By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor
City of Lloydminster staff pushed ahead the launch of a city-run “online news source” to September 2016 to start building “credibility” should the city’s Postmedia-owned newspaper, the Lloydminster Meridian Booster, close.
Emails obtained through an access to information request by J-Source shed light on the creation of the controversial Lloydminster Record, which went online Sept. 7.
Although city officials have maintained they had no intention to replace the work of local journalists, the email trail suggests the Record was launched not only to counter “incorrect or misleading information” in media reports—but also to potentially fill an information vacuum should the local paper close its doors.
On Mar. 15, 2016, Todd Corrigall, who was then the City of Lloydminster's general manager of communications and marketing, emailed Leo Pare, who is currently acting general manager of communications and marketing, and Sharon Herbus, the former director of strategy and partnerships.
In the email, Corrigall—now the City's director of strategy and partnerships—speculated that Postmedia would centralize its news operations in three city centres, leading the company to “shutter all community publications” or “retain freelancers, have them work remotely, and submit electronically.” He included a link to a BNN story about U.S. company GoldenTree Asset Managment seeking buyers for its stake in Postmedia.
“Based on the current economic situation for Postmedia, I suspect this will happen within calendar year,” he wrote.
“Leo, I would like you to move the ‘Lloydminster Record’ planning forward, as I would like to implement this by September. The more time we have to build credibility before newsroom closures the better.”
Asked to explain the Mar. 15, 2016 email, Corrigall told J-Source that, at the time, he was concerned about Postmedia’s future and how the city would connect with residents. The city’s only print publications, the Meridian Booster and the Lloydminster Source, a community owned newspaper, published on alternate days during the work week. “Had Postmedia not been able to find a buyer, or whatever scenario played out, we could have only had a publication on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said Corrigall. “So really what I was driving (at) in that email is we only have print documents on Tuesdays and Thursdays. How are we creating a connection with the residents and how are we making sure that all this information is available to them?”
“I didn't imply that to be, ‘we're taking over for the Booster,’” he added. “It was really in the sense that…if we lose the three day a week publisher we've got to be prepared to be there. And that’s really the key.”
“If we're not preparing for any possible situation we're doing a disservice to our fellow residents.”
At that point, planning for the Record had been in the works for some time. In a Dec. 10, 2015 email, Pare, the City's coordinator of media and digital communications at the time, asked design consultant Laura Zielke to mock up some website banners that looked “modern/newsie.”
Included in the email are several examples for online news banners, including the Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail, that, Pare writes, “capture the essence of what we are going for. I’d like to see the city logo incorporated somehow.”
When it was launched, the Record was described on its webpage as “an online news source delivering the straight facts on City of Lloydminster matters.”
To date, only one post appears on the webpage: ”City adds vital information to report on travel expenses.” The post states that “subsequent media reports omitted vital pieces of information” about travel expenses incurred by the city manager’s office and the subsequent access requests for those expenses. The post appears to be a direct response to a story written by James Wood, a news reporter and anchor for local radio station 106.1 The Goat, about the city clerk’s office releasing all the city’s accounts payable records. Wood declined to comment for this story.
The Lloydminster Record was met with poor reception from much of Canada’s journalism community. A former Meridian Booster reporter, Bryan Myers, called it “a move straight out of North Korea."
After the launch of the Record, Corrigall told the Meridian Booster that the City had “no desire in writing our own articles or being perceived as a media organization.”
Corrigall, who confirmed to J-Source he was the lead on the project, continues to maintain this position. “The point behind this is providing that supplementary information,” he said.
Corrigall said that the Record was not meant as a possible replacement for the Meridian Booster in “any way, shape or form, obviously,” adding, “We don't have staffing and resources to create that level of work nor is it something that we would ever want to look at doing.”
Asked the respond to the "newsie" logo design instructions, Corrigall said, “I don't necessarily think that attaching a logo or a style to something strictly implies that because that means that one area can own a design style."
In any case, the Meridian Booster has continued publishing. On July 7, Postmedia announced a plan that President and CEO Paul Godfrey said will reduce its debt by approximately $307 million. Consolidation of the corporation's Calgary and Edmonton dailies was announced in January 2016, but to date there been no subsquent announcements about closures of Postmedia newspapers in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Taylor Weaver, the regional managing editor at the Meridian Booster, said he had no comment on the email, which J-Source described to him over the phone. In an earlier interview with The Canadian Press he said had no problem with the city creating the Record, a position he still holds, he told J-Source.
J-Source also asked Corrigall about the cost of contracting Zielke's design work, as he had earlier told the National Post's Jake Edmiston the Record was costing the City "absolutely nothing" and "there's zero budget impacts."
Zielke was paid for her design work, Corrigall confirmed, though he said he would need to check with her how much (Zielke has not yet responded to telephone and email requests for comment on this story.) “It's part of a...approved budget,” he said, explaining that he believed Edmiston’s question to be in the context of the specific operations of the Record.
Corrigall also told J-Source there was no specific news story that prompted the creation of the Record, saying he had been thinking of the idea for years, predating his time working for the City of Lloydminster, and that discussions about it began sometime around April or May of 2015, about a month after Corrigall started his job with the City.
“It was more of, 'Is there an opportunity to engage continuously and to have a vehicle to provide all that supplementary information?'” he said.
As of press time, the Record’s first and only post is focused on a single reporter's work, however, and emails from early September show that city staff members were readying themselves to launch the site, about a week after Wood’s story on the city clerk releasing the accounts payable records went online. In the emails, they discuss posting the recordings City staffers made of their interviews with Wood on the website, with Corrigall writing, “I have a number of areas we need to key in on for the recordings.”
The Record’s website posted three interviews that Wood had conducted in researching his piece on travel expenses. In one, with city manager Glenn Carroll on Feb. 26, 2016, Corrigall, who confirmed to J-Source he was at the interview, tells Wood:
“We recognize that you are doing a lot of good work out there, putting out a lot of good stories—probably one of the (best) reporters in town. So that’s why we're providing this exclusive opportunity with Glenn. We do have concerns just with some negative tones that have been out there on issues that don't really need to be going to the negative side, and obviously we're trying to build a good sense of community in the city again, going back to why we are providing this opportunity to you. So we look forward to building on the relationship going forward.”
Corrigall told J-Source he could not remember any stories that concerned him specifically at that time.
After the launch of the Record, Corrigall did tell the Meridian Booster that the City had “no desire in writing our own articles or being perceived as a media organization,” comparing it to City of Kelowna’s For the Record, a web page on the city website that offers corrections and clarifications to news reports. Unlike the Lloydminster Record, however, For the Record is not described as a “online news source” on its web page.
When asked why the City had decided to present the Record to the public in a different format than “For the Record,” Corrigall said he couldn’t speak to the discussion City staff had around it. “This is not something brand new and innovative that we've done. We're certainly looking at best practices elsewhere,” he said, “We tried something different and you know we've got to try things differently.”
Corrigall said he thinks that the City staff, mayor and council have a “very good” relationship with Lloydminster’s media. “I know when I came on board, I engaged with all the senior members of the media outlets in town.”
However, J-Source spoke with two former Meridian Booster reporters who described the relationship differently.
Bryan Myers, who currently works for the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun, is a former managing editor and municipal beat reporter for the Meridian Booster. He said when he got to Lloydminster—a small town on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta—it was “tense.”
“Part of our job is not always putting everyone in a nice light,” he said. “That can be tough because you're in a small town of 30,000 people—you see them every day, at all the events.”
According to Myers, who left the Meridian Booster in early 2015, reporters were required to write down their questions for city councillors in advance of scrums. Corrigall told J-Source he discontinued that practice after he started working for the City in 2015.
Murray Crawford, who covered Lloydminster City Hall from 2011 to 2012 as a senior reporter for the Meridian Booster, told J-Source that of three communities he’s covered city hall in, “Lloydminster was the hardest one to get good quotes and good information.”
Corrigall said city staff have not heard from any current members of Lloydminster’s media who feel there is a “strain in the relationship.”
“We have to operate under the sense that it's a good relationship because we're not hearing anything from them directly,” he said. “Taking that into account we've certainly asked them ‘has (the Record) damaged our relationship with you guys? What do we need to do moving forward?’ That's an ongoing conversation and discussion. It's a critical relationship and we value it.” Corragill said he personally has only spoken with one member of the media, who said there was no problem with the Record if it is just providing supplementary information. Corragill added he has to “defer” to Pare about any additional conversations with members of the media.
Corrigall said he would have to check with the City's communications and marketing staff to see if another Lloydminster Record post is forthcoming. He added that city staff members are listening to feedback about the site.
Emails show that City of Lloydminster staff closely monitored reaction to the Record after it was released, sharing links to all of the stories that were written about it.
“Believe me, I pay attention to what's been said out there and I certainly take it into account as we continue to refine the program.” said Corrigall.
“I think all of the feedback that we get on anything we do is valuable in shaping what we do going forward and we'll certainly continue the discussion about the Lloydminster Record,” he said.