The CBC’s Brian Stewart signs off

CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart
CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart

Though he’ll be back on the air from time to time to help cover major events, today marks the last day on the job for CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart. After he anchors The National tonight in place of Peter Mansbridge, he’ll saunter off into semi-retirement.

Stewart is a journalist’s journalist and has had a remarkable career. Like so many others of his generation, the 1964 graduate of Ryerson‘s journalism program started in print. He was a reporter and columnist at the Montreal Gazette in the late 1960s, winning a National Newspaper Award in 1969 for feature writing. From there, it was on to a current-affairs show on CBC-TV’s Montreal affiliate, CBMT, and then to Ottawa as a political reporter in 1973. It was while Stewart was in the nation’s capital that he honed his skills and broadened his knowledge in foreign and military affairs — a specialty that would shape the rest of his career.

After a three-year stint as the CBC’s foreign correspondent in London, Stewart joined NBC News in 1985. However, he returned to the CBC two years later to become senior reporter with the CBC’s The Journal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Quite literally. What motivated Stewart in the decades that followed were the things that drive all great journalists: to satisfy one’s curiosity about the world and why things happen the way they do; to bear witness to the unfolding of history at home and abroad; to tell meaningful and important stories in compelling and interesting ways; to find out, firsthand, what will happen next in some of the greatest historical and human dramas of our time.

Like many others, I’ll remember Stewart best for his unparalleled coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. He and fellow CBC journalist Tony Burman were the ones who, almost singlehandedly, alerted the world to the unfolding human crisis in that part of eastern Africa, prompting a massive aid response.

As a foreign correspondent, Stewart was on the front lines of other big international stories too. He reported extensively from Beirut on the Lebanese civil war; he filed gripping accounts of child slavery in Sudan. When the international coalition drove into Kuwait to wrest it from Saddam Hussein’s grip in the Gulf War of 1991, Stewart was the first Canadian reporter on the scene. He witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and filed extensively from the war zones of El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all that time amid the dangers of the field, Stewart’s greatest fear appears to have been that he’d somehow get the story wrong.

The CBC has, fittingly, built a special Web tribute page in his honour; several compelling interviews are there, including chats with Burman and Mansbridge. Also available there is the profile that aired last night as part of The National.

Though he’s already past the traditional retirement age of 65, Stewart’s departure from the CBC is part of the public broadcaster’s efforts to downsize through attrition and buyouts. He lives in Toronto with his wife, former broadcaster Tina Srebotnjak, who now works in the communications and marketing department of Toronto Public Library. They have a daughter, Katie.

The U.S. health-care debate and Shona Holmes

Here’s a television ad currently being aired in parts of the United States, as private interests, including physicians and health insurers, wage their war against President Barack Obama’s push to reform health care. It features Shona Holmes of Waterdown, Ont.

Holmes, 45, has become the latest poster child for Americans hoping to stave off Canadian-style “socialized medicine.” She has appeared at press conferences on Capitol Hill and been interviewed on CNN and Fox News. She has repeatedly told the story of how she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and eventually had surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., when it became apparent that the wait for treatment in Canada would take months. She remortgaged her home to pay the clinic’s $97,000 bill and is suing the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) to recoup the costs.

(Holmes certainly isn’t the first media darling to be featured on U.S. networks on the issue of Canadian health care. British Columbia businessman Don Neufeldt, who went public earlier this year about lack of timely access to a cardiologist in Canada, forcing him to seek treatment in Oklahoma City, Okla., is another).

As one might expect, Holmes’s case is slightly more nuanced than powerful lobbies or ratings-driven newscasts care to reveal. In today’s Globe and Mail, columnist André Picard offers a piece that provides some background, balance and clarity. Holmes’s tumour was not malignant; it was a benign cyst that, yes, was impairing her vision, but was not life-threatening. Frightening as vision loss would be for any patient, Canadian doctors believed it to be temporary and reversible. They were doing what, in the Canadian and British systems, doctors must do: prioritize patient care.

Meanwhile, Holmes has come under personal attack by defenders of the Canadian system, including bloggers and Facebook users, who are giving the family mediator a little more grief than she’s accustomed to.

Having lived and worked under both systems, I don’t understand the overheated rhetoric deployed by both sides of the health-care debate. Each system has strengths and weaknesses. In the U.S., thanks to competition among hospitals and an abundant supply of health-care professionals, care is often more immediate, especially when specialists are involved. For those with health insurance, most trips to the doctor or operating room carry a cost in the form of a deductible or co-payment. For those without, the quality of care is less robust or comprehensive. Depending on the condition, it may even be absent. Long-term catastrophic illness, for either the insured or uninsured, can spell financial disaster.

In Canada, taxes are substantially higher to bear the massive burden of a national health-care system, but illness is seldom financially catastrophic. Everyone working in the system — from nurses to doctors to specialists — must ration and prioritize care, and that can mean long waits. (See CBC News correspondent Neil Macdonald’s open letter to Americans in the wake of the Neufeldt story.) The system is imperfect at best. Sometimes, wait times can get so long that they threaten Canadians’ right to personal security, as specified in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Remember the case of Chaoulli v. Quebec (Attorney General [2005] in the Supreme Court of Canada? “Delays in the public system are widespread and have serious, sometimes grave, consequences,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice John Major, as part of a split decision. “Inevitably where patients have life-threatening conditions, some will die because of undue delay in awaiting surgery.”

Picard’s final observation is a salient one, brimming with irony: Given her medical past, Holmes is now in a position where she would find it nearly impossible to buy medical insurance in the U.S. In Canada, she will continue to be covered and will get the same access to the system as any other Canadian.

Letterman salutes Leamington

You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t . . . well, you know the rest. I suppose there’s still enough Essex County in me to get a chuckle out of this short segment (below) from the Late Show with David Letterman, in which Letterman and his musical sidekick, Paul Shaffer, banter about my Ontario home town. The on-air mention was apparently sparked by an in-studio, pre-show Q&A session about two weeks ago that involved Leamington residents Deb Jones Chambers and her husband, Jeff Chambers. For more background, read the story from the Leamington Post here.

The Telegraph-Journal apology

When it comes to newspaper correction notices, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. A respected Atlantic Canada broadsheet apologizes to the country’s Prime Minister for an error in a story concerning the PM’s attendance at the funeral of a former governor-general. Furthermore, the apology is necessitated not by errors of fact; rather, it concerns what was apparently either outright fabrication or the insertion of gossip or speculation — on the newspaper’s copy desk, of all places.

Today’s apology to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the front page of New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal is the kind of notice every editor-in-chief and publisher dreads.

Telegraph-Journal bannerMany Canadians will remember the controversy that erupted in the wake of the Prime Minister’s attendance at the funeral mass for former governor-general Romeo LeBlanc on July 3. Like others in attendance, Harper went forward during the mass to celebrate the eucharist, during which a priest traditionally places a wafer (or the “host”), considered the body of Christ, on the tongue of each celebrant.

In the Telegraph-Journal’s story, written by reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras in nearly Memramcook, N.B., the newspaper asserted that the Prime Minister had tucked the wafer into his pocket, sparking follow-up queries and stories by other news organizations and a low-level national debate about the propriety of partaking or abstaining from religious rituals when they are not one’s own.

In a blog post today, Montreal-based journalist Craig Silverman, Canada’s undisputed king of chroniclers when it comes to media corrections, notes that the names of the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief don’t appear in today’s editions, promising to keep an eye on developments in the executive suite. Silverman’s reputable website, Regret the Error, also notes that the paper took tough action earlier this year with a summer intern who misstated some facts in a story about the University of New Brunswick’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Premier Shawn Graham. Silverman, in fact, wrote a column for the Columbia Journalism Review on that issue.

Today’s Telegraph-Journal’s apology is directed to the Prime Minister, as well as to its two reporters. No mention of what consequences, if any, will be felt by the copy editor(s) responsible. The T-J’s editor-in-chief, by the way, is Shawna Richer, whose byline may be remembered by readers of The London Free Press and The Globe and Mail. Update: CBC News reported this evening that Richer has been fired and that Jamie Irving is no longer the newspaper’s publisher.

The irony won’t be lost on any journalist: Editors and others who deal with copy are at their desks expressly for the purpose of ensuring accuracy. And although editing mistakes happen as easily as they do at the reporting level, it’s unlike copy editors to deliberately insert erroneous facts.

And if “transparency is the new objectivity,” events at the Telegraph-Journal, despite today’s embarrassment and prostration, are still less than perfectly clear.

St. Petersburg’s pier, on a warm summer evening

Steven Spielberg I’m not. But here’s the first attempt of a career print journalist to shoot and edit digital video — you pros must promise to stifle your chuckles. I know, I know  . . . some shots are too long (my wife loves animals), others too short. But hey, if I can do it, maybe there’s hope to teach other old dogs some new tricks.

Journalists of the future

Photo by Frank_BB on Flickr
Photo by Frank_BB on Flickr

“She really wants to be a food editor — but it’s hard to tell her that print is dead.”

That was the final line of an email message I received today from a longtime friend. He was asking my advice on how to counsel a female acquaintance, younger than both of us, who harbours a dream of becoming a journalist.

First, I don’t believe print is dead. Print journalism, as we’ve known it over the past half century, is morphing. It is moving from a position of supremacy and influence to a much more egalitarian position with respect to other journalistic platforms. Some futurists have speculated that “ink-on-dead-trees” newspapers may soon be the preserve of a small but affluent minority; I prefer to think its future applications will be more classless than that.

If we apply the principle of “platform agnosticism,” in which I’ve been immersed over the past week, we begin by asking what news consumers will demand from gastronomic information and journalism in the years to come. Food, of course, is a sensual experience. It wants to be tasted, touched, smelled and savoured. What journalistic platforms deliver those best? Still photography, certainly. Perhaps also text. Audio, if a great chef or restaurateur is being interviewed. Illustration or video, if the task is to communicate food preparation techniques. Maps and mobile applications, if the story concerns the movement of a coffee bean from plant to percolator — or the location of the nearest Starbucks. The new journalism will permit the story to drive the delivery platform and allow users to participate in the story itself, not have the delivery platform dictate the terms of the story — and some monochromatic treatment of it — to the user.

My advice to my friend: Suggest to his acquaintance, who already has a degree in food sciences, that she broaden her communication skills in order to be able to tell food-related stories in as many ways and through as many media as possible. Whether she eventually seeks work with an established news organization or as a freelancer, she’ll need as many tools in her toolbelt as she can fit in there alongside all those spatulas and spices.

Coincidentally, a blog post earlier this week by British multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook titled “Introducing: the journalist of the future,” heavily retweeted in the Twitterverse, speaks eloquently to the precept that more journalists will soon be information entrepreneurs rather than desk-chained drones of large corporations. The next generation of journalists, Westbrook posits, will be entrepreneurial, adaptable, multitalented, courageous and collaborative individuals whose great thrill will be to tell stories and tell them well, with all the tools at their disposal.

They may not all be wearing gear-filled backpacks, but they’ll certainly be required to be proficient at delivering information in a variety of ways. In that fact lies a lot of food for thought as I contemplate the arrival of a new class of aspiring journalists at my office door within about a month.

New tools for journalists will change postsecondary programs

Poynter Institute instructor Al Tompkins
Poynter Institute instructor Al Tompkins

After a week of intensive training at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., my thinking about how we train journalists has changed in some ways and remained firm in others.

I became convinced of the Poynter faculty’s argument that journalism instructors in our universities and colleges need to become “platform agnostic.” Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this would mean the end to academic programs that would stream students into print, broadcast or online specialties. Instead, every graduating journalist would be able to tell stories across the platform spectrum — video, print, still photos, illustration, audio, mobile, etc. — depending on the demands of the story. After all, the story is the thing, isn’t it? Start there and imagine the most effective ways of telling it, then choose the platform best suited — or some combination of platforms. The collapse of segmented specialties may not be what traditionalists or journalism program administrators want to hear, but it is the inconvenient truth of journalism in our age.

I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly a “legacy” journalist like me could begin to get a handle on some basic new media technologies. Over the course of the week, we got training in Audacity, a sound editor; SoundSlides, for still image and audio presentations; Utterli, a service for posting video to the Web and cross-posting to a variety of blogs, Final Cut Pro, the industry standard software for editing video, and a few other programs and web-based services. By the end of the week, every course participant who didn’t yet have a blog (and there were many) had one and was familiar with the process of posting.

The coolest tool of the week, as far as I was concerned: Videocue, a piece of software that lets anyone with a camera-equipped laptop produce a fairly professional-looking standup from just about anywhere. It’s even got a built-in teleprompter. I’m looking forward to playing with that one some more.

The faculty at Poynter are convinced that, in the very near future, journalism students will be required to have an Apple iPhone 3GS (or whatever the current leading technology is at the time) upon entry to their program, and that it will become an indispensible part of their work. They’ll shoot video, edit it, record audio, post it, research stories and file them — all from their phones. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, will ramp down their inventories of expensive cameras and recorders. It’s an intriguing possibility.

Speaking of faculty, Poynter’s broadcast/online group leader Al Tompkins was ably assisted by several other instructors, all of whom contributed to the high-quality experience that was this course. They were Regina McCombs, Poynter’s virtual teaching specialist; Sara Dickenson Quinn, Poynter’s visual journalism faculty member; Katy Culver, a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s journalism faculty in Madison; and Theresa Collington, executive producer online at WTSP-TV in St. Petersburg. Program coordinator was the irrepressible Jeannie Nissenbaum.

Thanks to Poynter for a top-notch experience. The name of the course, for others who might be interested, is Multimedia Journalism for College Educators. It’s offered once or twice each year.