The multi-dimensional Peter Desbarats

Official UWO portrait

Peter Desbarats 1933-2014

As I wrote in a newspaper column last week, former Canadian journalist Peter Desbarats was a complex individual with many sides and a variety of literary voices: poet, journalist, author, essayist, children’s author, performer, scholar. Noted obituary writer Fred Langan captured much of this in his memorial piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, describing Desbarats as a multimedia man with “a Don Draper phase.”

Indeed, some of this complexity emerged at Desbarats’ funeral on Friday. There were tears; there was laughter. Nephews joked about his “sideburns phase” at Global Television and the fact that, for a while, he wore a cape. “Yes, an actual cape,” one said. Peter’s widow, Hazel, read one of his favourite children’s stories — Halibut York: The Night the City Sang, which Desbarats published in 1964. And there was, even among those of us who knew him fairly well, a new appreciation for the diversity of his writing.

John Longhurst, a communications staffer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and a longtime friend, wrote to remind me that Desbarats had been a keynote speaker at a conference on faith and media in Winnipeg in 1998. In that speech, Desbarats revealed the texture of his spiritual side and how it meshed with his function as a journalist. Portions of that speech are worth reprinting here, as a kind of epilogue.

“I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, educated by Jesuit priests, rebelled against this in my late teens, became the first member of my family to go through a divorce (followed by many others in subsequent years), later insisted on sending my reluctant younger children to Sunday school and wound up to my astonishment as a member of the United Church of Canada, a denomination that my Jesuit professors used to refer to as the ‘Rotary Club of Canadian churches,’ ” Desbarats said.

“When I was in school, I was taught by my enlightened Jesuit professors that these two approaches [rationalist and fundamentalist] were not in irreconcilable opposition, and in fact could never be, because God had not only given some of us faith but had endowed us with intelligence. For instance, I was taught that the science of evolution was reconcilable with Roman Catholic doctrine, as long as we believed that an act of divine creation started the whole process.

“In centuries past, and up to my own school days, the contrast between religion and science was manageable, but now the gap has become unbridgeable . Rationalists who cling to religion because of tradition, or because it provides an ethical guide, do so with a growing sense of contradiction between what they know and what they believe. In practising their religion, they have to turn off a larger and larger part of their intelligence. In the same way, only more extreme, fundamentalists have to deny a larger and larger body of scientific evidence that is in conflict with their most basic beliefs. They do this by believing more intensely.

“Surely this growing chasm between rationalists and fundamentalists — which most of us see reflected in our own inner lives all the time, and witness constantly in the world around us and in its reflection in the media — surely this is the most significant development of our generation.

“Oddly enough, I suppose that what this typical liberal journalist is concluding at this point is that the big story of our time, the great and growing divide between rationalists and fundamentalists, cannot be properly covered by liberal journalists who are religious illiterates. It requires journalists who are rationalists, for journalism as we know it is essentially a rationalist undertaking, but who also know, understand and respect what is happening on the ‘other’ side, the fundamentalist side. This kind of reporting is not occurring at the moment, its absence is making it much more difficult for us to understand what is happening in our own society and in others, and the problem isn’t going to be resolved by paying more attention to, or trying to improve, religious journalism in the conventional sense.”

Desbarats’ observation remains apt, 16 years later.

Western University journalism award winners

Journalism graduate Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with journalism program specialist Wendie Crouch.

Gold medalist Tyler Buist celebrates his hat trick of awards with Western University instructor and media specialist Wendie Crouch.

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, each summer, to teach a course in journalism law and ethics as part of Western University‘s master of arts in journalism program. It’s intensive, rigorous and lasts 12 months. Yesterday, the class of 2013 crossed the stage at convocation, heard a speech by Toronto Star journalist Chantal Hébert and then returned to the North Campus Building for a reception and awards ceremony. Here’s a list of the awards and their recipients.

Good luck to all the graduates in their future endeavours.

Corus Radio London Scholarship: Natalie Paddon
The London CAC/Rogers Cable TV Student Awards in Journalism: Tyler Buist, Katrina Clarke, Ryan Mallough
Haaksaan Responsible Journalism Scholarship: Katie Starr
J.B. McGeachy Gold Medal and Prize in Journalism: Tyler Buist
The Hugh Bremner Prize (Silver Medal): Katrina Clarke
The J.L. (Bud) Wild Prize (Silver Medal): Katie Starr
The Ursula Walford Memorial Award (Silver Medal): Ben Forrest
The C. Edmund Wilson Prize for Media Research: Blair McBride
The Western News Award: Ryan Mallough
John James Grier Memorial Scholarship in International Relations: Blair McBride
K.A. (Sandy) Baird Prize for Humorous Writing: Rubab Abid
William French Prize for Cultural Journalism: Katie Starr
Jerry Rogers Award in Writing: Blair McBride
The Walter Blackburn Award: Mekhala Gunaratne
David Murray Bowes Award: Ben Forrest
The J.M. Penny Crosbie Prize for Investigative Journalism: Kristina Virro
Norman Jewison Prize for Creative Writing: Brent Boles
Honorable Mention: The IDRC International Development Journalism Award: Katrina Clarke
Honorable Mention: The Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship: Idil Mussa

The award that Western’s David Mills didn’t win

CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who hosted the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.

CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who MCed the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.

The 2013 journalism award season is nearly over, except for the annual Michener Awards, to be held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 18. The Ontario Newspaper Awards were given out at a gala in Waterloo, Ont., on April 27, The National Newspaper Awards were celebrated in Ottawa on May 3 and the Canadian Association of Journalists honoured its best the following night in the same city.

For anyone who attended Western University‘s graduate journalism program at any point over the past 35 years, however, one of this year’s most important journalism milestones arrived at the end of April with the retirement of broadcast manager David Mills. Though not officially deemed “faculty” at the school, Mills was one part of a dynamic duo that gave hundreds of students the practical, hands-on training that allowed them to blossom as fully formed multimedia storytellers. The other, as any Western alumnus will quickly tell anyone who asks, was media specialist Wendie Crouch. It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance and impact of Mills and Crouch to the Western program.

All of that was evidenced by the warm and spirited retirement reception for Mills hosted by the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western’s Great Hall on April 25. Tributes flowed effusively. Professors emeriti came out. There were tears of joy and appreciation. And testimonials from graduates, both in-person and via video, spoke to Mills’s long and deep reach into the successes of the program’s alumni. Among the characteristics most frequently mentioned were his patience, resourcefulness and friendly mentorship. He was a master of the Socratic method: He taught by helping students think through their difficulties and challenges, rather than by simply answering their questions.

David Mills was a significant part of the education of hundreds of Canadian journalists who have gone on to win nearly every type of award in the national panoply: NNAs, CAJs, ONAs, CABs, Geminis, Canadian Screen Awards and dozens of lesser-known honours. If ever the Canadian journalism community were to create an award for an instructor who has had a significant, long and lasting impact on both individual journalists and their craft, candidates such as David Mills would win it. He didn’t — only because it doesn’t yet exist.

An “Immanuel” moment, a year ago

The calendar says it’s nearly Christmas. For me, however, it’s unlikely that anything that occurs in the coming week — no family gathering, no preacher’s words — will surpass the “Immanuel” moment of nearly 13 months ago.

My spouse and I were amid the fields of rural Waterloo County when we got a phone call that our first grandchild was about to be born.

Like shepherds who had just been visited by an angelic host, we looked at each other in awe and excitation. Our adrenalin was pumping; our pulses racing. And after a night of restless sleep followed by a day of work-related obligations, we began our pilgrimage.

Born last November, she is now just over a year old.

The little baby is now just over a year old.

There were no hills and craggy trails along our journey; only a mildly congested highway. No tax collectors, livestock or dusty feet, although there were inns, crowds, shops and the bustle of a busy Toronto neighbourhood on a Saturday night.

We climbed the front porch and rang the bell. Our son answered. He led us up the stair, around a corner and toward the street-facing bedroom, where, despite the large bay window, the light of day was now nearly gone.

And there, against the slate-grey walls, white trim and yellowish incandescent light, was a modern-day crèche: a tiny, perfect baby swaddled in a white blanket adorned with brightly coloured diamonds, in the arms of her enervated but radiant mother. Beside the bed sat a time-honoured family cradle. In the background, the family’s Polish lowland sheepdog bellowed her excitement and approval.

I couldn’t help but pause for a few moments at the foot of bed — the very spot where just a day earlier a young woman, great with child, had given birth — to take in the mystical tableau. It was the end of a long anticipation; the culmination of a very personal season of advent.

It was a deeply moving moment. Not that there was any particular cosmic or historic significance in the birth of the little cherub — after all, she was only one of about 100 babies born in the city that day and one of a half million born worldwide.

But in that instant, long before I held her in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the nativity of old, which is celebrated at Christmas but around which circles the language of God’s immanence and presence among humankind.

Specifically, I recalled the ancient Hebrew word “Immanuel,” a symbolic name to be given to a child foretold by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, and referenced again some 600 years later by an anonymous, genealogy-obsessed writer in his curation of the recollections of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples. The word means, “God is with us.” Us, as in humankind.

Seasonal lights may twinkle and congested shopping malls may cough up gifts for under the tree. But above all else, Christmas is about the fact that there exists a spiritual connectedness between humans of all creeds and cultures and the eternal presence or consciousness that pervades the universe, which many of us simply call God. God is with us. God is among us.

The birth of a baby — the coming into existence of a human life where, minutes earlier, none had existed — is the perfect symbol for such a spiritual notion. Ancient prophets and writers understood its metaphorical power and it still communicates today.

Christmas, however, is about something else too; something expressed by the Christian season of Advent, which ends at the stroke of midnight tonight. It is the fact that the eternal, the sacred, the profoundly spiritual cannot be fully encountered without expectation, preparation or effort.

The baby in the cradle is merely the end point, the destination. Christmas is about undertaking the journey, making the trek, climbing the stair toward the discovery of God’s immanence, whether it is across town, across the street or just to the front door and finding God there, whether in the guise of an infant, a neighbour, an old friend, a co-worker, a parent, a child.

The old saying, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” has been attributed to a variety of authors. The pilgrimage toward the nativity is no different.

Christmas invites us to undertake our pilgrimage through life with courage, and to discover the sacred and eternal along its rocky trails and open thoroughfares — but especially within ourselves and the fellow travellers we meet along the way.

(This blog post is based on a column published in The London Free Press on Dec. 24, 2011.)

Gun violence: Could Hollywood lead where lawmakers fail?

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 3.05.31 PM“They had their entire lives ahead of them.
Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.
… Our hearts are broken today.”
—U.S. President Barack Obama

No words can adequately sum up the horror and loss experienced by the community of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of Friday’s massacre, in which most of the victims were children. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed the sentiments of more than just Americans when he said “our hearts are broken today.” Nearly every parent, every teacher, felt the same.

Within hours of the shootings, the inexorable debate began in the United States again: What can be done to stop gun violence? Obama himself signalled that the time for political action had come. “As a country, we have been through this too many times,” he said in his address to Americans Friday afternoon. “Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Just as quickly, though, the intractable voices on both sides of the U.S. gun-control debate began their braying. And given the current state of the U.S. Congress, where both the bipartisan relationship and ability to move forward on meaningful legislation ranges from dysfunctional to gridlocked, it’s already clear that no action will occur anytime soon.

Could Hollywood, however, lead where American lawmakers fail?

Let me preface my main point by saying that this is not a condemnation of the American motion picture industry. Like any other industry, it has produced some spectacular failures and some radiant gems. At this time of year, we revel in some of its best work — classic holiday films that lift spirits and convey real meaning about life and love and giving. We can scarcely imagine the holiday season without the classic celluloid of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooge or White Christmas.

Film has, and has always had, an enormous influence on American culture and its youth. Historically, television and motion pictures have pioneered attitudinal change and the cracking of stereotypes on issues such as race, culture, class struggle and sexual orientation. Hollywood’s film industry played an enormous role in America’s coming to terms with its own ghosts and nightmares — Vietnam, assassinations, the civil rights movement, Richard Nixon, Iraq, and 9/11 among them. The film industry, which employs some of the most creative minds in the country, has enormous power, reach and influence.

So — could it lead on the issue of gun violence? Gunplay is a staple of modern filmmaking. Consider what’s on screens in theatres right now, even as Newtown mourns its dead: Killing Them Softly, Skyfall, Jack Reacher. Consider that movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Taken 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3 and The Bourne Legacy have been among the most profitable films of the year.

This is not to suggest that gun violence be scoured from the movie industry — an impossible and impractical idea. Nor is it a plea for Hollywood to return to a kind of Hays Code as far as guns are concerned.

But in memory of the children of Newtown — zip code 06470 — could some single calendar year (perhaps 2017, given existing post-production timetables) be one in which Hollywood’s studios forgo, for merely 12 months, the release of motion pictures that portray gun violence? And in so doing, could the creative minds of the movie industry begin, in their own way, to blunt the national American obsession with bullet-riddled death? To my mind, Hollywood has an opportunity here, once more, to lead — and to accomplish, however incrementally, what America’s atrophied politics cannot.

The victimsCredit: The New York Times

Tips from video producers for student entrepreneuers

My Conestoga College colleague Steve Roberts, coordinator of the school’s broadcast television program, did a wonderful job on Friday, for the benefit of his students, of convening and moderating a panel discussion on independent video production. He graciously allowed students from other programs to sit in — something that my broadcast journalism class said later they very much appreciated.

The seven panellists, all members of the Media Producers Group of Ontario (mpGO), discussed a series of prepared and spontaneous questions for two hours before moving into less formal setting with Roberts’ television students. Among their tips for students hoping to make a go of it as independent video producers:

Interior of The Rip, by Ontario artist Robert Wiens

Passion and persistence are keys to success. Never stop pitching, adapting, networking and learning to use new technologies as they come along.
• Prospective clients will Google you. Be sure your virtual profile is up-to-date and professional in tone. That includes social media as well as websites.
• It’s a growing industry and there’s room for everybody.
• Internships are opportunities to try people out. Prospective employers will be asking themselves not only how good are you, but how well do you fit into their mindset. As one producer put it, “We look for like minds.”
• Hone your writing skills. Writers get paid the most; it’s an invaluable skill that has a profound influence on the shape and look of any production.
• Learn to discern what clients need, versus what clients say they want — that’s one of the biggest communication challenges of independent production.
• Real networking seldom involves parties and martinis. It’s all about who you know and your reputation in the field.
• Don’t turn your nose up at small jobs. A $300 job can lead to a $900 job can lead to a $2,000 job can lead to a $5,000 job can lead to a $10,000 job, etc.
Budgeting is the most difficult part of your work. Do it fastidiously, then track every dollar and hour spent, and charge back for it. If you don’t get paid, you don’t get to play.
• Get used to having to juggle multiple jobs and multiple demands on our time each day. It’s part of the life of an independent producer.
• Attend meetings, but as few as possible. They are usually the most unproductive time of each job.
• The target audience is a big deal. Writing styles must adapt to clients and then be tweaked for client’s different audiences.

Thanks to the producers who participated in the panel: Paul and Paula Campsall of MetaMedia Productions; Rob Currie and Carol Ann Whalen or C to C Productions; Von Darnell of Huckleberry Film Studios; Tom Knowlton of TCK Production; and Peter Shannon of Memory Tree Productions. And, of course, to Steve Roberts for his initiative and hard work in convening the event.

A response to Ira Basen’s Clissold journalism lecture

The annual Clissold lecture at Western University is one of the high points of the year for the university’s master of arts in journalism program; it has brought to campus the likes of Christine Blatchford, Linden MacIntyre, Gwynne Dyer and Michelle Shephard, among many others, to lecture on journalism-related subjects and provide a kind of state-of-the-vocation analysis.

This year, it was veteran broadcaster Ira Basen’s turn. The longtime radio and documentary producer is currently the CanWest Global Fellow in Media at Western. I first met him about a decade ago when we served on the same media panel at a conference for public relations professionals, sponsored by The Canadian Institute, in Toronto. Basen has since produced two important radio series on media: Spin Cycles, a six-part look at the interplay between the public relations industry and the media, and News 2.0 – The Future of News in the Age of Social Media.

Tuesday night’s talk was, by Basen’s own admission, substantially off the advertised topic, which was “And New the News: Re-inventing Journalism in the Digital Age.” Instead, he focused largely on the emergence of “custom content” farms and divisions within the bowels of established legacy media properties such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and the threats those miniature content factories might pose to authentic or serious journalism.

Basen did manage a neat trick at the start of his presentation: spending considerable time on the career and business challenges faced by the lecture’s namesake, Edward Clissold (1833-1915), a prominent journalist in his time who ran the London Advertiser, which folded in 1937. “The Advertiser died in 1937 during the Depression when ad dollars dried up,” said Basen, in a pre-lecture interview. “A similar situation prevails today, of course, as ad dollars can no longer support print journalism as it used to.”

I won’t review the entire lecture here (perhaps FIMS will eventually make an audio recording available), but merely respond to some of the points Basen made during the course of his well-received talk, which was followed by a short Q&A.

1. To Basen’s contention that the London Advertiser’s demise was due in large part to the effects of the Depression and the increasingly desperate attempts to have editorial copy in the newspaper align with the interests of advertisers, foreshadowing today’s custom-content operations: The Depression no doubt a factor in the newspaper’s demise, but a far more critical role was played by the steady rise, already during Clissold’s era, of the Blackburn family’s newspaper property in London. Simply put, the London Free Press won what amounted to a protracted circulation war between the two titles. Local competition for advertising dollars was keen and was taken up a notch in 1922, when Free Press proprietor Arthur Blackburn launched CJGC-AM, which in 1934 became CFPL-AM. After a young Walter Blackburn took the reins from his deceased father in 1936, the print-only London Advertiser soon died, ceding the local advertising marketplace to the growing bi-medial Blackburn empire. (It would become tri-medial within two more decades.) There’s a lesson in there for media companies that, today, are trying to find their way across a variety of delivery platforms.

2. To Basen’s concern about the proliferation of custom-content operations at mainstream news media companies, and the deleterious effects such operations may have on quality journalism, causing an inexorable tilt toward client or advertiser interests rather than toward truth, accuracy and balanced reporting: Certainly, these developments are fascinating and worth watching. The emergence of Star Content Studios at the Toronto Star (see this memo of introduction at Globe and Mail reporter Steve Ladurantaye‘s blog from Star publisher John Cruickshank) and the Custom Content Group at the Globe and Mail are new forays into client-driven storytelling and enterprise. But “special sections” to draw new advertisers or incremental revenue from existing advertisers are nothing new in newspapering — they are at least a half-century old. Whether they were “Progress” editions or special sections about chambers of commerce, rising business figures or special community events, newspapers have for a very long time been willing to package staff-written content around special themes and topics that would draw specific types of advertisers. What’s new in the current iteration of custom content creation is the ambition of legacy media to assist clients with reputation management and corporate communications.

3. Regarding Basen’s contention that certain advertisers are actively trying to “fool” readers into thinking their “special report” or advertorial content is really journalistic content, due to the placement and design of their messaging: I don’t believe advertisers much care if readers see these information packages as journalism or as advertising — the placement of their product and engagement with the reader is all they care about. They are renting a reader’s eyeballs for a short period of time and believe that content dressed up and adorned in a manner similar to what the reader is used to getting is the most effective way of communicating with him/her. Controls placed by publishers on how close advertisers can get to the actual look and feel of their journalistic products have been robust and I don’t see any degradation, yet, in those built-in safeguards.

4. To Basen’s view that the pre-election supplement published by the Globe and Mail with the support of Nissan Canada and subsequently hand-delivered in six Canadian cities represents a new and potentially dangerous trend in the liaisons between newspaper publishers and advertisers: Advertisers have long been able to specify exactly where an ad must go, what its precise dimensions should be, what the quality of the paper stock should be like and how the ad is distributed. If Tiffany’s wants an ad for a Christmas pendant on page 2 of The Globe in the Atlantic, Ottawa, Calgary and B.C. editions, that’s exactly where it will go. The desire by Nissan Canada to engage in a big spend with The Globe isn’t surprising, nor is its preferred method of hand-delivering the special Nov. 5 supplement on street corners in six Canadian markets. The company wasn’t interested in a buying the entire sweep of the newspaper’s circulation — only certain pockets of select markets. Publishers will indeed try to accommodate those special orders — and always have. To Basen’s point that some Globe writers were disappointed to have their stories appear in the supplement: certainly. Journalists want their stories read by the broadest possible audience. Their concern was likely not so much that their pre-election stories sat next to Nissan’s ads or in a product sponsored by the automaker, but rather that the highly selective distribution meant a smaller readership for their copy, given that it would not be reprinted in the newspaper’s broadsheet pages.

It was somewhat regrettable that Basen’s lecture didn’t focus on some of the issues on which his advertised topic would have touched: the place of legacy media in a multi-platform news universe, the construction of new packages for news and information for delivery platforms such as tablets, the financial realities facing large media companies as they try to push content through emerging platforms, and the future of e-editions — a type of information package being sold but nearly ignored by companies in their efforts to get readers to pass through paywalls toward a laptop or desktop experience. Most importantly, in the context of the Clissold lecture, would have been what all these trends mean for journalism between now and 2020.

The evening left plenty of exploration and discussion on those themes for another day.

Update (Nov. 25): Ira Basen has posted a robust and important response to this post; please have a look at it under the “Reply” link at the top.