The largest employer in Grady County - the Roddenbery plant - was closing and leaving thousands of people in the already-depressed area jobless. Of course, there needed to be a story about it. We knew it would be a tough nut to crack. Companies don't have to tell anyone anything. Of course, the story ended up in MY lap.
My first course of action was to call the plant in hopes of speaking to the plant manager. In usual fashion, he refused comment and directed me, instead, to corporate headquarters in I-don't-remember-where. I called corporate headquarters. Again, no comment. Drat! I only had six hours max to get the story and write it.
This had happened once before. Years and years before this challenge, I was met with a similar one at a different newspaper. A plant was laying off lots of employees. The business editor wanted a story. I wasn't even a reporter at the time. I was a news assistant who had only been allowed to write fluff before. All the reporters were busy. It was up to me. Only that time, I had only a couple of hours to get all the information I could.
That time, the spokesperson at the plant refused comment. I went on the Internet and in the newspaper database to get general information about the company. Then, I attempted a bit of trickery.
I drove way, way out in the country to the business site with a fellow news assistant (I didn't have a car then. I was just out of college and poor). We parked in the business parking lot and were quickly met with resistance. A couple of managers appeared in no time as we were attempting to interview a bunch of workers milling around in the parking lot. We were told to leave. My next idea was to stand across the street with signs urging exiting employees to talk with us. Someone in a van leaving the parking lot saw us and motioned to the next dirt road, presumably to talk. We walked down there. No van. By the time we got back to our spot across from the parking lot, all the employees were gone.
We went back to the newsroom where I called the company again and pleaded with the spokesbitch saying I hadn't gotten any information and that my story was due in a half-hour. A last-ditch effort and a tactic I never had to use again. She relented and answered a few of my questions. Enough for a six to eight-incher. That's all I could get.
This time, I was going to have to find a different way.
I drove down to the plant and entered the office, hoping the manager would speak with me if I showed up in person. It's harder to brush someone off if they're standing in front of you, and, over the years, I found it a great tactic to just show up. People tend not to want to disappoint someone who made the effort to be there in person. Well, the manager wouldn't talk. So I left. But I didn't go far.
I started walking around the building looking for another way in. Around the back, there was a chain-link fence surrounding a concrete slab full of picnic tables. I guessed this was where the workers took their breaks. A lone employee was sweeping. I told him who I was and why I was there. He didn't want to talk. I convinced him to talk, though, by reminding him that he was already laid off and had nothing to lose.
He was a very nice guy. He talked with me for a little more than an hour telling me his history at the plant (after 25 years working there, he was only making $9.25 an hour!), details about the severance package and what he was going to be doing next (visiting his son in Tokyo). He even posed for a photo that the photo developers the paper uses LOST before they could get me the negative. My story wasn't huge, but I at least got my worker that time. I finally got my worker.