City employees turn cold shoulder to student reporters

Student newspaper struggles to cover town after city manager restricts access to city staff

ILLINOIS -- Two weeks after a city manager cut all ties with Southern Illinois University’s student newspaper, journalists there are scrambling to cover news in the city of Carbondale.

City manager Jeff Doherty told reporters at the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois, that he would no longer comment to reporters and that he had instructed city employees to get his permission before speaking to reporters.

According to a March 27 article in the Daily Egyptian, the city manager rebuffed the paper after disapproving of two articles and demanding the paper print a front-page retraction of one. The newspaper is standing behind the articles, said Daily Egyptian Editor in Chief Zack Creglow.

Doherty did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The city manager’s ultimatum threatens to put a serious damper on the paper’s coverage of city issues, Creglow said.

“We’re perplexed,” he said. “It’s a bad break. We can only hold out hope for so long that they’ll come around before it starts affecting coverage in a negative way.”

Creglow said since Doherty cut ties with the paper two weeks ago, city employees have not returned reporters’ calls. When reporters show up at city offices, they are re-rerouted or turned away, he said.

A few weeks ago, the Daily Egyptian attempted to write a story about Carbondale’s tornado preparedness after severe storms ripped through southern Illinois. But city employees did not respond to interview requests, and the story had to be dropped, Creglow said.

In an effort to ascertain what exactly Doherty said to city employees, newspaper staff filed two Freedom of Information Act requests under Illinois public records laws. One request asked for “any official or unofficial communication” from the city manager’s office to any city employee in regard to the Daily Egyptian or its staff.

Within hours of filing the second request, the city denied the paper’s request on the grounds that “no such records existed,” Creglow said.

He said the paper has since filed a third request that asks for records from an earlier starting date.

In the meantime, Creglow said his reporters have managed to cover the city. But the paper is also making efforts to inform people why, given the impasse with the city manager, it is unable to “report properly,” Creglow said.

The situation highlights a reoccurring problem with city staff, he said. It’s the “Scooby Doo” mentality, he pointed out, where student reporters who approach city employees are treated like “those darn kids.”

“We need them to take it seriously,” he said. “Doherty’s belief is what we’ve done is abnormal for reporters to do.”

Doherty first expressed dissatisfaction with the paper’s city coverage after seeing an article that discussed the City Council’s indecision on a debt-ridden childcare center. He claimed the headline, “Fate of Hayes center undecided,” was inaccurate, according to an article in the Daily Egyptian.

In another instance, the student paper obtained and published an e-mail Doherty sent to city staff regarding the retirement of the city’s police chief. In the e-mail, he told staffers the police chief was retiring because he failed to establish residency in Carbondale. A press release issued by Doherty did not disclose this fact.

Doherty called the paper’s actions in running the e-mail “unforgivable,” according to an article in the student newspaper.

“If we stay with the press release, that’s bad journalism,” Creglow said of the incident.

Creglow said the newsroom had faced the same roadblocks when it started reporting more rigorously on university staff and events. When reporters proved themselves to be persistent and accurate, university officials eventually warmed to their efforts, he said.

Creglow said he hopes the same will be true for the paper’s future dealings with the city of Carbondale.

“Sources started coming from everywhere when people saw we have a passion for covering this city,” he said. “We have a passion for accurately covering what’s going on, and we have found other sources coming out of the woodwork.”

Brad Cole, the city’s mayor, and several Carbondale city officials did not return calls for comment. One receptionist for City Finance Director Ernie Tessone directed questions to Doherty’s office.

City council member Sheila Simon said she is familiar with the rift between the city manager and the Daily Egyptian but did not have direct information from Doherty on the situation.

“My hope is that it’s something that will be resolved quickly,” Simon said of the situation. “It’s in everyone’s interest to have the city and all media outlets communicating well.”

Simon said no one has instructed her not to communicate with Daily Egyptian reporters, and that she would speak with student reporters who contacted her.

“I think it’s important because city news is important to students and the Daily Egyptian is important to the greater community,” Simon said.

“There’s all sorts of reasons for the Daily Egyptian to have good, accurate information.”

Eric Fidler, faculty adviser to the Daily Egyptian, said he was “baffled” by Doherty’s decision to cut ties with the paper.

Fidler said in two decades of reporting for the Associated Press and The Miami Herald, he had encountered city officials who were “hostile, rude, arrogant and any number of things,” but said he had never encountered an official who flat-out refused to speak to a news organization.

He said the paper had no game plan if the third FOI request was denied or yielded no new information.

“Whatever we do, we want to leave some room to reopen a relationship with [Doherty],” he said. “Our ultimate goal isn’t to make the guy look bad.

“I don’t care if he’s mad as long as he talks. We’re not going to issue a retraction for a story that was correct and we’re not going to apologize for covering the news aggressively.”

Daily Egyptian, Illinois, news, Southern Illinois University