Fake news is a phrase that wasn’t uttered in April 1997 when the Red River swamped the neighborhoods of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn.
When my Grand Forks Herald colleagues and I reported on the devastating flood damage and the fire that ravaged 11 downtown Grand Forks buildings, nobody took to social media to attack our news stories. After tens of thousands of residents fled their homes because of the onslaught of water, they turned to the news media to learn when the water would recede and when they could return to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods.
Most of our newsroom staff remained in the Red River Valley to report on events as they unfolded. We worked out of a makeshift newsroom in a Manvel, N.D., school and several of us felt fortunate to have a place to sleep on the floor in a house outside Manvel.
Kept publishing, thanks to Pioneer Press partnership
The Herald’s downtown offices were flooded and one of our key buildings was merely rubble after the fire was extinguished. The day of the fire, some of my Herald co-workers with copy editing and page layout skills flew out of Grand Forks to set up shop in the St. Paul Pioneer Press newsroom. The helping hand from the Pioneer Press meant everything to us at the Herald because our world was falling apart.
Our partnership with the Pioneer Press allowed us to keep publishing. The Herald was printed in St. Paul, flown to Grand Forks and then distributed at regional centers in North Dakota and Minnesota where flood evacuees were staying.
Twenty years ago, the country was less polarized and people did not live in like-minded digital silos.
People turned to the Herald
When people returned to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to muck out their basements and reassemble their lives, they turned to the Herald for accurate information and to take part in the public debate about how to rebuild the cities.
At the time, I was the Grand Forks city government reporter and I chronicled the many tough choices that faced public officials. They needed to decide where to draw the lines for permanent flood protection and what public investments to make to help flood victims, rejuvenate the economy and restore the infrastructure.
During the months of deliberations, some citizens contacted me because they felt local government officials were ignoring their concerns or perspectives. I wrote about their issues and the politicians responded.
When the mayor said she had received a large anonymous contribution and could use the money to fund lobbying expenses, I knew the contribution’s source must be revealed to the public. I deduced the money came from a large construction company and verified the sourcing. Then I reported the contribution source because the company had received multiple large contracts from the city and was under consideration for more projects.
When an attorney told me that I should “get on board” and not ask questions about a city development proposal, I told him it was my…