This guest column was written by Noel Hamiel, a retired editor and publisher of numerous South Dakota newspapers, including Yankton and Mitchell newspapers. He also served in the state Legislature. Hamiel lives near Reliance.
Journalism: Writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation. — Merriam Webster Dictionary
In the newspaper world, editors look for reporters and writers.
Reporters can spot a news story from across town, and dig out the important details before press time. The best ones ask questions no one else thinks of asking, and get printable answers instead of “no comment.”
Writers, on the other hand, can produce prose like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Hemingway if you prefer, pulling readers into some stories they otherwise would have little interest in reading. As with your junior high crush, you are involved in the story before you really know what happened.
Which brings me to Bob Mercer, one of the best journalists I’ve seen in all my years of newspapering.
Bob digs for information when others have decided it was time to go home. The clock meant nothing to Bob when he was after a story he believed was important to his readers. Years ago, when the Board of Regents was quietly planning to add a new university to the state system, Bob dug out the facts. More recently, if you wanted reliable updates on the EB-5 program or the Mid-Central Educational Co-op scandal, you turned to Mercer in your daily newspaper.
Bob felt so strongly about the public’s right to details about the EB-5 program that he sued to access the death investigation file of Richard Benda, a principal player in the story. The judge ruled against him, and Bob, acting as his own attorney, later said he was trying to make a point about the difficulty, and expense, of obtaining information that he believed was in the public’s interest.
Bob could write, as well as report. In 2002, he approached me and the publisher of the Watertown Public Opinion, Mark Roby, about starting a one-person news bureau. He wondered if some South Dakota dailies would be interested in hiring him. Bob had finished his time as press secretary for Gov. Bill Janklow, and some questioned if he could be fair in his reporting after that political service.
With The Associated Press cutting back, Bob’s idea was timely and attractive. There was another reason, as well. Bob’s long history of objective reporting prior to the press secretary job made the case all by itself. I figured his years in government service only expanded his knowledge of an important news beat.
And then there was a comment Janklow made to me years before. “I had to hire Mercer,” he told me, “to get him out of the press corps.” He made the comment only partially in jest. He recognized Bob’s abilities, and his intellectual candlepower.
You have not seen Bob Mercer’s stories for awhile. He is, as they say, severely under the weather. He will not cover this session of the Legislature, and that is a major loss for South Dakotans who try to stay informed.
Bob, we need you to get well and get back to what you do best: reporting and writing the news.