In three years on the media beat, I’ve never seen more public backbiting among a reporting crew than on the Elk Run story. The Rochester Post-Bulletin tweaks Finance and Commerce. MedCity News pokes the Star Tribune. A Star Tribune reporter wonders why the Post-Bulletin, Finance and Commerce and MedCity News reporters are “voicing their personal opinions.”
Elk Run is worth chattering about: a headline-grabbing billion-dollar-plus biotech-focused development just north of Rochester in Pine Island. That carrot made the state accelerate a $40-45 million interchange to the 2,300-acre development. Another $1.8 million in economic development funds has already been forked over.
Elk Run’s biotech “angel,” investor Steve Burrill, initially pledged to have the $1 billion by the end of last year. A few weeks ago, he told MedCity News reporter Thomas Lee he’d have the money by early October. Two weeks later, he told the Star Tribune’s Wendy Lee of a “firm commitment” that would close by the end of the year.
A day later, Burrill’s company issued a press release stating “there can be no guarantees about the actual outcome at this point.”
After the latest Burrill walk-back, three reporters weighed in with criticism. Thomas Lee said Burrill “should avoid meaningless timelines and using phrases like ‘firm commitment’ and ‘we’re at the goal line.’” The Rochester Post-Bulletin’s Jeff Hansel posited Burrill was “leaving the door open in the event he fails.” Finance and Commerce’s Arundhati Parmar said Burrill “has a penchant for jumping the gun.”
This was all too much for Wendy Lee, who blogged:
A person I was having lunch with today asked me what was the benefit of these reporters voicing their personal opinions on Elk Run. Well…that’s why I’m keeping mum.
She has every right to do so, but I don’t share her tacit objection. As long as journalists rely on their reporting and the public record to draw conclusions, the benefit is clearer dot-connecting.
“It’s not me just blowing hot air,” says Thomas Lee, who preceded Wendy Lee as the Strib’s Elk Run reporter (and whose MedCity stories appear on MinnPost). “I’d like to think I’m doing a public service by pointing out Burrill’s inconsistency. At the Strib, I’d have to find somebody to say that. This is the type of journalism we should come to expect — watchdog journalism, skepticism.”
There was too little of that Sept. 16, when Strib editors put Wendy Lee’s “firm commitment” story on the front page with the headline “Bio-tech project: $1 billion is in the offing.”
The reportage did note the project had been “riddled with delays,” but didn’t mention Burrill’s timeline had shifted three months in just two weeks. Yes, a(nother) billion-dollar Burrill promise is news, but was at best an unconfirmed claim that merited less effusive packaging.
For whatever reason, the Strib did not report Burrill’s news-release retreat for another week — six days after Thomas Lee and Jeff Hansel blogged it. And even then, the news appeared in Wendy Lee’s blog, not the paper.
Wendy Lee deferred comment to her editor, Thomas Kupper, who emailed, “We feel we’ve accurately reported Elk Run’s progress and appropriately noted the shifting timeline. It’s a potentially important project, and we’ll continue to cover it aggressively.”
When it comes to reporting styles, I think there’s room for cards-to-the-vest types like Wendy Lee and cards-on-the-table types like Thomas Lee. Some readers and sources prefer the “objective” approach, but we’re best served by multiple truth-seeking strategies.
Increasingly, editors try to find the best of both worlds. Finance and Commerce editor Scott Fagerstrom — whose publication recently reinstated a pay wall — says he has “started requiring reporters to write columns as well as news stories, to do analytical writing of the sectors they cover and, frankly, discover their personalities.”
One F&C reporter who’s taken this to heart is Parmar, who covers the development aspect of technology. In her Elk Run stories, she’s beaten the P-B and Strib, breaking stories about a landowner filing a foreclosure notice against project developer Tower Investments, and about a project manager violating the law in a land-sale deal (earning a $2,500 state fine).
In her columns, Parmar has not been afraid to bleed on the page, and it’s a fascinating litmus test of how personal you think journalism should be. In September, she blasted Tower and local politicians after learning the developer invited only the P-B and the Strib to a public-official-heavy briefing. In a column alleging she was “deliberately” excluded, Parmar began:
Every few years my husband says, “Let’s move to Hong Kong or Singapore.”
And every few years, I have the same answer: “No way.”
He knows why. Those places have no First Amendment, and as a result, very little transparency or accountability.
Sucked me in. She continued:
I didn’t expect to win any popularity contests when I decided to become a journalist. But I did expect a level of transparency from government officials. In reporting the Elk Run story in the last few months, I have encountered government officials who withheld answers to some questions or refused to talk altogether, and in one case, accused me of “yellow journalism,” even though no one has pointed out a major error in any of my reporting on Elk Run. But deliberately excluding a reporter from an event is a first.
The sort of self-indulgence rolls eyes in traditional newsrooms, but I found the column heartfelt, and a justifiable warning shot (even if it needed a comment from Tower).
“This was a personal plea for government to open up,” Parmar explains. “I don’t have anything personal invested in this project, but there’s a big public aspect, and I don’t see any reason to exclude a reporter.”
Fagerstrom — who says he would pull anything with personal animus or bias — says, “I don’t think it’s controversial that reporters want as much access to the situation as they can get. That’s what the column is all about.”
It was the second time Parmar risked becoming the story. In July, Hansel blogged that Pine City’s mayor had gaveled Parmar down after her questioning interrupted a council meeting. Conspicuously noting Parmar’s three university degrees, Hansel added:
Some would say it’s the job of a journalist to “comfort the afflicted — and afflict the comfortable.” Others might say that journalists ought to wait until after city business is done to ask questions — or, in other words, to report about the story rather than becoming part of the story.
Parmar acknowledges she goofed. Unfamiliar with city council procedure, “I unknowingly disrupted the meeting, and I apologized. But I was a little taken aback [by Hansel’s blog post]. I thought asking questions was a reporter’s job.”
Says Fagerstrom, “If the worst you can say of a reporter is that she asked questions of public officials at a public venue, well, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
Hansel deferred comment to his editor, Jay Furst, who wouldn’t address the specifics. His statement: “We’ve covered the heck out of Elk Run since long before any Twin Cities media became interested, and we’ll continue to have the most consistent, fair and accurate reporting available. It’s a big, complex story and the more media covering it, the better.”
Parmar says some of her sources feel the Post-Bulletin has not been aggressive enough in questioning Elk Run. Thomas Lee believes “there’s a difference of approaches between the Twin Cities and Rochester. I get this feeling that it’s ‘don’t rain on my parade’ down there.”
That’s hard for me to judge, since much of Rochester’s news coverage is behind a pay wall. This story indicates some Pine Islanders feel the P-B has been too negative; the paper’s story on the “firm commitment” isn’t skeptical at all, however.
Then again, Hansel’s blog has conscientiously linked to Parmar’s and Thomas Lee’s scoops and his story on Tower’s selective-invite meeting pointedly noted “a desire to control the flow of public information.” As Wendy Lee observed, the Rochester reporter offered his own sharp advice for Burrill.
Despite their doubts about Elk Run, Thomas Lee and Parmar say they aren’t rooting for failure. Thomas Lee says people keep telling him he will “eat crow” when the project comes to fruition, but he says they mistake tough questions for ill will. “I’ve talked to Arundhati, and one thing we agree on is that if Burrill raises the $1 billion, it’s a good thing, and good for him.”