My life as an investigative journalist was short-lived. The one story I wrote was neither important nor interesting. My researching skills needed honing. My ability to cold call people for information, non-existent. I have operated as a writer before, reporting on sports and other events, so I was no stranger to journalism. I was referred to an American company that contracted freelance writers in many large cities across the world. My contact was responsible for recruiting new reporters and assisting them with any queries relating to the stories we were covering. The recruiter used phrases such as: “We need more boots on the ground!” It sounded like he was quoting dialogue from a movie about the newspaper business, but one that I didn’t recognize.
The way the company worked was this: traditional forms of journalism were eroding and newspapers did not have the financial resources to send reporters all over the world covering stories. This company operated similar to a wire service: they contracted local writers, and when a story was breaking in a specific area, they would instantly have coverage. The company has been around for almost twenty years, so seemed legitimate.
One of those local writers in Toronto was me. They would send you an email alert, outlining the story, length and deadline. You accept or decline the assignment, write the story, shoot any photographs (optional) and send it to them. When they sell the story, you receive 75% and they keep 25%. From the concept of establishing a local army of reporters that could be mobilized with an email to feeling like a real investigative reporter hungry for his first assignment to the pay structure: it all made sense to me.
I waited for that first assignment. And waited. And waited.
After almost two months, I finally received an email marked URGENT! The message provided the following information:
Contact via phone or in person 2 – 3 General Managers of domestic and Japanese car dealerships and ask the following questions:
1. How is your dealership and the domestic (or foreign) auto business performing in your region in reference to the current US economic recovery?
2. Has your domestic (or foreign) auto business been effected positively, negatively, or has there been no notable effect at all in reference to the recent crisis in Japan?
3. What type of effect are you expecting in reference to the Japanese crisis over the next 6 – 12 months?
You may add a few questions you think are relevant to your piece: salary cuts? Layoffs? Parts? The article length is 250 – 500 words and compensation is the company’s regular freelance rate of $25 per hour with up to 3 hours in total.
Okay, $75 didn’t amount to a whole lot, but I was now an investigative journalist, one with an assignment. I went to work right away compiling two lists: one for domestic dealerships and one for foreign dealerships.
My only problem was that I am not what some call, a phone person. Not in the least. I talk to a handful of people on the phone, otherwise, everyone else knows to email me. I’ve even had to train some people: they call me, I email them back until they get it.
So, I did what any professional journalist would do: I procrastinated. The deadline was in 14 days and I figured the answers to these questions wouldn’t change that much in two weeks.
Finally, after a week, I had to start calling. I lined up my pages across my desk: notes, questions, list of contacts. Practiced my introduction a few times. A journalist friend advised me to use a tape recorder when conducting interviews. The piece of advice would be crucial.
I put the phone on speaker, hit record on the tape recorder and listened to the ringing phone as it echoed throughout my office. The administrative assistant answered, I asked for the General Manager and she put me on hold. This was easy. A man answered and he agreed to speak with me. He even closed the door to his office to give us total privacy. He answered every question, providing consistent and mundane answers. No problem, I thought. I didn't know at the time that this was as good as it was going to get.
The second person I called interrogated me over my credentials, or lack thereof. He hung up.
The third person didn’t ask any questions, she just hung up.
The fourth person lifted the phone up and slammed it back down. I didn’t even get a “Hello?”
A woman yelled at me for wasting her time. Another refused to talk about Japan, even in an informal context without referring to cars or the automobile industry or tsunami’s or nuclear meltdowns.
Nothing. No one would speak to me. At the very least, I expected a polite “no comment.” Not outright hostility.
I thought about the topic and subject and realized it was not as easy as it seemed. I was asking people about how bad their business was at the height of economic turmoil and a natural disaster. What did I expect them to say? Of course they would be reluctant to talk to a journalist, to be put on record, to be responsible for their words.
I wrote the article, using generic press releases from Toyota and many of the mundane responses from the very first interview. I did submit this article, but from what I know, it has never been published, and for good reason. I included the article below with my own comments in brackets and bold. When the title of the article is a bad pun, you’re already in trouble. An investigative journalist, I am not.
CANADIAN AUTO INDUSTRY WEATHERS HARDSHIPS [As stated above, bad pun. I enjoy a good pun, but this is neither good nor appropriate.]
The automotive industry in Canada might be far enough away from recent international disasters to field anything but minor aftershocks [Again with the pun!]. After the US economic problems and the recent crisis in Japan, Canadian car dealerships are not only optimistic of a recovery, but project an upswing in sales. [This is based on pure speculation and the answers from one interview.]
Although Canada sits north of the world economic leader, and sales were affected, the car industry has managed to bounce back [Redundant]. Increases in sales have grown since 2009 and according to figures from Desrosiers Automotive Consultants, February to March showed a jump of 60%. [Total internet research.]
Automotive companies headquartered in Japan are dealing with more pressing issues such as Japanese manufacturing plants working at 50% capacity, North American plants operating at 30% capacity and delays in international distribution. A statement released from Toyota Motor Corporation on April 22, 2011 updated the situation: “Production will begin to ramp up as soon as July in Japan and August in North American, with all models back to normal production by November or December 2011. In North America, it was announced earlier this week that there are no plans for layoffs.” [This statement was from a Toyota press release – it’s corporate rhetoric, doesn’t mean anything concrete.]
Local dealerships in Toronto, Ontario has seen automotive sales grow over the past year. There is an insulated quality to Canada’s economy, which extended and helped shift car sales into high gear [What is with all the puns!], especially over the past few months.
“Our business last year  improved,” said Ralph Canale, Fixed Operations Manager at Dean Myers General Motors in Toronto. “We expect to improve more this year. Business came back to us.” [My one interview – thank you Ralph! Saved my ass!]
The after effects of the Japanese crisis are more difficult to predict. Domestic manufacturers and dealerships have not seen much of a difference in both sales and product availability, as many carry a variety of makes and models in showrooms. There might be a restraint in particular product lines but the impact on Toronto area dealerships is projected to be minimal. [If you read this closely, it really says nothing you couldn’t figure out on your own.]
“Our business has changed as a result of that [Japan crisis],” said Canale. “You might see some of those changes down the road if they [foreign dealerships] have some availability issues. But today, no one has any availability issues that would be impacting business at this point.”
The Canadian automotive industry was in recovery from the US economic situation, but the next few months will be crucial in determining the after effects of the Japanese crisis, both on domestic and foreign car sales. [Wow! What a conclusion! It basically says, “Well, maybe something will happen or maybe it won’t.”]