Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

On the record, off the record or just talking?

by John Halverson

July 19, 2012

Last Saturday, the mayor and I talked after a neighborhood meeting.

A few days before, Speedo Condos and I shared a few words outside his restaurant.

And on Friday, I had an e-mail exchange with a critic of a recent story.

What did I report from these conversations?


At a public meeting or when I’m interviewing you, it’s “talker beware.” Don’t say anything you don’t want reported because I feel no inhibitions about doing so.

But on the record might turn to off the record when we talk the day after.

Technically, “off the record” is something that must be agreed to before the conversation takes place.

But in the real world, an understanding, a trust, develops between reporter and source.

When I had my conversations with the mayor, Speedo, or the critic, they trusted that I wouldn’t be reporting what they said.

They were casual conversations, not interviews.

If we discuss something that’s newsworthy, I sometimes pack that away in my mental file drawer and pull it out later.

Sometimes I’ll contact the person the next day for an on-the-record conversation and hope the background knowledge will help in that process.

The other person also knows that you know which makes it more likely they’ll go on the record.

Sometimes the information allows me to follow up with others or through public records without compromising the other person.

Sometimes a conversation is just a conversation.

For years, I’ve joked that I never quote people in taverns.

That came from a very real situation when I was editor of another paper in another city some 30 years ago.

After every city meeting, the officials adjourned to a watering hole across the street. I joined them for a few beers and some after-meeting conversation.

Often the talk would be a continuation of what was said at the open meetings.

There was a lot accomplished at those after-hour get-togethers.

Adversaries and friends talked things out in a way they couldn’t in front of a crowd. And I gathered information that made for better coverage.

The key? Everything was off the record.

The council members could think out loud. They could let thoughts and ideas flow naturally.

They could risk saying something stupid without it being reported in the next day’s paper.

While I have no desire to go back to those dark days of anything goes, I have to admit that some of those bar conversations gave me insight I wouldn’t normally have had and helped me write better stories.

Those types of gatherings are now prohibited under the open meetings law.

But that doesn’t stop the government official and the reporter from having “off the record” conversations.

We run into each other at the grocery store or on the sidewalk or before a meeting.

If you’re talking to a reporter, you have to trust that you’re also talking to a good person. You should know that the reporter won’t write anything that was said in haste or talking off the cuff or, as was the case in my early days, when you were three sheets to the wind.

Those are “gotcha” quotes and rarely the result of honest reflection.

But there is a balancing act that is a challenge for any reporter, especially someone who has built relationships with sources.

I’d like to think I treat people with the same respect whether I like them or not, whether I agree with them or not.

But it’s a tricky balancing act that plays out at every newspaper, in every community, every day.

If you’re talking trash at a city council meeting or when I’m acting in the role of a reporter, trust that it will be in the next edition of the paper.

But if you’re talking to me in a casual meeting, trust that you’re talking to a person, not a profession.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.