Seth Boyes joined the Dickinson County News staff in March of 2017. In his first week at the DCN, he covered a train derailment near Graettinger. The tankers carrying ethanol burst into flames. Seth's photo of the event won first place for Best Breaking News photo at the 2018 Iowa Newspaper Association Convention and Trade Show. Since, Seth has won nearly a dozen awards for writing, photography and multimedia content. Seth graduated from Iowa State University in 2009 with a degree in Integrated Studio Arts. His original cartoons run regularly in the Spencer Daily Reporter and the DCN. Both he and his wife Janet hail from Clear Lake and have come to expect summers to be full of the hustle and bustle of tourists and visitors.
As I've mentioned before, this paper participates in the Iowa Better Newspaper Association's annual competition. As great as winning those awards is, the true purpose of the competition is to cultivate — you guessed it — better newspapers in the state of Iowa. That's why the award weekend is coupled with classes and forums for its attendees. I myself attended a course last year on the First Amendment and how to spread public awareness of its use — particularly free speech and open records. One attendee suggested the use of opinion column space to highlight how the First Amendment aided in the writing of that week's front page stories.
All right, you got me. It was me who suggested that.
But some people thought it was a good idea, so I'm going to follow through on my own suggestion. You may have already read about the pair who were arrested in relation to a robbery in Spirit Lake earlier this week. Now, aside from allowing me to take photos on the scene, the First Amendment's main role in the story came in the form of open records.
Dear reader, I'll tell you the same thing I tell the students who come to shadow in the newsroom every so often: journalists don't get information by virtue of some special journalistic authority. They get the information because they go out and ask for it — sometimes repeatedly.
In this case, it wasn't that hard. I personally performed a search of Iowa court records for the two parties arrested Wednesday, and the records showed me they both had multiple names in the system. One of those former names also happened to be listed in a story about a drug bust I myself had written about back in May of 2017. The arrest records also showed me there was a slight typo in the police department's written statement — they searched 815 Lake St. not 817 Lake St. — no biggie, though. The warrant requests and all the other court documents were correct. A few more clicks revealed a few more charges. To be honest, the online court records will show you anything from a traffic ticket on up — even the speeding ticket I got from the Chickasaw County Sheriff’s Office back in 2011.
Now, viewing those records is pretty easy these days too. All your average citizen has to do is go over to the courthouse with the filing, walk up to the clerk of court’s office and ask for what you want. Heck, you don’t even have to be articulate about it. Lord knows I’ve probably stumbled and bumbled my way through a request more than most. Then they'll give you the file or, more often than not, they'll bring you into a side room and pull it up on a computer for you. That’s all it takes. Just remember to log out when your done.
I don’t tell you all this to give away my trade secrets (though the use of public record can hardly be considered a trade secret). I tell you this to help you realize something. While any one of us is capable of getting public information, few do. The many rely on the few to supply it. While any one of us is capable of growing our own crops, few do. The many rely on the few. While any one of us is capable of learning to diagnose an illness, few do. The many rely on the few.
We'll say we need farmers and we need doctors because we can't do those things ourselves, but what we really mean is we'd rather spend our time and energy elsewhere while paying someone to do a better job. Yet, somehow we don't often say the same about journalists. Rather, we’ll say its a dying medium. We’ll say no one reads it. We’ll say any number of things, but I’ll say this.
I have yet to see another report on those arrests, local or otherwise, which had greater detail (or better photos for that matter) than the one which ran in this very paper.
So, yes, any one of us is capable of informing ourselves just like we are capable of feeding and healing ourselves, but we’ve chosen to let the few — in this case the very few — do those things for us, and local journalism is a service worth paying for, just the same as the others.