How do you find a farmer?
Finding farmers and getting their views has always been a core part of my job. It wasn’t easy to do 25 years ago, when the internet was a just-beginning thing, almost nobody had a mobile phone and most farmers lived far from the cities I was living in.
Fortunately, the Western Producer office had an impressive cabinet of phonebooks from across Canada – literally dozens of them. There were all sorts of phone books. There were those for the major cities of Western Canada, like Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. But there were also many from all the regions of the Prairies, from the B.C. bit of the Peace River country to the eastern edge of Manitoba. Those local phonebooks were invaluable to reporters like me, trying to dig up real, live farmers in places where something was happening, or where the impact of some decision would be felt. Within our newsroom there was much frowning and vexation if somebody ran to the phonebook case and found that the one they needed wasn’t there. “WHO HAS THE *** ****** PHONE BOOK?!” You’d occasionally hear an exasperated question like that back in the day.
Nowadays it’s much easier and quicker to find a way to a farmer, with thousands available just a couple of clicks of a mouse away. At times 25 years ago I would spend a lot of time calling telephone operators to ask for the phone numbers of farmers or rural businesses that I couldn’t find in the aging telephone book bank our newsroom held. Now I just Google people. And unlike back in the mid-1990s, you don’t have to keep all your farmer calls to the 12:05 to 1:00 lunch period in order to catch a farmer near his phone. These days, he’s almost certainly got a mobile phone near him. Farmers still farm where they were farming 25 years ago, but they’re much closer to journalists like me.
I keep comparing today to 25 years ago because tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of me coming to work for The Western Producer, which has seen me go from Regina to Saskatoon to Camrose to Saskatoon again to Winnipeg, all while employed as a journalist covering Western Canadian farming. There are lots of changes out there, but lots of things remain the same. I’m going to unpack some of those things over a series of blog posts in this anniversary week, partly in an attempt to entertain you and partly as my own testament to the evolution of journalism, farming and the Prairies in that quarter-century.
I’m going to blather about:
• How farmers and farmer expectations have changed;
• How reporting and journalists’ jobs have (d)evolved with the onset of the internet;
• How farmer organizations have changed;
• How much of the mainstream media has been falling into an audience engagement trap, while the farm press and speciality media still seem to be be maintaining an attempt at broad (within their areas) appeal;
• How the role of the newspaper has radically evolved.
I’m writing this at a Starbucks near the Winnipeg Convention Centre, where I’ll be covering a farm conference this afternoon. I’ll momentarily post this through the Western Producer website, which I’m connected to through my laptop and free Wifi. At the conference I’ll be taking notes, taking photographs, capturing audio for a podcast, shooting video for our website, and checking facts and double-checking names with my mobile phone. And if I want to connect with a farmer who’s across the hall, I’ll DM or text him. That’s a lot different from what I could do 25 years ago.
I’ll file my photos through some Wifi connection somewhere (it doesn’t really matter where), rather than having to run film to the developer and then get the pictures on a Greyhound bus to Saskatoon, and hope that the WP’s courier gets down the Greyhound station in time to get the photos back to the newsroom in time for this week’s paper. Things are a lot different.
But still, at the conference I’m sure I’ll be hearing the ageless farmer concerns about how to grow the best crops and how to squeeze a margin out of an unforgiving market. The base concerns of both journalism and farming don’t change with time, but how we do these things does. That’s what I’m going to be pondering in coming days.