Linda Petersen thinks her first question as a child was “Why?” Combine that inquisitive spirit with a gift for writing and a love of language, and you have the recipe for a perfect career: journalism.
As a writer, editor and community newspaper owner in Utah, Petersen has a unique perspective on a segment of the media that is largely overlooked: small-circulation, free newspapers. As an enduring advocate for Freedom of Information and open government, she has taken to educating small paper colleagues in Utah and across the country on FOI issues. To her, all media outlets need an intricate understanding of journalists’ – and regular citizens’ – rights when seeking information from government.
“On a day-to-day basis, it’s hard for small papers to get resources to understand these FOI issues,” said Petersen, who serves as the FOI committee chairwoman of the Utah Headliners Club, the only professional SPJ chapter in the state.
But in her current position with the chapter, Petersen is not only focusing on newspapers in her niche. As the person in charge of organizing the chapter’s FOI activities, she has taken advocacy and commitment to the extreme. Thanks to her efforts, the chapter successfully sponsored Sunshine Week, an FOI-related program, and information panels with the League of Women Voters. Such programming recently earned the chapter a national SPJ award. Allison Barlow-Hess, the chapter’s president, credits Petersen with the award.
“Linda was absolutely integral in our chapter earning the award,” Barlow-Hess said.
Her commitment to FOI issues is why Barlow-Hess nominated Petersen for Region 9 Volunteer of the Month.
“Linda is a great advocate for SPJ and FOI, and I recommend her highly,” Barlow-Hess wrote in her nomination letter.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Petersen is her commitment to open government, a government that, in her words, she adopted.
As a native of Ireland, she grew up in a country that is technically a democracy, “but most citizens take that for granted,” Petersen said.
After moving to the United States with her husband, whom she met while he did missionary work in Ireland, Petersen quickly realized that laws in the United States allowed more access for citizens and journalists. But, like her Irish countrymen, many people don’t realize, or understand, how to question government.
“I believe we have a sacred charge to monitor our government,” she said.
Petersen has taken that charge and made it her passion. She chairs the Utah Foundation for Open Government, a group that consists mostly of nonjournalists and fights to give access to all citizens. Furthermore, she’s taken it upon herself to remind public officials of the laws that dictate how they must interact with the public. Using her own money, and her own valuable time, she prints copies of the state open meetings rules on wallet-sized cards and distributes them to local legislators.
Such advocacy is all in a day’s work for Petersen. When asked what the most important FOI issue is today, she responded without hesitation: “The mistaken belief of politicians that the public doesn’t care about open government.”
Clearly Linda Petersen cares, and the more she advocates, the more other people will care as well.