By BILL THOMAS
---- — A measure of a newspaper's value to its community is the quality of its public service reporting. That's why the recognition last week of our reporter Brian McGillivary for his coverage of Meijer Inc.'s skullduggery in Acme Township is significant to us in the Record-Eagle newsroom.
Reporting on crucial public affairs issues truly is what journalism, specifically newspaper journalism, is all about. Many newspapers — and broadcast outlets for that matter — have opted to feed readers a daily menu of fluff. It's safer, easier and, frankly, less expensive to pedal pabulum.
Journalists have a responsibility, though, to look beyond the flood and noise of daily events to probe their meaning and analyze their consequences.
We don't do it for awards; we do it because it's our job. It's what an informed readership expects us to do.
Still, I'd be less than candid if I didn't acknowledge that peer recognition is rewarding. It most certainly is. As Bill Ketter, our vice president of news and himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, said in our page one story today, it's "affirmation" of our role as reporters, photographers and editors.
The award from the Society of Professional Journalists for McGillivary's work and that of Mike Tyree, his editor and driving force behind our local news reporting, is a richly deserved honor.
It validates their tireless work to get at the truth behind the Grand Rapids-based retailer's secret, illegal election campaign to rid itself of local government opposition to a development plan. The deeper they dig and report, the more Acme Township residents will understand what went on behind their backs.
We've made public service reporting a critical centerpiece of our local news coverage mission. Some of the most notable works — in addition to the SPJ award-winner — are:
-- Associate Editor Loraine Anderson's two-year research and reporting project in which she pieced together the 150-year history of the Record-Eagle by chronicling for our readers the development and growth of the Grand Traverse region. Her work recently received a first-place award for public service reporting from the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association.
-- Reporting by McGillivary and Business Editor Bill O'Brien on the financial fiasco surrounding the county's septage treatment plant albatross. Their diligence earned a first-place honor this year for sustained news coverage from the Michigan AP.
-- And our reporting and commentary projects a few years ago focusing on accountability of area public officials and transparency of the agencies they oversee. The Record-Eagle received the Michigan Press Association's Public Service Award for those efforts.
Certainly, there is a downside to what's known in the business as "watchdog reporting." Those being watched don't like the scrutiny; they use any means possible to ward off inquisitors.
In our case, politicians and their cronies literally tried to run us out of town, lawyers filed or threatened to file frivolous and expensive lawsuits and the perpetrators of wrongdoing pulled advertising to economically punish us.
But their attempts to shut us down and dodge the spotlight failed.
The reason? Readers want the information and they expect their newspaper to provide it.
Bill Thomas is editor of the Record-Eagle.