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WOSTER: A reporter's purpose

News reporters exist to go places and witness events for other citizens who can't or don't wish to be there, I believe. Think of Mark Kellogg. I learned of Kellogg when I joined The Associated Press and read a quick history of the newsgathering c...

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

News reporters exist to go places and witness events for other citizens who can't or don't wish to be there, I believe.

Think of Mark Kellogg. I learned of Kellogg when I joined The Associated Press and read a quick history of the newsgathering cooperative. Kellogg, a Bismarck Tribune reporter, accompanied the Custer expedition to Little Bighorn in June of 1876. One online account says, "As a newspaper stringer whose reports were picked up around the country, Kellogg is considered the first Associated Press correspondent to die in the line of duty.''

Kellogg went, and the rest of us didn't have to. That's my idea of what reporters do.

In a perfect world, every citizen could attend every court hearing, emergency response or ill-fated military excursion into Montana. That isn't practical. Not every citizen can drop everything and head off to every meeting or disaster. And not every citizen wants to go to Montana with George A. Custer.

Back in the winter and spring of 1973, not every citizen could be at the Wounded Knee occupation. Not every citizen wanted to be there. So a Watertown kid named Terry DeVine and I split time there for AP, which circulated our dispatches to newspapers and broadcasters.

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Yes, reporters get paid to do that stuff. They work for newspapers or other news organizations, which are in the business of selling news. That requires news to sell, and that takes reporters, like the ones at this newspaper and others across the state and country.

It also takes readers and listeners. When I was a reporter, I sometimes had stories that were just plain fun to report and write. But without people to read them, the process would have been incomplete. I mean, it can be exciting to be on the scene. But if nobody reads the resulting dispatches, it's kind of a pointless excitement.

I used to cover many local, tribal and state meetings. Sometimes I was the only member of the public on the scene. Ideally, every citizen could have been at every meeting. I suppose that worked in the old town hall meeting days. These days, citizens sometimes can show up and sometimes can't. I don't blame them. A person can't go to everything. But a reporter in the room can represent the rest of the public. Part of the reason reporters fight so fiercely for access to meetings and records is because they're representing the rest of us.

(Part of the reason we fight that hard is because reporters tend to be a ways out of the main channel and relish a good fight, true, but the rest of the reason is because open government is kind of a big deal, if you believe at all in the First Amendment.)

I always cringed when someone would talk about open meetings or open records and use the phrase "the press and the public.'' That made it seem that reporters and citizens were two different creatures. That isn't true. If it's necessary to refer to the press, I'd prefer that the phrase be something like, "the public, including the press.''

Here's a bit of AP reporting history a longtime newspaper publisher once told me:

A group of New York City publishers formed The Associated Press in 1848. The guy telling me the story said the newspapers of that day competed to be first with news from Europe. They sent reporters to the docks to interview travelers landing from Europe. Then some enterprising paper hired a boat, rowed out to the ships before they docked, did interviews and rushed back to get the stories in the paper. Other papers, not willing to hire rowboats, hired thugs (cheaper?) to beat up the reporters returning from the ships. Pretty soon, no reporter wanted the harbor beat.

The publishers grew tired of losing reporters and formed a cooperative to share reporters and dispatches from the harbor. That's how I heard the story. If it isn't true, it should be. It sure makes more sense than having every citizen in New York City go down to the docks to be pummeled by gangs of thugs, right?

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That's what reporters are for.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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