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Undercurrents: Cooperation vs. Competition in V.I. Media

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

This is the second in a two-part series on Virgin Islands media.

For many of the men and women loosely referred to as “the Virgin Islands press corps,” life on the job is a bit of a balancing act. There is the camaraderie of people with shared interests, experiences, goals and obstacles that creates a natural pull toward cooperation. At the same time, there is a mandate from most news organizations to “get the story first and/or get the story best.”

Sandra Goomansingh, now news director at CBS affiliate Channel 2, remembers socializing a lot with other reporters when she was working the beat. Although she’s somewhat removed from day-to-day news gathering now, she said, “I think everybody pretty much works with everyone. It seems like everybody’s pretty cool with each other.”

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“It tends to be very individual,” said Bill Kossler, reporter and editor at the V.I. Source. For instance, if he arrives a few minutes late to a government meeting, most reporters on the scene will let him know whether he’s missed something crucial, such as a vote. But some reporters don’t offer the time of day.

Individual newsrooms can set the tone. For example, Kossler said reporters have told him that the V.I. Daily News has policies against its reporters communicating with representatives from other outlets.

Indeed, when a Daily News reporter was asked to participate in this series, she said she would need to get permission from her publisher, who apparently did not grant it, since follow-up requests over two weeks went unanswered. Meanwhile voice and email messages left for Daily News managing editor Lowe Davis also got no response.

Avis publisher Rena Brodhurst also ignored several messages left for her. And a phone request to Channel 8 was answered with a promise of a call back that never came.

Cooperating

On the other hand, Lee Carle, who has been delivering news on WSTA Radio for about half a century, said he frequently gets assists from other news organizations and sometimes trades information with them.

In a recent example, Carle said he contacted a radio station in Puerto Rico for information about that island’s statehood referendum. The Puerto Rico station gave him their story on the issue and, in turn, he gave them information about the government’s case against V.I. Sen. Alvin Williams Jr.

Closer to home, Carle said he often uses stories published in the print media as the basis for his own report, and may call the reporter who filed the original story and ask for contact information for principals so he can do his own follow-up. He said reporters generally do give him the contact information. If he reads a portion of the original story on air, he said, “I try to do attribution.”

“We kind of like monitor to see what everybody else has,” Goomansingh said. Others agreed.

“We all look at each others’ work,” said Judi Shimel, a reporter for the St. Croix Avis who has worked for a number of other V.I. media outlets in past years. “We all know what’s good and what’s not.”

But there’s a difference between cooperation and copying – and even bigger difference between cooperation and collusion.

Some members of the government and the public, even some public relations officers, don’t really understand how the press works, Goomansingh said. They tend to think of “the media” as if all reporters worked as a single unit rather than as representatives of different organizations. For instance, the station’s request for information is occasionally dismissed with, “Well, I already talked to the Daily News.”

In one recent incident, she said, Channel 2 sent a reporter to the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to file a routine public service story about disaster preparedness. What the reporter didn’t know was that another outlet had just published an article critical of the agency, so he was surprised to be met with suspicion.

While the media does not speak with one voice, some of its members feel that cooperation should go well beyond an occasional assist. Both Shimel and Kossler said it’s important for members of the press corps to support one another’s battles for the people’s right to information.

Shimel expressed disappointment that a recent libel suit against the Daily News and one of its reporters – in which the paper prevailed – did not get more coverage by other news organizations. At court, “the only reporter in the house was me,” she said. “That’s where we serve each other.”

In another instance, she said the Daily News “performed an important service for all of us” when it took the Legislature to court over its failure to release public records.

Other outlets don’t have the resources necessary for that kind of action, however, Shimel noted. “Most of us don’t have any clout” and can’t hire lawyers.

“I think it’s important that we back up other media” in freedom-of-the-press battles, Kossler said. And in general, “I think there should be a little more cooperation.”

But there are limits.

Competing

“As reporters, information is our currency,” Shimel said. “We are like one, big happy family – until it’s time to go to press … When we go back to our individual newsrooms, it’s knives and guns on the table.”

Or, as Kossler put it, you want to cooperate but also “you want to preserve a scoop.”

Does that natural tension allow for the kind of proposal the Board of Elections offered on the night of elections – to have one member of the press stand in for all to observe the vote counting?

“In Washington, D.C., yes, where they do pool reporting,” Shimel said, adding but “that’s a big, sophisticated news town.”

“That’s commonly done” in many jurisdictions, Kossler said.

“I wouldn’t want it to be the same person every time,” he said, but he believes pool reporting can work in the territory. In fact, he said, it was done on St. Croix on elections night and it did work. The first reporter who entered to observe the count said she would not share information and was asked to leave, but a second reporter was admitted and he did act as a pool reporter.

V.I. Press Association

Is there enough cooperation – and is there a need – for a Virgin Islands Press Association?

Shimel said an association would provide some of the “clout” that most resource-poor news outlets are lacking. And it could provide a unified front for freedom of speech battles.

Carle added another benefit. He recalled that the V.I. Press Association of the 1980s sponsored newsmaker events, providing a forum for business, community and government leaders to address topical issues. “Let’s take the franchise thing,” he said. If there were a functioning press association, it could have invited all sides in the recent controversy over the taxi franchise to a public discussion of the issue.

“The technology is there now” to link the islands, Carle said, so the association could easily hold territorywide meetings and events.

“I think it’s both desirable and possible” to have a press association, Kossler said, although – with small staffs and deadlines always looming – “the question is whether anybody would have any time to go to meetings.”

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