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John Mahoney's Free-fire Zone
John Mahoney
John Mahoney
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is editor of the Log Cabin Chronicles.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 06.07.06
Fool's Hollow, Quebec

JOHN MAHONEY

VETERAN QC NEWSPAPER EDITOR RETIRES
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Sharon McCully of the daily Sherbrooke Record is leaving the top news job of "the other Anglo daily" in la belle province
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After a quarter century in the trenches doing community journalism in a shrinking - and scattered -- English-speaking community, award-winning journalist says she's ready for some extended family play-time

SHERBROOKE, QC | It's a far piece to travel from the Gaspé to the Eastern Townships but not as far as from the tiny Gaspé SPEC community newspaper to the editorship of the daily Sherbrooke Record.

Now, at 57, Sharon McCully of Lennoxville is ready to hand over her desk to "a suitable replacement." (Applicants have until June 15, 2006, to apply. See the advert in the newspaper.)

McCully is a youthful-looking woman at the peak of her game so why is she stepping down now?

"I want more time with my retired husband (Ralph, a long-time educator)," she says, "and enjoy our grandbabies."

McCully, of Irish stock, is a native of Cambellton, NB. She joined the staff of the SPEC in 1981 and ten years later moved to The Brome County News in Knowlton, QC, which is owned and operated by The Record.

In 1996, McCully replaced Charlie Bury as editor at The Record.

She's not a J-school-trained reporter and earned her chops the old-fashioned way -- on the job -- but don't mistake that for being soft and easy, because she's not and she does like having the last word on an issue.

Here's an e-mail Q&A session between the LCC and SMM (Full disclosure: Her middle 'M' stands for Mahoney and she and I are clan cousins from County Cork, Ireland).

LCC: What do you look for in a reporter?

SMM: Pretty much the same thing I look for in a person. Honesty, integrity, sense of humor, an inquiring mind, a healthy degree of skepticism, passion without extremism, a sense of responsibility to the people you are writing about, compassion.... and it helps if they can write. I would also like to know they've read a lot of books, traveled a bit, they stay abreast of current events and care about what they are doing.

LCC: If you had your way, how would reporters be trained?

SMM: There are certain essentials that reporters need to know such as governance structures of public bodies, how the democratic process works, privacy issues, libel, courtroom reporting, research techniques, etc. that are best taught in a classroom by competent people. It's possible to acquire those skills on the job but it takes a fair bit of trial and error and nobody wants the risk of either trial or error.

Once they have the basic tools, I think the best reporters are those with natural instincts for sniffing out a story and telling it in a compelling way. That, you don't learn. You either have it or you don't.

LCC: What's your opinion about the competence of local journalists?

SMM: I looked on the Jeff Gaulin journalism board for new talent and 90 per cent of new journalists looking for work want to write about sports, music or culture. Maybe three wanted to cover news. The money is in PR, not community reporting.

LCC: What's your current view of community journalism after a quarter of a century on the job?

SMM: It's one of the most important jobs there is. It's extremely rewarding. If you do it well, you can really make a difference. I have seen so many examples over the years where the newspaper has been an agent of change, where wrongs have been righted and the playing field leveled for the ordinary Joe. It's the public's watchdog and soapbox.

I learned from the best in the business as president of both the Quebec Community Newspapers Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. It was an incredible experience.

(I was only the third woman elected president of CCNA in 79 years and the only editor ever. All others have been publishers or owners. I got to travel to every corner of the country and observe all manner of newspapers.)

LCC: And the future of community journalism in general, and the Eastern Townships in particular?

SMM: I worry about it a lot.

There is an overwhelming tendency towards tele-reporting and in my view you can't feel the grief unless you eyeball it and you can't smell a skunk in the woodpile over the telephone. When I was reporting, I spent 90 per cent of my time in the community and 10 per cent writing.

When you are out there, people are constantly talking to you.

There is a tendency on the part of Townshippers to believe that newspapers will continue to exist whether or not they support them. That's simply not true. It's a daily struggle for all media serving the ET's English-speaking population to survive and it will not be easy to revive them once they're gone.

LCC: Do you feel there is any future for community journalism on the Web?

SMM: It's the medium of choice for the quick fix and not just for younger people. You'll get to know a little bit about everything, which seems to be sufficient for most people these days. But you can't clip it, frame it, or boast about it to friends, so I don't think it will ever fully replace print media.

LCC: Looking back, what story - or stories - do you feel really good about?

SMM: So, so many. It's been such a privilege to have crossed paths with so many fascinating people from all walks of life and all ages. It's hard to single out particular stories but I can think of a few that corrected injustices or uncovered abuses, and that was gratifying - whether it was someone abusing a position of authority or elected office or someone exploiting a more vulnerable person.

I am tenacious when it comes to the public's 'right to know' and it's been rewarding to be able to pull the covers off a few scams for readers.

LCC: Any advice for aspiring journalists?

SMM: Care about the people and issues you are writing about and never lose sight of the fact there are real people in your stories who will live with the impact long after you've moved on. Having said that, never shy away from a story because you're afraid you'll be unpopular. Be relentless on behalf of readers in bringing them the whole story.

LCC: To wrap this up, Sharon, what would you have done differently?

SMM: Nothing.

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