Online paper’s one-man newsroom beats established paper by exposing a gutted fire department
Since Gagandeep Ghuman launched The Squamish Reporter, he’s shown that good journalism doesn’t require a large staff—just someone willing to rock the boat
Gagandeep Ghuman’s office in downtown Squamish, British Columbia, regularly consists of a seat in a coffee shop, a cell phone and his laptop. Ghuman is the reporter and editor for his online newspaper, The Squamish Reporter. “It’s a one-man newsroom,” he says. In September of 2010, he wrote and published “Playing with Fire,” a story revealing a fire audit presented in 2009 by the Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS), a national organization representing more than 85 percent of private sector insurers in Canada. The study was critical of the Squamish fire department and called for more firefighters. The story earned him a Canadian Association of Journalists award nomination but also threats from District of Squamish employees.
Hard-hitting stories often don’t do much to make journalists a lot of friends. And writing them in small communities is particularly touchy. But just because Ghuman lives in a town of just over 16,000 people, he hasn’t stopped pursuing his passion for investigative journalism.
After The Squamish Chief fired him, Ghuman launched the Reporter in June 2010. Start-up costs were low, but without ad revenue he did odd jobs to stay afloat. He regularly covers city issues, the environment and education, as well as features such as “New in Town,” which profiles new families in town. Every Monday, Ghuman compiles a list of story ideas and events; Sunday is the only day he doesn’t worry aboutthe paper. For the paper’s first anniversary, he printed a commemorative issue and sold it for $3.
People quickly took notice. After Ghuman wrote about the risk of flooding in the area, the city made the dike upgrades his article recommended. Then he became interested in the fire department after a row of housesburned down. After going through The FUS’s audit, commissioned by the district and presented in a closed-door meeting, Ghuman reported that the survey recommended Squamish Fire Rescue increase its staff by 82 percent. Instead of hiring, the department downsized, laying off one firefighter in May 2009, while Squamish’s population increased by half. The fire department staff, according to the Reporter, remained the same size as it was in 1992. Ghuman wrote: “If the District of Squamish can hire new people, pay hundreds of thousands towards SCC debt, pay half-a-million dollars to buy a restaurant, choose to go on a China trip, and give the staff handsome raises, can it not hire a firefighter?”
After the article appeared, the district removed a report Ghuman used as one of his sources from its website, but also eventually enlisted the help of 18 volunteer firefighters and one part-time firefighter. An email from CAO Kevin Ramsay asked Ghuman to explain where and how he received the information about the audit. He wrote, “You have quoted from a study that is not public and has never been released to the public. We demand that you reveal how you received this confidential document so we can take legal action against this person.” The email threatened that if he didn’t reveal his source, the district would take legal action. Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner did not return calls asking for comment. Responding on his site, Ghuman wrote: “The SquamishReporter, in the best tradition of journalism, refuses to reveal its news-gathering procedure to the council. The newspaper stands by its story and believes that its only commitment is to the craft and practice of journalism. This stance, the newspaper believes, can never be in conflict with democratic principles.” Many readers commended his stand in the comment section.
Ghuman moved to Canada in 2006 to study journalism after working for a paper in India and getting a master’s degree in English. He worked at the Toronto Star for a year. John Miller, who taught Ghuman at Ryerson University in 2006, is proud of him. “He’s got a very high sense of being a professional journalist,” he says. Reporting on a small community—especially for someone new in town—is hard for any reporter, but Miller says Ghuman is in a league of his own, sacrificing a lot of his time and energy to work on the Reporter and to have a presence in the community.
Despite sometimes making life uncomfortable for the politicians and officials, the soft-spoken Ghuman feels accepted and wants to stay. “It’s always a challenge, starting an online thing,” he says, “especially if people are used to a certain news source.” But the Reporter is now competition for the Chief, a weekly newspaper with a staff of four and a circulation of 6,557. “We keep an eye on it,” says editor David Burke. “I don’t know how he finances it.” He praises “Playing with Fire” as a good investigative piece and admits, “We did cover it after Gagan dug it up.”
When he received threats from the city, Ghuman consulted Miller, who told him that Ramsay was probably bluffing. When he was still teaching, Miller created the “Rock the Boat” award and Ghuman won by a landslide because the other students recognized that he was dedicated to the journalism he wanted to do. “He’d be really intensely curious and notice stories other people wouldn’t.”
CAJ board member Ellin Bessner sat at Ghuman’s table the night of the CAJ awards. He was nervous but confident, she says, adding that he has done what journalists should do: “I identify with his spirit and his true sense of journalism.” Ghuman felt unsure during the reaction to his fire audit story. “Every time someone threatens to sue you, it’s scary. It’s one thing to be threatened by an individual. It’s another to be threatened by your government,” says Ghuman, “I knew I had to fight this.”
After a Squamish woman approached him on the street and said, “We are lucky to have you here,” Ghuman was shocked, but it also helped him realize how important his work is. “When you hear that you feel like you really are contributing something.”