November 25th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 46
Coverage and Controversy: the role of a small town paper
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Ezra Black Photo
Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta, was a close friend of Gail Sygutek before, during, and after his election when the Conservatives swept Alberta in 1981.
Pass Herald Reporter
Come closer, and I’ll tell you the best kept secret in town.

The Crowsnest Pass Herald, believe it or not, is not and has never been universally popular among every local resident.

All right, so it’s not exactly a secret. Throughout its 85 year history, the Pass Herald has seen and been a part of its share of controversy. The Herald has had differences of opinion with more than one politician or decision maker over the years, and has at times suffered either financially or in local opinion circles because of it.

There is, of course, that old variation on the Abraham Lincoln quote –– you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all of the people all the time. I could simply throw that at you and be finished. However, I think it goes a lot deeper than that, and touches on the fundamental issue of the role of a newspaper in a small community.

When I moved to Crowsnest Pass in 2005 and began working for the Pass Herald, the newspaper already carried with it a long tradition of having an opinion. That tradition continues to this day, and I’d like to help you understand why.

As a reporter, part of my job was to present local issues as impartially as I’m able to, giving space to both sides of any disagreement (and there have been many). I know that there will be people who will accuse a newspaper of bias if any space at all is given to a person or viewpoint they dislike but that doesn’t bother me because those sorts of people are everywhere. This newspaper’s articles provide both sides of council debates and other issues whenever possible.
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However, straight factual coverage is not the only job of a newspaper. There are two things that readers of any paper should be aware of.

The first is that the employees of newspapers are residents of their community in the same way anyone else is. They are invested in the well-being of the area and desire a future for the area as much as anyone else. When all of the factual, even-sided coverage is complete, they are still local residents who hold opinions about the issues they listen to and investigate every week.

Newspapers, large and small, contain sections that are devoted to these opinions. In the case of letters to the editor, these are the opinions of readers; in the case of editorials and columns, these are the opinions of the newspaper’s employees and guest writers. Opinions are a natural part of human living and society, and no one has to agree with anyone else’s.

The second thing is that these opinions matter, especially at the local level. On the federal and provincial level, there are numerous opinion-related checks and balances established related to politics and decision-making. The government is criticized by the opposition; companies are criticized by unions; corporations are criticized by watchdog groups.

On the level of local politics and government, opposition parties do not typically exist. In small towns especially, the local media is in a unique position to observe the town’s politics and provide opinions to the public about decisions that are made.

Those decisions ultimately and rightly fall upon the town’s elected representatives, as does the responsibility for any consequences. A small town paper, however, should never be afraid to criticize those decisions, to bring opinions on the issues before the public and to speak its mind.
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I would argue that such criticism is not only important but that it is central to the role that a small town paper can, should and must perform.

It’s no secret that being critical has cost the Pass Herald a certain amount of revenue throughout its history (and perhaps even more so in modern times when, surely by coincidence, councillors the paper has been critical of are the same ones who voted in favour of tendering out municipal advertising, a move that has harmed both local newspapers).
To put it plainly, the Pass Herald would have made a lot more money over the years if it had closed its mouth, kept quiet and refused to offer opinions or criticism on local happenings.

We haven’t done those things, and we don’t plan to. This isn’t because we are hateful people, and it isn’t because we sit around planning how best to make people angry. It’s simply because we are Crowsnest Pass residents with opinions to share, people who care as much as anyone else and it is simply because criticism is healthy.

This is a role that all small town papers should play. We in the media must always live up to our obligation to provide timely, factual reports of current events but we must never lose sight of our position as critics of local policy and direction. If something cannot stand up to a little criticism, after all, one must wonder why it deserves to stand at all.

For the past 85 years, the Pass Herald has not only been a lens on the community, it has also been a voice, stirring debate and forcing discussion on issues that might otherwise have been left alone or taken for granted. As we move into the future, we promise to keep talking.

We won’t please everyone all the time, but we probably wouldn’t be doing our job if we did.
November 25th ~ Vol. 85 No. 46
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