There is possibly no more maligned part of any newspaper, especially among those who work in journalism, than the streeter.
Maybe it’s because the work itself can be challenging and a bit undignified — standing on a street corner, looking for passerby willing to lend their name and face to the answer of some idle question. Maybe it’s because the result usually isn’t important, society changing, award winning in any way — streeters are fairly inconsequential work, at least in comparison to breaking or investigative news.
Probably the most infamous streeter to ever come from a Northern News Services paper was printed in a August 2015 edition of Nunavut News/North. The question was, “Firefighters in training, what attracted you to firefighting?”
Gary Tinashlu very honestly answered, “When I was a child I burned down a few houses and that made me interested in learning about fire services.”
This answer has made the rounds on social media more than once, and why not? It really is good to see Gary has transformed his childhood pyromania into a constructive career.
Sometimes Yellowknifer will collect streeters to gauge public opinion about headline stories. In September 2015, it was the eve of the city’s vote on whether to purchase the 50/50 lot downtown. One of my first assignments at Yellowknifer — on top of covering the municipal services committee debate and consequent vote on the issue — was to get a streeter of whether or not the city should make the purchase. The streeter never ran but the exercise of hanging out downtown chatting with people about the issue contributed to my reporting and helped me get a better sense of what the community felt.
Going through the Yellowknifer archives last week, I found a couple streeters from a 1974 edition of that paper that garnered what Northerners thought southerners knew about the North, and in the next edition, reflected a few actual southern views back up to the city.
In the Feb. 21, 1974 edition of the paper, Yellowknifer asked, “What do you think southerners know about the NWT?”
Pat Balsillie answered, “Seventy-five per cent of them don’t even know where it is.”
Wanda Anderson didn’t have much more faith: “Nothing. There isn’t enough information distributed in the south.”
Patty McKim offered a similar opinion: “Nothing. They still think we’re part of the Yukon.”
(As an aside, I have found many southern Canadians assume I’m in the Yukon when I say I live in Yellowknife.)
A couple weeks later, former Yellowknifer reporter Bill Braden took some time to ask people what they knew about Yellowknife while on a visit to his hometown of Rosthern, Sask.
The answers were interesting.
Russell Kenney said he’d actually been to Yellowknife himself once: “Saw the beer parlour,” he said. “It seemed to be doing a good business.”
Peter Dereverzoff expressed curiosity about the North: “I’d like to know more about the place,” he said. “And visit it.”
Chas Fast acknowledged the North was, at the time, starting to capture the imaginations of southerners: “It’s the coming thing, the Northern part of Canada. Everybody seems to be going North.”
This pair of streeters are interesting because they show a stark contrast between what Northerners think of their southern counterparts and what is actually the case, at least as evidenced by this tiny sample size out of Saskatchewan.
The role of a newspaper goes much, much further than what a streeter provides – basically an unscientific poll of opinions on topics big and small. But streeters do perform an important function — they give reporters a chance to chat with people on the street about issues of the day. It’s an important exercise, if admittedly a bit frustrating, depending on how many people are game to chat.
They also give the average citizen the chance to sound off on these issues, if they are in the right place at the right time. Once in print, streeters give readers the chance to know their fellow community members, whether through learning their favourite books or how they feel about community issues.