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Stories Undone: Putting the nuance in news, what’s up with OSAP, and smack comes back

Bilbo Poynter

Putting the Nuance in News (We’ve been here before . . .)

One of the most frustrating things to hear back as an intrepid reporter from an editor is that, ‘we’ve already done a story on [fill in the blank], so we’re going to pass on this.’ This is a situation that I’m sure very many reporters have heard from editors – both staffers in newsrooms and freelancers alike.

For freelancers, especially, this can be a deadly stopgap while trying to get a story out. Generally speaking, a freelancer will need to identify what types of stories a publication or outlet runs? Determine whether they’ve done stories like the one the reporter is proposing? What’s the tone? Will their story fit?

The idea is that generally you’ll approach an editor because they have done stories like yours before – the idea is to offer something unique in order to advance what we know about a topic.

There are a lot of pressures on editors. They juggle deadlines (theirs and others), competitive pressures, egos (theirs and others), and budgets.  That’s a lot to juggle. And they have to make many of these decisions very quickly. This is simply a reality of the news biz. But news is not a blunt force instrument (well it doesn’t have to be), and I think it’s in everyone’s interest that we look for more nuance in what we do, and the stories we mean to tell.

I don’t mean that innuendo or inference should take the place of fact. I mean never losing sight of  how events don’t typically exist in a vacuum, and so, chances are, if your news organization has done four months of stories on a general topic, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done every possible story on that topic.

News, by definition, is about chronicling unfolding or noteworthy events, and so when a reporter hears back that a news outlet is going to pass on a story because the outlet has already done stories on that topic – unless the reporter is simply rehashing already covered material – what is likely happening is that one of the other pressures is in play; more than likely it’s a mercenary decision about resources – having too few resources to take a chance on something by someone new. But it can also be about what an editor feels deep down about a subject’s worth. It’s that imprecise.

What’s the Deal with OSAP?

It seems that OSAP (the Ontario Student Assistance Program), the funds that many students in Ontario are dependent on in order to continue with their post-secondary education, may be harder to qualify for, and provides less than it used to in basic living costs than it has historically. There is even some anecdotal evidence that it is no longer providing the entire cost of tuition in some cases. If true, this strikes me as incredible! Am I overselling it editors? Okay, if not incredible, than it’s definitely newsworthy.

What’s the use of a program meant to lift disadvantaged would-be students into educational opportunities if it doesn’t even cover the base costs of that education? If this is the case, when did this start happening?

Student debt load has the potential to become a major issuein the years ahead. So a story about the success or failure of the student loan   program in Canada’s most populace province (with the most post-secondary institutions) would go a long way to explaining a phenomenon that tens of thousands go through every year.

Smack Story Comes Back

There has been a steady trickle of stories recently about how heroin is starting to replace OxyContin as the drug of choice in several communities in Ontario, and elsewhere in recent weeks. This is the predicted fallout from the decision to discontinue the easy to break or crush OxyContins in Canada. The CCIR, which I co-founded with investigative reporter Alex Roslin, did several stories tracking the flow of heroin from the fields of Afghanistan to the streets of Europe and ultimately North America, made possible by the war in Afghanistan. We had a hunch that heroin would start to flow more readily here, and were able to demonstrate that, in fact, since 2007, it’s been steadily climbing. So when OxyContin was discontinued earlier this year, it seemed certain that smack would be back. Alex, though, pointed out how, so far, none of the mostly local accounts have ventured where the heroin is coming from.

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