Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lake Placid Prognosticator Reports Without Sources

The headline predicts “Ethanol Plant Will be South of Lake Placid.”

Readers are right to wonder if there had been a debate about location and if city fathers have now settled the matter: “That plant won’t be north of the lake, dang it, we promise!”

The story mentions neither debate nor decision, so readers now are right to question which reliable source knows the plant will be south of the lake. No source is given in the reporter's Prognosticator's lede, nor in the second graf, or jump. OK, so the guy just knows this. It's not journalism, but it's all we have, so we'll press on.

Prognosticator buffs his crystal ball: More than 200 permanent, full-time jobs, plus $1.6 million worth of road construction contracts, are coming to the southwest corner of Highlands County, by way of an Ethanol plant that will be located six miles south of Lake Placid.

Who said this? No report. When was this decided? No report. When does construction start? No report. Why capitalize “Ethanol?” No copy editor. Nearly all the commas in the sentence are incorrect. We take back the part about "writing." Press on.

Second sentence: Seventy of those jobs, in the state’s first cellulosic ethanol plant, will pay at least $70,000 per year and include first-rate benefits.

Said who? No report. What’s “first-rate?” No opinion maker. When do jobs materialize? No report. Is a factory involved? Cellulosic? Ye gads. This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Third sentence: Also local companies will have the chance to bid on, with the county’s “local preference” advantage, contracts for road work and traffic signal installation totaling more than $1.6 million.

OK, in a nutshell: Who, what, when, where, why and how? (And, please, a copy editor, but that's clearly asking too much.)

As it happens, this interesting and significant local story has been developing in bits and pieces and fits and starts over the last two years or so. This story has real news to report – that is, what has transpired since LPJ last published a week ago -- and it has history to report given that not a word about it has been in the paper in at least three months (maybe more -- the archives are constipated).

Let's guess that the actual news -- the new stuff -- is that a local-government roads engineer (the only one interviewed for the story) now has permission, money, men and whatever to start on his slice of the project, probably soliciting bids if we read between the lines. The engineer might have something helpful to say about bids, detours, construction or something -- right? Wrong.

There is more, but it's not about the engineer and his road building mandate. Instead, Prognosticator trots out information about hefty wages, numerous jobs, stunning factory capacity, ambitious building plans – just to rattle of a few issues – and attributes none of it.

It doesn't take long for the interested reader to locate a well-thumbed 93-page agenda item from the commissioner's meeting last week, including some planning proposals associated with the plant. It's filed in city hall and on the Web , but Prognosticator needn't read or attribute.

Even a cursory skim through the document finds not a single number or figure that Prognosticator reports matches what's published in the document. Discrepancies are sometimes small; sometimes not. Are the differences Prognosticator's errors, typos, "variations due to rounding," or new information from unidentified sources?

This reader likes to be clear when reports about wages, hiring, production and so on are estimates from a company management with a vested interest in selling its factory -- a cane-burning and processing plant that's more than a year away from its estimated first day of work.

Lake Placid deserves a reporter who “gets it:” The pitch is to investors, grant-givers (of which there are several) and local burghers. The big picture includes a several-hundred-thousand acre land-lease and sale transaction to one area farmer.

Old Word Wolf is not implying that building a local ethanol plant is a bad idea – it may well be the best thing to hit Highlands since the Presbyterians moved in.

But the reporter Prognosticator has failed local journalism and embarrassed himself in public.

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