by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
There’s a quote floating around out there somewhere that goes something like this: “I’ve been lied to, screamed at, kicked out of meetings and threatened, all in the pursuit of journalism.” That might sound a bit over-the-top, but I will tell you, after a baker’s dozen years in the field, not only can I confirm the accuracy of that list, but I could also add quite a few unpleasant and/or scary things I have encountered over the years as a reporter.
Being a reporter is an incredible job. It’s an incredible responsibility, and carries with it some ins and outs that might not occur to your average reader. You have to be a good learner, and fast, because you are going to be expected to fully understand all kinds of different things, and, be able to make those complex topics understandable to others. You must have an open mind and always remember that just because something doesn’t immediately sound like a big deal to you doesn’t mean that it’s not a life-altering issue for someone else. (Unless you’re a farmer yourself, you probably didn’t hear the first word on Minnesota’s proposed new “nitrogen rule” and think to yourself, “Boy, that’s going to be a big, big deal.) You need to be respectful. You need to consider other people’s opinions — opinions with which you may completely disagree — and be thoughtful, and compassionate, and try your best to understand the other side of an issue. Sometimes (say, when you are getting hollered at), you have to be brave. Persistent. Polite.
Once in awhile, a reporter finds herself doing things she never thought she’d do. I remember stumbling into a meeting at the county office building years ago, a meeting I hadn’t been invited to and wasn’t certain what it was about. (But guys, meeting is my middle name!) It was staffed by a consultant, and I hoped he would simply think I was a young farmer who was on the committee, one who was so nerdy she liked to take lots and lots of notes about what he was saying. What he was saying was that certain kinds of feedlot expansion permit requests could happen under the new ordinance without a public hearing; instead, an operator could just work it out with county staff. It was one of the very first zoning ordinance revision meetings, before much of anything had been written on 299 pages. I walked back to the office and said to Fran, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be a big deal.” Many, many picket signs later, it was indeed a big deal, one that found its way to the trash can before long.
After that, I pretty much lived and breathed zoning. And somehow, what began seemingly as several efforts to relax certain rules for farmers and landowners took a turn, and the draft ordinance instead was seen by nearly all in the world of agriculture as an attempt to over-regulate Winona County. Farmers drove their tractors adorned with handmade signs protesting the ordinance, circling ‘round the county office building before big meetings. Amish farmers hitched rides to town to speak at open microphone sessions, copies of the Winona Post tucked under arms, tears in their eyes. I spent my nights scouring over the document, trying to explain setback rules and animal units and engineering reports, and somehow, this thing — zoning — which I honestly probably never even said aloud until I was halfway into my 20s — was my hottest beat. People called me all the time to talk about zoning. They came to visit me to discuss manure management plans and soil quality and quarter-quarter rules.
I had probably written 100 stories about this zoning ordinance rewrite process and spent the better part of two years chasing its tail, when we were finally nearing the end. The rules had been battled, some compromises had been made, and in the end, hardly anyone was happy about it, which is usually a sign that a fair compromise has been had. The countdown to the vote was upon us, and I was eager to spend less time on the “z” word. Only one more pile of papers was needed, one the County Board had requested over and over again — a breakdown of all the changes between the new ordinance and the old. While each chapter and definition had long been debated, a side-by-side comparison document didn’t exist, and it wasn’t one that was easy to create because the two were arranged so differently. So we all waited, but that comparison never came.
The day before my last deadline for that vote, I realized I had to do it.
So I spread out approximately 400 pages of land-use rules all across the floor of my living room in different piles, with notes and markers and labels, attempting to match up ordinance sections that did not, in fact, really match. When my back started to ache rolling around taking notes and reading, I would go to the computer and do a word find on the computer version to try to find mention of the regulations that were more difficult to find in the old ordinance. (My husband, bless his heart, made me dinner and tried to help.) I stayed up half the night, and I certainly didn’t find every single change (there are only so many pages in a newspaper, after all). But I was able to identify some of the lesser known changes and give people that one final nudge to look into some of the issues that might affect their land and families going forward, before it was too late. Because I’m a reporter, and that’s what we do.
Eventually, it passed, and there have been a few amendments and changes made over the years, but for the most part, I haven’t had to lug around 300 pages of land-use regulations with me every day in a long time. And when it was finally, finally over? My husband made dinner again, and I drank a glass of wine and started a fire in the fireplace. With that dog-eared ordinance.