Most issues that journalists cover cannot be dealt with in a single story. The issue evolves — sometimes over several months — new events associated with it keep happening, and the journalist’s understanding continues to increase. Her clip file in such cases will grow and grow.
City Manager Don Prentice’s standoff with Council Members Wise and Bullard is just such an issue. You and Tori Baxter have been dealing with it since the beginning of this book.
Reporters who cover such ongoing issues usually keep a running, often chronological account of them. (Remember that you have a similar resource in the “Year in the Life” page on this website.) Reporters also keep their own stories in a file for easy reference. Many keep an updated, publishable-quality written summary in their computers to copy and paste into their next story as background. That saves time and helps ensure the accuracy of the background information. Usually, reporters who do that can even recite the salient elements of the issue and the chronology of events from memory.
As an issue evolves, they also think about how the latest development or event “fits in.” Does it resolve part of the issue or conflict, or does it complicate or aggravate it? Does it bring additional players into the fray, or expand the audience affected by the issue? How does it affect the list of people the reporter should be interviewing for the story, or the experts or records she needs to rely on?
A reporter will also try to anticipate what will happen next. Often, the reporter can’t be sure enough to work such a prediction into the story, but thinking about it can help her plan her continued coverage.
When I covered courts for The Miami Herald, my file on a big case often ran to a dozen or more stories by the time the case was resolved. For the cases that went to trial, the first day of jury selection was always an education for me. After devoting hundreds of hours and thousands of words to reporting the pre-trial activity, I would watch as prospective jurors, one after the other, would tell attorneys they knew nothing about the case and could not recall watching or reading any stories about it. That was probably good for the judicial system: The taxpayers didn’t have to pay the expense of moving the trial elsewhere so an unbiased jury could be found. But it taught me that I couldn’t make many assumptions in any story about what my audience already knew.
Eventually, to help my reporting and writing, I came to think of two kinds of approaches to stories: the Martian Approach and the Stranger in Town Approach. The Martian Approach was for when I knew I had to explain everything, as if a Martian had just landed and needed to know what we mean by the United States, the state of Florida, democracy and a jury trial. The Stranger in Town Approach meant I could assume that my audiences would know where they were and what a trial was but knew nothing about a particular case. After watching jury selection a few times, I became convinced that I should use the Stranger in Town Approach no matter how much I had written about a case previously. About the only exception was when I decided I needed to be even more basic and use the Martian Approach.
I tried to keep in mind, though, that even though my audiences might not know anything about a story, that did not allow me to talk down to them. In an earlier chapter I referred to writing coach Don Fry’s comment that audiences aren’t stupid, they just don’t know much. That’s especially worth remembering when you have to explain ongoing and sometimes complex issues.
In Chapter One you read about framing stories, a way of providing the appropriate context for them. One way journalists frame stories is as conflict. Conflict – between people, political ideologies, or conceptions of what is good – is a relatively easy way for audiences and reporters to understand events and complex issues both. But conflict is certainly not the only way to frame stories, and often not the best way. Sometimes part of a story is about conflict, but the entire story might be framed that way, misleading audiences.
The issues surrounding Valleydale’s budget and accusations against City Manager Don Prentice certainly involve conflict. There is an intense battle raging between Prentice and Council Member Eaton Wise, for example. But until you read Tori’s interview with Alice Turpin, you probably imagined the conflict was rooted in egos and personalities, classic sources. You tried to imagine how it could be about differing political philosophies – another potential source of conflict.
But now we know that what is between Prentice and Wise has more to do with greed than personal or ideological conflict. Because Turpin talked to us on deep background, we are still waiting for an opportunity to show our audiences what this story is really about. Meanwhile, we need to be careful not to oversimplify the story. There is a difference between explaining complex issues in a straightforward way and turning a complex issue into an overly simple story by insisting it is all about conflict. As ethical journalists whose primary obligation is to serve our audiences, we should strive for the former approach.
The action from the Valleydale City Council meeting summarized below is straightforward. Many ongoing issues reporters face appear to conclude in such a cut-and-dried fashion, almost anti-climactically. But remember (See Box 16.1):
1. Because some issues go on for so long, your story must include extensive background to provide appropriate context for your audience.
2. Few if any in your audience will have seen all of your previous stories, and even those who did will need reminding of some of the events that have taken place.
3. When you are dealing with a complex issue, high-profile players and a series of events leading to an apparent climax, consider using the hourglass story format discussed in Chapter Three. Last night’s events, along with a nut graf and some quotes from the players, would go in the first, top-heavy section. The narrow neck of the hourglass could be a chronological summary of the events that preceded last night. The bottom bulge of the hourglass could include more from the participants, plus an explanation of what is to happen next, if you know.
4. Even if the people involved in an issue believe it to be resolved, include in your story any questions that still have not been answered or that they ignored for the sake of reaching some compromise or conclusion.
Box 16.1. Strategies for Wrapping up an Ongoing Issue
Covering an ongoing issue to its conclusion might involve writing multiple stories over several months or longer. Remember:
1. Include extensive background in each story for context.
2. Your audience will need reminding of what has happened so far. A chronology of events – sometimes presented as a graphic to accompany the story as well as a brief narrative in your story — is usually a good idea.
3. When you are trying to explain a complex and ongoing issue, you might find the hourglass story format useful. See Chapter Three for a refresher.
4. Show your audience any questions or issues that remain unanswered, even if the participants think they have been resolved.
In Chapter 15, several people you interviewed appeared to agree that a resolution to an issue that first arose in Chapter One might be at hand. The City Council meeting that is summarized below happens on a Tuesday night. At the meeting, council members go into executive session. Remember that in many states — Virginia is one — governing bodies may convene such secret meetings to consider real estate purchases or personnel matters. They may not cast a formal vote in those meetings, however. If they take action, it must occur afterward, in a public meeting.
Assume that the release of the Finance Committee’s report, the rebuttal from council members Wise and Bullard, and the city manager’s news conference were on successive days last week, and that the newspaper story you wrote in Exercise 15 ran in Sunday’s Jeffersonville Herald.
Write a story for print weaving together last night’s events and whatever background from earlier assignments you think appropriate. Then think about what still isn’t resolved. Then – and here’s a challenge – write the whole thing as a 30-second reader for broadcast.
Then go on to Exercise 16b. Have fun.
The Valleydale City Council went into executive session last night. Two hours later council emerged, went into public session, and voted unanimously to endorse Ron Allen “Don” Prentice’s performance as city manager. Council Member Eaton Wise then read the following statement:
For several months, Mrs. Bullard and myself have attempted to call attention to what we perceived as certain conditions in the City Finance Department. It is clear to us now that we do not have the support of our colleagues on the City Council nor on the Finance Committee in this matter. Accordingly, in the interest of civic harmony, we rescind our request for Mr. Prentice’s termination and hereby resign from the City Council, effective immediately.
We apologize to the citizens of Valleydale for whatever friction has resulted from our continued efforts to ensure good government. Cities should run smoothly, and friction hinders that smooth operation. We also extend our regrets to Mr. Prentice. We hope that this apology concludes this unfortunate episode in the life of the best city in the United States, and we pray that the media does not continue to blow this minor disagreement out of proportion.
The remaining council members voted unanimously to accept the resignations of Wise and Bullard. Mayor Hostetter instructed the city attorney to report back to council at its next meeting on the procedures for appointing interim council members and on whether the city needs to hold a special election. Several council members praised the Finance Committee and chair Louise Mutispaugh for their work, but Mutispaugh resigned from the committee, citing the stressful nature of being a member. The mayor then appointed Council Member Clark chair of the Finance Committee.
Prentice addressed the meeting briefly, reading a statement:
“I am pleased and relieved to have this unpleasantness behind me. Maybe now we can all — including the media — focus on the business at hand, serving the citizens of Valleydale. Mr. Wise and Mrs. Bullard, I know you were trying to serve your constituents, and I realize that elected officials operate under constant political pressures, including re-election. As for the news media, I fully intend to pursue in another forum what I consider certain published libelous statements. I assure the council that that will in no way affect my continued performance as city manager. Thank you.”
Despite his promise, Mayor Hostetter refused to speak to reporters after the meeting. So did the other council members and Prentice.
When Tori interviewed Valleydale Acting Finance Director Alice Turpin a week or so ago, Turpin said she would not consider any City Council action on City Manager Don Prentice to be the end of the matter. She would not elaborate then except to say 1) Tori should “stay tuned”; 2) if she (Turpin) was right that something else would happen, Tori could call her back when it did happen and ask her to go on the record with her earlier deep background comments.
In Exercise 16a you had to consider what questions remained unanswered, what issues remained unresolved. Will they all be addressed in Exercise 16b? Remember the Stranger in Town Approach: Even though you included extensive background in your story for Exercise 16a, you will need to provide that again for your audiences in Exercise 16b.
It is two days after the City Council meeting at which Wise and Bullard resigned. Prentice and Wise surrendered themselves at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail at 4 p.m. today, a few hours after the indictment was made public. Each was accompanied by his attorney, but they arrived separately. Neither spoke to the other, nor would they or their attorneys speak to reporters. Each was released without bond to await resolution of the case, but Prentice was required to surrender his passport. Arraignment is set for 9 a.m. tomorrow, at which time each will enter a plea. Each crime is a Class II felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Taliaferro would not comment on the indictments, made public this morning. Taliaferro does confirm that Mary Quillian was granted immunity from prosecution for her testimony.
Police Chief Buford Honeycutt also confirms a tip that a magistrate has ordered Prentice’s office and the finance department offices sealed and a 24-hour guard posted outside them. He also tells you that officers executed a search warrant at Wise’s home on Marshall Street. He will not discuss what was removed, if anything.
In a brief statement read over the phone, Mayor Hostetter announces that City Council met in an emergency executive session this afternoon. Council suspended Prentice without pay pending resolution of the criminal case. It also appointed Alice Turpin acting city manager. Turpin’s first action was to suspend Mary Quillian without pay, again pending resolution of the criminal case against Prentice and Wise.
Write a story for The Jeffersonville Herald and, on deadline in class, a 30-second RDR.
Virginia: In the Circuit Court for the County of Blue Ridge
Commonwealth of Virginia
GRAND JURY INDICTMENT
Ron Allen Prentice
DOB: 03-29-1955 CAPIAS REQUIRED
City Hall, City of Valleydale
City Hall, City of Valleydale
Conspiracy, Grand Larceny, Breach of Public Trust
The Grand Jurors of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in and for the City of Valleydale and the County of Blue Ridge, upon their oaths, present that, in the County of Blue Ridge, the accused,
RON ALLEN PRENTICE and EATON WISE
Engaged in criminal behavior as follows:
1. The defendant Prentice was at all times material hereto, and remains, the City Manager of the City of Valleydale, a City of the Second Class as defined by the Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
2. The defendant Wise was at all times material hereto a duly elected Member of the City Council of the City of Valleydale, a City of the Second Class as defined by the Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
3. The defendant Prentice was hired as City Manager of the City of Valleydale on or about March 1, 2011 by unanimous vote of the City Council, including defendant Wise.
4. That defendant Wise has been a duly elected member of the City Council of the City of Valleydale since on or about May 1, 2008.
5. On or about Jan. 1, 2013 and continuing until approximately two years ago, defendants Prentice and Wise did engage in a conspiracy to embezzle public moneys from the treasury of the City of Valleydale and convert them to their own use. The total sum embezzled by defendant Wise was 1approximately five hundred thousand dollars.
6. Approximately two years before the date of this Indictment, defendant Wise approached defendant Prentice about “upping the ante.” There ensued a disagreement, following which defendant Prentice stopped sharing embezzled funds with defendant Wise, and their criminal conspiracy ended. Defendant Prentice, however, continued to convert city moneys to his own use.
7. On or about April 10, 2015, the Finance Department of the City of Valleydale employed MARY QUILLIAN in the position of staff bookkeeper. From that time until the present, Ms. Quillian, an unindicted co-conspirator, has remained employed by the Finance Department.
8. Approximately 18 months ago, Quillian approached defendant Prentice and told him, “I’m all over this. You and I need to work something out.” As a result of their conversation, defendant Prentice offered Quillian $3,000 a month not to report his criminal activity to authorities. He also met Quillian’s frequent demands for “treats.” Among the items defendant Prentice expended city moneys on for Quillian were expensive clothes, a home stereo, a vacation to Cancun, Mexico, a cruise to the British Virgin Islands, a diamond “tennis” bracelet, a Ford Explorer vehicle, and bail for her boyfriend, who had been arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated. The total amount of city moneys expended on blackmail and gifts to Quillian is believed to be approximately $130,000.
9. On information and belief, the total moneys converted to his own use by defendant Prentice from the treasury of the City of Valleydale, including payments to Quillian but not to Wise, are approximately four million dollars. An amended complaint will be filed with the Circuit Court of Blue Ridge when the exact sum becomes known.
The conduct of defendants Prentice and Wise and unindicted co-conspirator Quillian constitute a breach of the Code of Virginia and violate the peace and dignity of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
GRAND JURY WITNESSES:
Alice Turpin, Acting Finance Director, City of Valleydale
Mary Quillian, Bookkeeper, City of Valleydale
Luverne Stamp, Former Finance Director, City of Valleydale
(x) A TRUE BILL
( ) NOT A TRUE BILL
FOREMAN OF THE GRAND JURY
You reach Luverne Stamp by phone.
Stamp: By law, I can’t discuss grand jury testimony, Tori. You know that.
Q: Well, may I ask how long ago you talked to the grand jury?
Stamp: You may ask. I won’t tell you. Sorry.
You also talk to Alice Turpin by phone. Your conversation with her is similarly brief:
Turpin: Grand jury testimony is secret, Tori. I can’t discuss it. Period. That’s the law.
Q: Would this indictment have happened if you hadn’t instigated it?
Turpin: Like I said the other day, every dog has her day. And the other shoe has dropped, if you know what I mean.
Q: Can I take that as permission to go on the record with your earlier comments?
Turpin: Yup. As long as you make clear that it was an earlier conversation that was unrelated to my grand jury testimony. Have fun. ’Bye.