A day after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, the St. Albert Gazette received a surprising email from the city’s communications staff asking us to direct all requests to speak with members of city council through the communications staff instead of contacting councillors directly.
Typically, Gazette reporters contact our elected officials directly in order to get their thoughts on matters that impact residents. This access is critically important in order for residents to understand decisions the city has made and what views the people they voted into power hold.
Sometimes, such as when we find out a road project like the widening of North St. Albert Trail has more than doubled in cost, we need to talk to all city councillors. That's not unusual for news organizations that want to provide a complete picture of where their council stands.
As a community newspaper, the Gazette has an important job to do, and it can be a very rewarding one. But it can be frustrating, too, when we can't get the information we need. Over the past five months, we have seen our access to city staff all but taken away. More and more, we are being denied interviews and forced to email questions to the city – a method that allows no flexibility for follow-up questions or for a reporter to try to clarify administrative jargon.
Questions are sometimes met with nebulous PR messaging lacking in substance, rather than an answer that provides useful information which we can in turn provide to our readers. The result can be a disservice to residents if we cannot provide a clear and informed story.
In an email exchange between the Gazette and city communications, it was explained to us that this process results in greater efficiency. We asked, “What situations have come up in which you've received media requests to multiple staff and elected officials requesting the same information?”
The response was this happened a few times, most recently with a Gazette request to all of city council for their comments on cost increases to the North St. Albert Trail extension and off-site levy increases. "This lead (sic) to multiple email chains, multiple requests for information to various staff, and duplicated work. This was identified as a poor use of resources in a time when Administration is expected to be more efficient," the response read.
Why would there be duplicated work, we wonder? Should the communications department not have processes in place to deal with such an instance, which is rather commonplace in the media world? Surely on an important issue that involves millions of dollars in cost increases and impacts to developers, the city would want all of council to be fully informed regardless.
Up until about five months ago, the Gazette had a workable relationship with the city. We are thankful that the mayor and most councillors are still taking our direct calls. We are, however, at a loss as to why the city now wants to insert its communications department between our reporters and our elected officials. City administration has shown this practice does not result in open, direct communication. Our city hall reporter has made 21 interview requests since Nov. 1, and only two requests have been granted. Oddly enough, prior to Nov. 1, communications staff were happy to grant Gazette reporters access to city staff.
For the last five months, our reporters have been met with frustration when trying to speak with city officials. We have genuine concern that we would experience a similar lack of access to elected officials if we agree to this latest request, and that it would inhibit our ability to do our jobs.