AJAs 2016 Finalists


Slug/Label Donkin mine
Date Aired or Published April 15, 2016
Media outlet where first aired or published: Local Xpress
Name of Program:
If co-produced, list partner:
Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia
List awards, grants:
Running time (TV/Radio):

Short explanation of the story and how it developed:

In a province that has seen more than its share of mining tragedies, one would think that a new, large-scale mining operation would prompt a good deal of public scrutiny. But a thorough examination of the opening of the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton was lacking in Nova Scotia’s media. So when reporters Frances Willick and Michael Gorman got a tip that one of the proposed mine managers had a deadly track record in the industry, they began digging into his history as well as the Donkin parent company’s safety record and the economic prospects of the project. Reporting the story was sometimes difficult because many analysts and sources within the mining industry would not return the reporters’ calls. Whether that’s because industry representatives tend to be leery of potentially critical stories, because Local Xpress had no name recognition as a media outlet or because it is a union-supported publication (the mining company in question is known to be anti-union), is unclear. The last three days of reporting this story were hectic. The piece was pretty much ready to publish (pending insurance and lawyering) when we learned that the mining executive in question had suddenly resigned. Of course, this prompted another flurry of calls, emails and rewrites in order to publish reaction to this breaking news. While it’s hard to say whether Willick and Gorman’s impending news report prompted the proposed mine manager’s sudden departure from the company, the timing certainly suggests this: he offered his resignation after the reporters began asking questions of the company and government, shortly before their story was published. On a personal note, the week before the story was published was, shall we say, unusually busy for at least one of the reporters. Willick had a baby one week before the story was published, and she worked on the piece up until the day she went into labour and again after returning home with her newborn. Come to think of it, her editor still owes her a beer for that.

Resources of the newsroom (money and time) available to complete the story:

Local Xpress is an online publication created by the reporters, editors and photographers who are on strike from The Chronicle Herald. The uncertainty and difficulty of the labour situation certainly added stress to the reporters’ lives while they were working on this story. Without a bricks-and-mortar newsroom to work from, the reporters worked on this story from their homes and even made and received phone calls while walking up and down the sidewalk on the picket line. Strikers must contribute 20 hours a week in order to earn strike pay, and may choose to work for the Local Xpress or do picket duty. Aside from the strike pay the reporters earned while working on the story, no other money was used. Willick worked on this piece occasionally in January and February, doing much of the background research, poring over the Virginia mining disaster reports and U.S. business records and crunching data from a (very user-unfriendly) federal database of mining violations. She then worked more regularly on the story in March and April. Gorman joined the effort in March, tapping his government sources and repeatedly trying to contact the company for comment. Since Local Xpress was a new publication when the story was published, it did not have liability insurance or legal representation. The publication had to hustle to get both in place in the days before the story was published. Note: the PDF text is a little blurry, so if you’d rather read the story online, here’s the link: https://www.localxpress.ca/local-news/special-report-donkin-official-with-link-to-westray-like-blast-quits-298486

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