Cobourg beach fiasco: hyperlocal journalism at it should be

Northumberland Today reporter Pete Fisher launched a maelstrom this week after reporting on the lack of bylaw enforcement along Cobourg’s waterfront over the long August Civic Holiday weekend.

His timing from a journalistic perspective was everything, as a confluence of events magnified the problems. First, a recent Toronto Star article extolling the virtues of Cobourg beach was a tourism promoters dream come true. The idyllic picture of a pristine beach populated by families enjoying the summer along the lakeshore couldn’t have been better. Second, the annual Sandcastle Festival took place, drawing huge crowds. It was also the DBIA’s Sidewalk Sale, but that was more of a local promotion. Next, it was a long weekend so people were in a mood to travel. (Another factor was the amazing weather.)

The result was recorded in Tuesday’s edition of Northumberland Today. Fisher’s article and op/ed piece represent some of the best aspects of hyperlocal journalism.

His piece aims to demonstrate how local officials failed to enforce bylaws after months of debate and promises to deal with ongoing problems surrounding parking, waste removal and general safety. Fisher, a photojournalist first and foremost, recorded images of the violations showing overflowing garbage cans, tents pitched on the beach, illegal use of barbeques and so forth. The evidence from this perspective appears solid.

Dutifully, he also interviews the town’s municipal clerk, who confirms no tickets were issued. However, there is a bureaucratic glitch. The Ontario Attorney General has not approved the fines. Still, the local bylaws can be enforced and that should not be a barrier.

It was Fisher’s opinion piece where much more detail was provided. Parking lots were overflowing. Tickets were issued and some cars were towed. But the lack of staff made it impossible to stay on top of the situation as it unfolded. The Cobourg Yacht Club parking lot, meant for members only, was jammed beyond capacity with people who were not members.  The sheer number of people disposing of garbage meant staff were unable to get around quickly enough to empty cans. So, spillage was occurring as the cans overflowed. The tents, barbeques, coolers and other violations were most likely unintentional, but still no one was around to either ticket or educate people.

From a law enforcement perspective, it was chaos. And, it was a failure.

From a journalistic perspective, it was good journalism. Fisher nailed a failure of local government to enforce bylaws. Considering the outcry by taxpayers over the past few years, the solutions proposed over the winter are not working. So, the system is failing. It is the job of every journalist to hold governments accountable. It is good hyperlocal journalism from this perspective and should be celebrated.

Politicians need to be held accountable, too. Fisher did a great job getting the bureaucratic response. Politicians should be on the record explaining why there is such a shortage of staff on a weekend when the park and the beach were going to be jammed packed and everyone could have figured it out in advance.

The YMCA must also be accountable. What is the minimum number of lifeguards on a beach that was that full? Was the YMCA monitoring the situation? Was it fulfilling its legal responsibilities? Was the public in danger?

But, there also needs to be a bit more context. There needs to be other stories, going back to the beach, and recording what happened afterwards. What were the crowds like Tuesday, Wedensday, etc? Are the bylaws being enforced then? Was the situation the same? Or, was this a one-time event?

Without this kind of context the public reacts without a full picture. The result was a letter to the editor dredging up some of the old acrimony. The public debate should be focusing on the failure of council to deliver, rather than pleas to drive tourists away and reclaim the beach for local use. Underneath the surface of the debate lurks a racist tone of intolerance to the culturally diverse people who come to town, but is never stated directly and quickly denied.

To counter this aspect of the debate, the Burd Report, authored by local blogger Ben Burd, posted his own reaction, along with some articulate responses from his audience. This provides some balance.

The irony of the situation is overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each year promoting Cobourg to tourists. Now, they are arriving in droves. Rather than a joyful celebration, the town is thrown into a debate that sends a clear message these people must go. As one author of a letter put it:

“Then recently there was an article in the Toronto Star extolling the virtues of our beach — it is cheap and clean etc. That kind of publicity isn’t what we need. Those who come here to enjoy our free beach rarely are the kind who spend any money here. They have their day, ignore our laws, leave their trash and go home.

As a Cobourg taxpayer, (a title for which we pay dearly, I am afraid) I too would like to enjoy our beach. But our beach has been hijacked. There is no way we can enjoy our own beach even if we wanted to — even though we already have paid for its use through our taxes.”

From this perspective, the message is: Come to our town, spend your money and leave without causing a ripple. If that is the case, then maybe the local businesses and town council should simply hire pickpockets to go to Toronto to steal money. It might be cheaper and the beach would be safe.

The media started the ball rolling, but more is needed. The reasons are a lack of time and resources. Without sufficient staff and time to chase down sources, these stories languish. The result is event-based coverage, as witnessed by this story, and nothing more.

The additional result is a uninformed public who are unable to formulate facts upon which they can hold a meaningful debate. Instead, misinformation drives a discourse that fails to serve the community and democracy.

Let’s hope over the upcoming days and weeks, resources are made available and the media is able to regroup and get the story back on track. If it does, both journalism and the community will benefit.