide.

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