It’s the kind of situation that can leave a newspaper reeling with embarrassment — a major story with international implications breaks in that paper’s backyard and catches editors and journalists off-guard, unprepared to describe and explain what they should know best.
Well, that’s what didn’t happen at the Toronto Star this past weekend. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issued a press release Friday night announcing that they had just busted a homegrown terrorist cell of 17 men with plans to use three tons of ammonium nitrate to blow up sites in southern Ontario, the paper was ready to break the story the next morning.
Over the last few days the Star has provided an a stunning string of exclusives, from its very first article, to the names of the suspects and specifics as to how they were entrapped by the police, to the possible targets that the group was planning to attack. Profiles of all the suspects, with copious details about each, were already in the paper on Monday, along with thousands of words describing different aspects of the case, from the milieu which cultivated these men to the spying operation that tracked them down.
It was an incredible reporting feat, especially when compared to the other two local papers, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, who struggled to write even a few words on Saturday and since have come nowhere near the steady stream of new information provided by the Star.
The reason for this virtuoso showing is actually very simple, according to a small New York Times article about the paper’s achievement: the Star already had someone on the beat.
For two years now, the Star has assigned one of its police reporters, Michelle Shephard, to cover national security issues exclusively. Most of the time this has meant chasing bum leads, but when the moment came and it mattered, she was able to give the paper something invaluable: accumulated knowledge and good sources.
If a lesson can be drawn from this episode, it’s that good journalism is often the result of patience. It’s a lesson often forgotten these days when such value is put on speed, and when most reporters don’t care to languish in one beat for very long. But there is a lot to be gained from getting to know one area well. You can’t feel the benefits right away, but when the time is right, they become exceedingly apparent.
Just ask the folks in Toronto.