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Trash, talking in Fargo

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Fargo has a lot of things Winnipeg has: floodwaters, big-box mazes, a Youth for Christ chapter.

As it turns out, they have something else controversial that we have: automated garbage carts. Only in Fargo, they’re not so controversial after all. When Fargo introduced the carts last fall, we were told, the new approach went smoothly. At least, compared to Winnipeg.

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"It encourages people to recycle," said Art Perez, a city garbage worker, as his collection truck motored down a Fargo street, picking up autobins. "And it keeps things cleaner. I mean, look down the street. It looks fantastic."

It did look great, by the way. Down every street in the beautiful suburban development of Timberline, the carts stood perfectly lined-up in cute little rows. They looked like some oddly idyllic plastic lawn decoration, and the neatness with which they were kept seemed to me as representative of community pride as the gargantuan American flags that fluttered in most yards.

I’ve always been secretly in love with how ferocious Winnipeggers can get when pressed to do something they don’t want. (When’s mosquito-fogging season start again?) The ongoing automated garbage-cart debate is one example.

But on this one, maybe we should chill out, take a lesson from our Red River neighbours, and enjoy the view.
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Here’s another lesson we can take. Let me describe a moment in Fargo-Moorhead for you.

The Moorhead police officer leaned over the edge of the parkade, looking at the flood of water below. In a flash, photographer Trevor Hagan whipped out his camera to capture the moment. But the moment was gone; the officer had turned back to his car. "Hey," Trevor called out. "Do you mind doing that again for me?"

"Oh, sure!" the officer said. "Where do you need me?"

With no coaxing, the officer struck the perfect pose, and held it as the camera clicked away. We’d met him in the first place because another officer saw us out with a camera the night before, drove up to meet us, chatted for 20 minutes about the flood, and gave us his personal cell number.

When we called him the next day – his day off – he gave us the duty officer’s cell phone number. "He’s expecting your call!" Officer Number One said. Later, Officer Number Two invited us to sit and chat in his cruiser. He offered to go looking for National Guard sandbaggers with us. When a video microphone shorted out, he gracefully repeated an answer once the problem was fixed.

Bear in mind, this was all as his town made its last ditch efforts to button down against the rising floodwaters, and as he fielded calls organizing the effort.

Part of this generosity, undoubtedly, was a small-town thing. But I suspect there’s another reason we found such accommodating folks down in Fargo-Moorhead: nationality. Because if there’s one thing I know about Americans, it’s this: from the town garbage guy to the governor, they are darn media savvy.

I first noticed this back when I was flirting with being a radio producer. Sometimes, getting a Canadian – any Canadian – to interview on a topic was pulling teeth. If the issue was a new cancer discovery? The top health minds in the country would be hesitant to put forth a viewpoint. "I'll talk to you, I just don't want to be on the air, I'm just one person on this," they’d say. If the issue was travel tips for seniors? Experts on senior travel would hem, and haw, and finally decline. (Politely, of course. They are Canadian, after all.)

But call an American – any American – and they would come prepared with talking points and a list of suggested interview questions on various topics. They knew the lingo. They’d ask for the angle, they’d ask what we needed them to emphasize, they’d ask how much time they had and if there were any recent events in Canada relating to the topic that they should mention.

The difference became so reliable that I learned to get an American contact on standby first – that way, in the possible event that I couldn’t suss out an available, willing Canadian to speak in the few hours I had to find one, I’d have someone ready to go on the air at a moment’s notice and entertain listeners.

While in Fargo on Thursday and Friday, that experience came flooding back, so to speak. Down there, folks with minor titles who would never, ever speak on the record in Canada (at least, not without extensive approval from a media department) had no problem banging out soundbytes and putting their names on it.

Need a picture? Just tell ‘em where to stand. Want to get the guys from the United States Geological Survey to climb into their flood-predicting boat for a quick photo? It’s cool man, they’ll even pull out their laptop to complete the scene, unprompted... after all, they have to rehearse for the Fox News crew that’s setting up, that they introduced us to first. ("Melissa, this is Lloyd from Fox News in Denver. Lloyd... this is Melissa." Then I squealed, because I'm embarassing like that.)

Some might call it attention-seeking. I call it smart. Very smart.

Here’s the thing about the media: when you work with us, we work with you. That doesn’t always mean that the story will be favourable – that would be a nasty breach of journalistic ethics. But it does mean that your voice will be heard. Some readers may agree with you, some won’t – but your viewpoint will be reflected. No serious journalist is out to get anyone, contrary to the belief of some. We simply respond to what we are told, sort through the information we’re given, and pass it on.

When you don’t work with the media, you don’t get heard. If you don’t tell us anything, we tell the story without you. And all that happens is that mistrust gets built up on all sides, and everyone – but most of all, the public – loses out on opportunity to share in an intimate view of the people, places and events that shape the city, good or bad.

It doesn’t take a genius to scan a few weeks’ worth of papers to learn who (and what) in Winnipeg is savvy to that fact, and who (and what) tends to shy away from putting their perspective on record and clam up to journalists, and who would never, ever invite media to share in their work and struggles and experiences.

Now, imagine if everyone and everything in Winnipeg was like everyone and everything we worked with in Fargo. There would be more diversity of voices, better and more balanced dialogues on issues, and almost certainly more compelling stories, pictures, and ideas.

And in the end, everybody would be a winner... especially the citizens, who would wake up to a more vivacious media with more illuminating access. Fargo is learning about flood management from us. Maybe we should think about learning this from them.

 

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