Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Hard-to-Get Source

This cool and cloudy Saturday morning, I got up early to go and hang around a private recycling center.

This was my last-ditch effort to find a certain group of people I had been searching for all week -- people who are going around on trash days and picking up recycling bags off the curb before the city gets there. Aluminum prices have risen dramatically, and for a pound of aluminum you get 80 cents at a local private recycler, who is in competition with the city.
During their next meeting the city council will vote whether or not to make this practice illegal, and that's the story.

After driving around Columbia neighborhoods for hours this week, peering up and down streets to try and catch people in the act, I had nearly given this quest up as a wild goose chase. My persistent editor, Scott, told me that we had to find them, however. Our competitor had already written the story, but the reporter had only interviewed the official stakeholders in the story. It was my job to find the other stakeholders - who is driving around picking up trash for a little money?

This morning I found Debra. A single mom with an 11-year-old son who just lost her job in August. Three times a week she takes her car around Columbia and fills it with bags of other people's recycling, then brings the load to the private recycler and gets some cash. Then she goes back about. On Friday she did this from 8 in the morning until 1, when she took a break to bring her son to a therapy appointment. Then at 2:30 p.m., they went back out again together.

Nothing is more rewarding for a reporter than to find this kind of source. When I first started at the Missourian, calling up city officials or council members was a bit daunting. Now I don't think twice.

An interview with someone like Debra is the true gold mine, not the perfect quote from the mayor. These are the people who get left out of news stories all too often because they are hard to find. But these are the people who need a voice. And today I'm glad I got out of bed to go hang around a recycling center.

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