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The path of most resistance

This month’s feature story on the Project Apollo plant proposed for Milwaukee almost didn’t happen.

Two days before the article was due, the reporter called me in a bit of a panic. None of her suggested sources were panning out, and everything appeared to be sunshine and roses with the proposal.

But we knew it couldn’t be that simple.

We’re journalists, natural skeptics. Nothing is ever as good as it seems.

This plant would use technology never before used in the United States. If the technique is so wonderful, why haven’t similar projects been approved? There had to be more to the story than the glowing claims outlined in a press release.

So we kept digging, plowing through page after page of potential sources.

That person wouldn’t talk? Try this one. Another dead end? Work around it.

The story finally started coming together. The reporter uncovered a similar proposal that fell through in Madison. People began questioning the logic behind the technology and the plant’s proposed energy source.

We finally had a balanced story.

Contrary to what some people might think, journalists are not on a witch hunt when they ask tough questions; they’re just trying to get all the facts. No story has only one side. In fact, most have more than two sides.

When writers take press releases or other statements at face value, they are doing a disservice to their readers. Anyone can retype a press release. Strong stories come from digging deep, challenging sources.

That is why it concerns me to see so many solid journalists out of work as the printed word loses steam.

Today’s 24/7 online news cycle places an emphasis on quantity over quality, employing fewer people to write less about more.

I don’t blame Joe Public for not wanting to sit through long meetings while planners haggle over a proposal. I understand why a normal person would give up after the fifth call trying to get an answer to a question. I just ask that same public to support the work of journalists who do sit through the meetings and make the calls that uncover larger issues.

Read that online news brief, but be sure to pick up a newspaper or magazine and take the time to enjoy the longer articles that go below the surface. A lot of work goes into those heftier stories, with good reason. No one’s going to put out a press release announcing bad news (unless forced to); it takes people asking questions to reveal the news behind the news.

The work may be hard and frustrating, especially with deadline looming and little hope of a solid story in sight, but we do it because we enjoy it.

Case in point: When I thanked the reporter who worked on the Project Apollo story for all her hard work and told her I didn’t expect it to be so difficult, she laughed and said: “The best stories usually are.”

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