"The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go."
– Michelle Shocked,
from The Texas Campfire Tapes*
Seven years ago this week, I received a photo-radar ticket 20 minutes into my first shift as a city hall reporter. For reasons that made sense at the time, I was in a hurry to visit a Hespeler Avenue garage affected by the 2006 closure of the Redwood Bridge during the reconstruction of the oldest surviving span over the Red River.
Today, the City of Winnipeg is still trying to repair its aging infrastructure. Winnipeggers still complain about traffic congestion. Photo-radar cameras still nab morons who drive 14 kilometres over the 50-kph speed limit at the intersection of Main Street and Logan Avenue.
In many ways, this city hasn’t changed much during my stint as a city hall reporter, which informally comes to an end on Jan. 2, seven years to the day it began. While I could point out seven years is a long time for a reporter to remain on any beat, it’s probably more important to note there are now fewer beat reporters of all stripes in this city. The economics of the news business has taken its toll on specialization and the institutional memory that come along with it.
On Jan. 2, 2005, there were five people working in The Dungeon, the Dickensian row of windowless press offices in the basement of city hall, covering Mayor Sam Katz, city council and what was then about 9,000 civil servants. The Free Press had two full-time city hall reporters, while the Winnipeg Sun, CBC Radio and CJOB each had a body stationed in the catacombs of the council building.
Now, only the Free Press has a regular presence at city hall, where Jen Skerritt has taken over as bureau chief. She inherits a metre-high stack of cardboard takeout-coffee trays, a vintage credenza covered with old budget papers and two metal filing cabinets filled with used-up notebooks, rejected freedom-of-information requests and several decades worth of transportation plans the city commissioned and then ignored.
Covering city hall is not a glamourous job, but it is extremely rewarding. For starters, there’s never any shortage of source material, thanks to the almost daily publication of one subcommittee agenda or another and the almost-as-frequent brainstorms of one member of council or another.
At city hall, the news arrives at such a furious pace, even the least enterprising reporter will have no choice but to be productive. The real challenge is to stay on top of the barrage of reports while taking some initiative to pursue other stories — the ones that do not flow naturally out of some legislative agenda and thus can not be controlled by any politician or administrator.
Truth be told, after seven years at city hall, I still have yet to see a politician or administrator demonstrate a strong ability to control the tone, tenor or direction of public discourse about pretty much anything. Compared to Ottawa or Broadway, where party discipline has a chilling effect on both creativity and free speech, 510 Main Street is a relatively open book.
This is not to suggest officials don’t try to set some sort of agenda for the City of Winnipeg. Try as they might, that sort of command has proven impossible given the near-constant state of crisis management in both the mayor’s office and the upper echelons of the public service.
Reporting on what happens — and just as often, what fails to happen — at city hall is additionally rewarding because the simple task of shining a spotlight on the chaos challenges both elected and un-elected officials to do better.
I can say that without sanctimony, because over the course of seven years, I was often reminded that the work I was doing was way bigger than me, my newspaper or any official I happened to be covering. This knowledge made it easy to endure complaints from officials who inherently fail to comprehend the role of the media at city hall.
We don’t exist to cheerlead, or to celebrate. We’re here to point out contradictions, hypocrisies and outright lies. We’re here to keep the public abreast of failures and systemic breakdowns. We’re here to ensure processes are being followed and promises are being kept. And the main way we do all this is pretty simple: We read reports, attend meetings and occasionally shove a microphone in front of somebody’s face.
The point I’m trying to make is over the past seven years, my main task at city hall involved simply showing up every day. That is something even I could not screw up.
But over the past couple of years, my attention has strayed beyond municipal politics and urban affairs, into areas as seemingly incongruous as environmental science and gastronomy. My attention has been diverted to the point where I was in danger of failing at this basic task of simply showing up.
As I said earlier, seven years is a long time on any beat. After a 7.5-year stint as a music critic for this paper, I was so burned out by concerts, reviewing became a chore. I asked for change from my current role to avoid developing a similar disdain for municipal politics. Also, on a more personal level, I wanted to continue doing a number of different things for this paper.
I wanted to put that on the record, lest any conspiracy theorist be tempted to believe I was somehow shuffled out of my position in the aftermath of everything that has transpired during this remarkable year at city hall. In fact, I will write the occasional city hall story in my new role as reporter-at-large. My enormously patient editors have not asked me to leave.
Likewise, I’m not going anywhere. This column will continue to appear in this newspaper on Sundays. Stories by me will continue to appear elsewhere in the paper on other days. My new title actually formalizes my jack-of-all-trades-yet-master-of-none role. As one friend recently emailed in a sarcastic e-card, "Congratulations on being promoted into the job you already do."
So this is not a goodbye of any sort. It’s just a long-winded, navel-gazing explanation, aimed at those of you who read this column and might actually care. Thanks for indulging me in the exercise; I promise not to do it more than once every seven years.
This means you won’t have to read anything anywhere near this introspective in this space until the week of Jan. 2, 2020 — assuming there’s still a newspaper to read seven years from today.
* OK, so I used this quote seven years ago when I quit the music beat. I still like it. So there.