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KNIGHTLY: Relationships a key to developing good journalism

A group of local residents stopped by the newspaper office a couple of weeks ago expressing their point of view on the direction of this newspaper.

The group, approximately 15 strong, wanted to discuss various topics, ranging from why we no longer allow comments on our website to why what they hear around town doesn’t end up in the newspaper. I felt it was a healthy dialogue, even though we didn’t see eye-to-eye on every point during the nearly 90-minute meeting.

When the group arrived at around 9 a.m., one of the women asked if the newspaper had a conference room where we could meet. While the vast majority of readers have never been to our office, we have a very small building that houses 15 people every day. I do not have an office to myself, and neither does the publisher.

I ushered the group into the “newsroom,” an open space where our four reporters work side-by-side, desks right next to each other. Good thing the news staff gets along.

One of the first questions was about the comment section being removed from the website, a decision I made a few months ago. I explained to the group that it was not a decision I made lightly, but it was done because of the numerous anonymous comments that were reduced to name calling and downright nastiness.

Larger publications such as the Las Vegas Review-Journal have an online staff that part of their job is to monitor the comments section and remove postings that use profanity, attack others, or are just downright nasty.

Unfortunately, this newspaper cannot afford to hire someone to monitor the website.

I also explained that we do post our articles on Facebook, which allows readers to comment on that platform.

Another question that was asked was why they will hear about something around town but it never appears in the newspaper. The answer to that may be more complicated than it first appears.

One is that it is not something we can verify, or just plain rumor. One recent example is the ongoing case of former county deputy Sgt. Michael Horn. Rumors had come to our attention through a few people that a deal was in the works where Horn, who was facing several felony drug and theft charges, was going to see the charges reduced to gross misdemeanors.

Last week he submitted a plea to two felonies.

A big challenge is knowing where to look. Some of the best stories come from concerned citizens telling us that something needs to be looked into. But it needs to be more than, “There’s corruption at City Hall.” Or, “The government’s corrupt.” That doesn’t really tell me anything. Where do we need to look?

When I was a business reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2008, the newspaper received a tip that construction workers at CityCenter were drinking at the bars nearby before entering the job site.

Now that’s an easy-to-follow-up-on tip. It included what was happening and where it was happening. All that was left for me was to figure out when the shift changes were, go down to the Las Vegas Strip near the job site, and observe. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The following investigation led to a series of stories, as we were able to document this behavior. It also earned me the Nevada Press Association’s “Best Business News Story” award in 2009.

If no one had told us that was going on and where to look, the story would not have happened.

The most famous example of investigative journalism is Watergate. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote a series of articles during a two-year period starting with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and ended with the resignation of a president, and conviction and jail time for some of his top aides.

But they weren’t blindly poking around in the dark. Woodward and Bernstein were guided in their connecting of the break-in to the re-election committee for Richard Nixon by the deputy director of the FBI, William Mark Felt, Sr. That is a pretty good source.

As Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post during the Watergate investigation, said, “News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.”

A lot of good journalism comes from building relationships and I believe we have been doing just that in the 17 months I have been here. With that meeting, hopefully we’ve built more.

Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of the Pahrump Valley Times. He can be contacted at aknightly@pvtimes.com.

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