It was straight business that morning and Celia Donnelly knew it. On September 1, 2009, The Globe and Mail’s chief librarian woke up to an unexpected project. The night before, cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard died in an incident involving a car driven by former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant and her assignment was to dig up the 33-year-old bike courier’s past. Hours later, Donnelly tracked down anEdmonton Sun article and uncovered a new angle: Sheppard was wanted for 61 outstanding arrest warrants in Alberta. The Globe was the first newspaper to reveal Sheppard’s criminal record, thanks to Donnelly. As Globereporter Kate Hammer says, “That’s an example where research really turned a story on its head.”
News librarians provide the information that journalists sometimes can’t get due to tight schedules and less proficient research skills. Hammer says librarians can do research in half the time it takes her to do it. “They tend to know a few more tricks.” With the advent of online content, librarians have had to become “Jacks-of-all-trades,” taking on new jobs they never did years ago. With so much information now available to reporters, it’s up to researchers to train them to be more self-sufficient. Even so, newspaper librarians don’t always get the recognition they deserve.
Donnelly joined the Globe in 1985 and updated the crude research process: reporters used clipped Globe articles. No longer wanting to rely on the paper’s archives, Donnelly introduced the research department to external databases, new publications and the public library’s database. Her primary job was to find records and documents at the request of reporters.
Nowadays, research librarians train reporters on effective research methods, maintain digital archives, develop internal networks and help with investigations; some even generate story ideas and write sidebars. When powerful search engines such as google.com proved so easy to use, some feared news librarians’ jobs would become irrelevant, but that wasn’t the case. Astrid Lange, a library and research specialist at theToronto Star, credits “the invisible web”—the vast amount of information that is still hard to find on the internet—with keeping her career afloat. “What we’re discovering is that there’s so much out there, it’s hard for them to cut through everything to get to what they need,” says Lange. “We’re still needed.”
But not all newspaper companies agree. As a result of financial cutbacks, news libraries have repeatedly been slashed. Smaller local papers such as Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald don’t have researchers to help when a reporter needs information outside the newspaper’s own archives. Meanwhile, three of the eight library staff at the Star have taken buyouts, while the Globe is down to four general researchers. After years of downsizing in the research department, the National Post no longer has a full-time librarian. Technically, Scott Maniquet is the Post’s head librarian, but he spends most of his time as the website producer since the library incurs more costs than it brings in at a paper that wants to focus on its profit-generating departments.
The cost of online information adds up—at fpinfomart.ca, for example, it costs $4.95 to retrieve one article. With more and more free information on the internet, newsrooms are finding it harder to justify paying for such costly services.
If used correctly, though, librarians can be more cost-effective, says Michael McCaffrey, a reference professor at the University of Toronto. More often than not, a highly trained and skilled researcher will find information more efficiently than a less research-savvy journalist, without racking up big bucks for unnecessary searches. Plus, it frees up more time for journalists to do what they do best. Researchers helpGlobe columnist Christie Blatchford meet her deadlines and leave her with more time for reporting and writing. “I couldn’t do my job without those guys,” she says. For Blatchford, however, it boils down to time and circumstance. She relies heavily on librarians only about once a month when a deadline is looming or when she’s not plugged into her BlackBerry during court proceedings. “If I can do it myself,” she says, “I’ll do it myself.”
When reporters catch on quickly to research techniques, McCaffrey says librarians become easily underappreciated because their work seems as easy as falling off a log. And, he adds, it’s hard to realize the value of something if you’re not aware of how complex it really is. While some reporters praise their librarians in person, they often neglect to add a “with files from” note at the end of the published piece. When Hammer broke the story on the maltreatment of animals at the Toronto Humane Society, she thanked her researchers profusely for all of the background research they did, but because their work never made it into the story they were never credited. With background information, “it’s not always obvious what it is they’ve dug up,” says Hammer. If a fact came directly from researchers, Hammer says she will regularly give them the credit.
There are still oversights, but Donnelly says there is now more recognition of the research carried out in the newsroom. “We were doing a huge amount of work before,” she says, “but it wasn’t getting through to the editors at the top.” Now, the Globe’s research department has expanded to two floors and, with other staff, Donnelly has rebranded the research department so that editors and reporters will take notice, dubbing it the ER (editorial research) and giving it a Red Cross logo. Even with the grim statistics of declining research positions, Donnelly doesn’t see the job becoming irrelevant. She knows the consequences of eliminating in-depth research: dumbed-down news, generic stories and unsubstantiated reports.
“It all depends on the quality you want to put out there.”