Covering the plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud

Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC) photo)
Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC photo)

Kudos to the Toronto Star for going the extra 7,500 miles (about 12,000 kilometres) to cover firsthand the extraordinary plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian citizen and Toronto resident detained in Kenya for three months after she was falsely accused of passport fraud. The Star’s national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, was in the courtroom in Nairobi today to file a story minutes after Judge Stella Muketi dismissed all charges against Mohamud.

The Globe and Mail, by comparison, hired freelancer Zoe Alsop to cover the story from the Kenyan capital, splicing her prose with Canadian Press wire copy. The National Post assigned a domestic staffer to assemble the story. Canadian Press, likewise, cobbled together their reports using its staff, member news organizations and other wires as sources. Both CBC and CTV used wire services and other news sources to put together their early stories.

The Nairobi assignment must have been a mixed blessing for Shephard, who has been staying on top of the Omar Khadr story for years and has authored a book on him, titled Guantanamo’s Child. In dropping into Nairobi from another assignment in Europe, Shephard was forced to miss this morning’s ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal, which affirmed an earlier court decision compelling the Harper government to press for Khadr’s release. In an age of instant communication, however, she may well weigh in on it and share a byline before tomorrow’s editions.

Three other things to note about this story of bungling by Canada’s foreign affairs department:

• It was originally broken by The Star’s John Goddard last month, based on information fed to him by sources.
• Today’s events demonstrate how agile and multidimensional some large newsrooms have become. In what may be a Canadian first, a broadcaster today aired video on a breaking foreign news story shot by a newspaper. This morning, the CBC aired video of Mohamud’s release, shot by The Star’s Lucas Oleniuk, who accompanied Shephard to Kenya.
• It takes the reach and pocket depth of major news organizations to do some stories. With apologies to diehard fans of social media who claim that a paradigm shift has rendered big legacy media mute, impotent or irrelevant, no amount of Twittering, Facebooking or crowdsourcing would have permitted this story to be told with urgency, context and depth it needed. Some stories require trained journalists in agile boots on far-away ground.

Update: Turns out Shephard was, in fact, on assignment to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, when the call came to make the side trip to Nairobi. She was working on her amazing visit with Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner famous for having been a driver for Osama bin Laden. Shephard’s feature, accompanied by Oleniuk’s photography, appears today (Aug. 17).

Update 2 (Aug. 21): Mohamud has filed a civil suit against the federal government for $2.5 million in damages and is demanding an inquiry be held (see the Toronto Star story). Can you say Maher Arar?

Teaching, learning, technology and students

I’m frequently asked how teaching and learning have changed over the past decade. What are students like? How are new technologies affecting how you teach and how they learn? That kind of thing.

The video below, produced by a cultural anthropology class at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., provides part of the answer. You can read some background on how the video was created in this university press release. Although our journalism classes at Conestoga College are considerably smaller (30-35 students per section), a lot of what you’ll see here applies.

Hats off to K-State anthropology professor Michael Wesch, who, upon revisiting the project a year later, had this to say about it.

Stackhouse establishes new Globe and Mail regime

John Stackhouse, the Globe and Mail‘s newly minted editor-in-chief, has set in place the foundational cornerstones of his newsroom. As is often the case when a sea change washes through a major news organization, some of the alterations are notable.

J-Source.ca has posted the text of Stackhouse’s lengthy memo to staff, dated yesterday. He’ll meet with daysiders and nightsiders in town-hall fashion tomorrow (Aug. 12).

David Walmsley
David Walmsley

Most important among the changes is the ascent of David Walmsley, a veteran of the Toronto Star, CBC, National Post and Daily Telegraph, to managing editor, news and sports. Other significant shifts include Sinclair Stewart to the post of national editor (a position one former Globe editorial employee calls one of the five most difficult journalism jobs in the country, owing to its demands), Jill Borra in an expanded role as managing editor, features, and the formal appointments of Elena Cherney and Derek DeCloet as editor and managing editor, respectively, of Report on Business.

Globe veterans Colin Mackenzie and Sylvia Stead remain on the newspaper’s masthead as associate editors — Mackenzie with responsibility for commentary in print and online; Stead with responsibility for staffing, training and legal issues.

Senior journalists who were markedly absent from Stackhouse’s new order are Cathrin Bradbury, dispatched last Friday from her post as managing editor, news, and Leslie Shepherd, the former politics editor whose scheduled departure in 10 days Stackhouse announced yesterday.

Coincidentally, both women will continue to have ties to the newspaper through their partners. Bradbury is married to long-time city hall columnist John Barber, who asked to be reassigned earlier this year (see the Torontoist’s profile) and is attached to the Globe’s website. Shepherd is the spouse of Jim Sheppard, whose expanded role under the Stackhouse watch is executive editor, digital.

And with all that, the Stackhouse era begins in earnest.

The Bandidos trial and Twitter

Like some other readers, I’d wondered why The London Free Press had recently allowed its groundbreaking coverage of the Bandidos trial via Twitter (see my earlier post) to dissolve into a hit-and-miss affair that, increasingly, is absent altogether. Stories and updates by justice reporter Jane Sims have been reliably constant, but as for tweets, well, the birdie seems to have fallen out of the tree.

Kate Dubinski
Kate Dubinski

Reporter Kate Dubinski, the journalist most often assigned to Twitter duty at the Dundas Street courthouse, provided some answers in a post on her blog late yesterday. The trial, already into its sixth month, is cutting into the summer vacation season — a period when the paper is trying to accommodate holiday requests while still getting some semblance of a news report out onto the streets and up online. Language in the newsroom employees’ CEP contract with Sun Media’s London division stipulates that each staff member has the right to take two weeks of his/her annual vacation allotment during the summer months. The result is a managerial scramble to fill reporting, copy editing, photo and other duties in a vigorous attempt to keep the machine running. During the high vacation period, it can feel like the entire operation is being held together by duct tape and baling twine.

Dubinski also explains the additional difficulties posed by an order from the judge regarding media coverage during the appearance of the Crown’s star witness, who may only be referred to as “M.H.” Tweets from the overflow courtroom — the place from which earlier Twitter dispatches originated — were forbidden. Reporters were permitted to send tweets only from outside the main courtroom. This poses an additional challenge for journalists, but is not really an issue in terms of the decision on whether to double-team the trial coverage with a Twitterer.

The credibility of M.H. could have an important bearing on the outcome of the trial. Having broken important journalistic ground through the use of Twitter in the courtroom setting, it’s unfortunate that the Free Press couldn’t follow through with consistent Twitter coverage during the latter part of this particular witness’s testimony.

I’m guessing there are at least two additional issues here.

First: Dubinski’s “followers” on Twitter number about 850. Pinch-hitting reporter John Miner has about 350. Sims, not generally concerned with Twitter updates as much as she is about the newspaper’s main trial stories, has fewer than that. The bottom line is that, regardless of the novelty of the tool and complaints by some far-flung Twitter users that the paper is letting them down, the potential readership of courtroom tweets tops out in the hundreds. With stories on city-worker absenteeism, traffic fatalities, storm damage and a string of downtown arsons (or any other such set of calamities on any given day) to be doled out to a mere handful of reporters, any assigning editor at a regional newspaper will redeploy staff to yarns that will appeal to readers in the thousands or tens of thousands instead.

Second: While I was a page editor at The Globe and Mail, the newspaper made an interesting discovery during the case of Robert Pickton. Like other national media, it had planned for a year’s worth of wall-to-wall, witness-to-witness coverage of the trial of the Vancouver-area man accused in the homicides of six women and the suspected in deaths of 20 more. The Globe provided saturation coverage during the first week of proceedings, then surveyed its readership. The results were somewhat surprising and illuminating. To simplify, they showed that readers were intensely interested in the start of the trial and the Crown’s opening account of what exactly had happened. Readers wanted to know that someone was on trial for the horrors that had become evident, and they wanted to be kept abreast of developments. They certainly wanted to know the end result of the trial. But they said a clear no-thank-you to daily detailed accounts of a gruesome case that was expected to run for many months. The Globe, as well as other national media, revised their plans accordingly — and somewhat drastically. Public curiosity and tolerance, even in sensational cases, appears to have its limits.

Teaching journalism — differently

About six months after I finished my graduate journalism degree in the mid-1980s, the University of Western Ontario asked me to return as a sessional instructor. A faculty member had taken ill, and her courses in the history of Canadian print journalism and the history of Canadian broadcasting were without a teacher. Although I was already working full-time at a magazine, I agreed to fill in.

Long story short: I’ve never stopped. Through most of my tenure at The London Free Press, I continued teaching “service” courses in journalism history and communication theory to Western’s undergraduate students, as well as courses in municipal reporting, business reporting and journalism ethics to graduate students. When I left the Free Press for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, I simultaneously accepted an endowed chair at Ryerson University’s journalism school, where I taught journalism ethics. When an offer arrived last year to teach journalism full-time at rapidly expanding Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, one of the finest community colleges in Ontario, I accepted the challenge.

Although teaching certainly wasn’t new, I’d never before taught foundational newswriting courses. And it had been a long time since I’d dealt with undergrads fresh out of high school. Despite that, my first full-time year went well. I quickly located my undergrad “legs” (though I continued to teach a journalism ethics course to grad students at UWO as well) and found teaching this type of student to be extremely rewarding.

Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.
Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.

Classes begin in a month and, once again, I’ll be teaching basic newswriting to both the first-year print and broadcast sections. But I plan to tweak my course content and teaching style slightly to better equip students for a rapidly changing job market and the expanding toolbox with which they’ll do and deliver journalism. (I always resented profs who trotted out the same course outlines and presentations year after year, distributing handouts that were a decade old, and promised myself I’d never become one.) So here are a few of the changes:

1. Encouraging “high performance”: Even more than last year, I’ll emphasize the importance of a fast start as the first step toward a “high-performance” career. It’s language borrowed from education consultant Don Fraser, whose seminar I attended in the spring. My students will have to compete — and compete hard — for journalism jobs. The best way to boost their chances of success will be to encourage them to develop a track record of excellence, beginning in their first year as journalist-trainees. They should aim not just to be capable journalists but high-performance journalists, fully competent in the many skills and tools they’ll need by the time they graduate. And it begins on orientation day.

2. Making corrections tangible: Last year, as I graded student assignments, I marked errors, omissions, style mistakes, etc., and handed them back next class, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation on the most common errors. I provided examples of the right way and wrong way to present information. Then I hoped they’d incorporate what I’d said into future stories. This year — though it may sound “old-school” — I’ll ask them to make the necessary corrections in their stories and resubmit them. Sounds archaic, I know, but I’m beginning to think there’s no better way for them to learn from their mistakes than by seeing corrected versions on their screens and feeling them through their fingers.

3. Platform agnosticism: I’ve bought into the notion that our print and broadcast “streams” or programs are quickly becoming anachronistic. While college administrators work on revamping programs to produce more fully flexible journalists for integrated newsrooms, I hope to get ahead of that curve by placing greater emphasis on story, then expecting wide-ranging discussion on how best to gather information, what tools and media to use, and what platforms might be best suited for final delivery. Conestoga’s curriculum in the first year is common to both the print and broadcast streams anyway. And in addition to writing traditional hard-news ledes for print and broadcast, they’ll practise writing news for blogs, screen crawls, mobile devices and Twitter posts.

4. Adding a little low-tech: As in most journalism programs, our students learn to use modern tools in their newsgathering, writing and presentation. Most have laptops. Wi-fi is readily available across campus for free. They use Zoom H2 recorders and edit audio with Audacity or Audition. They shoot digital photos and edit them in Photoshop. They learn pagination software such as Quark or InDesign. We have plenty of high-def cameras to lend out, and they edit their video using Final Cut. But late last year, I began to worry about . . . well, whether they could effectively use a reporter’s notepad and a pen. I noticed they were using their laptops and smart phones for note-taking in many classroom and newsgathering situations. But could they cover a story with nothing but a pencil and paper? At crash sites, demonstrations and the like, they may not have access to their precious digital technology. So I’ll look for ways to incorporate manual notetaking. And if it’s raining, snowing, cold or windy outside, so much the better.

5. Getting off campus: To improve their grasp of how journalists function in the real world, I’ll look for opportunities to get them out — already in the first semester — into newsgathering situations and functioning newsrooms off campus. Faculty have sometimes arranged for class trips to news organizations in Toronto, for example, some time in the second semester. I’ll push for that kind of thing to happen early on, in order to give students an early peek at the realities of the vocation and to beef up their sense of being journalists in training. This is more difficult than it sounds, because of the part-time jobs students hold down, their life situations, and their general lack of transportation aside from mass transit. But with some creativity, we should be able to provide a more robust real-life experience.

One month to go; time to put some meat on these bones.

Carolyn Stewart-Olsen leaves the PMO . . . for the Senate

The exit of communications staff from the Prime Minister’s Office continues, as word went out yesterday of the departure of most significant figure yet in the ongoing attrition.

Carolyn Stewart-Olsen has been at Stephen Harper’s side since the outset of his candidacy for leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. Most recently, she held the most powerful communications post in the PMO: senior adviser and director of strategic communication. A good photo of her is here, alongside the National Post’s short item.

“Strategic” is, in fact, the word that probably best describes her. While I was editor of The London Free Press (2000-2006), I dealt with her numerous times as I covered Harper’s ascent to the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party and his quest to become Prime Minister. In the early days, at least, every request for access to Harper, whether by phone or in person, took a path straight through Stewart-Olsen. She monitored all interviews, her voice recorder running right alongside those of journalists. In editorial board meetings, she hovered protectively like a mother bear over her cub. And when a cost-benefit analysis showed no significant return in exchange for Harper’s time and effort, especially at mid-sized news outlets, the interview or meeting or phone conversation just didn’t happen. Other priorities intervened.

This is not to diminish Stewart-Olsen’s role or skill. In fact, she was very good at doing exactly what she was supposed to do: guard media access to Harper and ensure that every investment in time and energy got maximum returns and adhered to strategy. There was, however, a certain Cold War tone in her approach to news media. Skepticism and suspicion were the common currencies of the relationship. That fact of life is not unusual in situations where news media and their sources are positioned to serve different functions. What made dealing with Stewart-Olsen so different was that the calculation and utility were so raw and bald.

When the Prime Minister’s Office tried to take a more commanding approach two years ago to the way news media on Parliament Hill could ask questions (see the video excerpt, below), it wasn’t difficult to guess which forces inside the PMO were magnifying and strategically acting on Harper’s already ingrained distrust of news media and their function.

Today’s Globe and Mail editorial, however, probably has it right: Outside the narrow cordons of Ottawa’s press corps, the departures of communications staff from Harper’s office are of little public interest. And the turnover there is likely a function of the Prime Minister’s unwavering demand for flawless execution of a tightly scripted communications strategy, combined with the instability of minority government and a looming election. But the departure of the top communicator is worth noticing. Journalists may not always have been pleased by Stewart-Olsen’s style or tactics, but they must, even if grudgingly, acknowledge her clear determination and commitment.

Update (Aug. 27): It turns out Stewart-Olsen’s timing was, shall we say, perfect. She is among those that Harper will appoint to the Senate today. It’s an odd slice of patronage for someone who spent part of her career defending and explaining the Prime Minister’s earlier vow to abolish it.

CBC shuffles its reporters

Every fleet-footed news organization must, from time to time, re-evaluate the demands of a constantly changing news landscape and measure them against the resources it’s able to muster to cover that territory, including the most important of its assets: the journalists on staff.

In the case of CBC Television News, the pressing need for such a review coincided earlier this summer with at least two other factors: continuing budget pressures and the probability of a federal election campaign within a year. The result is a series of personnel moves and reassignments that will take effect in the coming weeks.

Terry Milewski
Terry Milewski

The most noticeable for regular CBC-TV viewers will be the installment of Vancouver-based Terry Milewski as the parliamentary bureau’s chief political correspondent in Ottawa, replacing Keith Boag. Milewski has developed a reputation for boldness and courage in the face of political and social pressure. A veteran of CBC reporting from Washington, Jerusalem and elsewhere, he was the target of a complaint of bias from Peter Donolo, then an aide to prime minister Jean Chrétien, during the 1998 Asian Pacific Economic Conference. A subsequent investigation by CBC Ombudsman Marcel Pepin found the complaint to be unjustified and praised Milewski for his “aggressive and critical journalism.” Milewski has also delivered hard-hitting reports on the politics within the Sikh-Canadian community and the tasering of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. He’s the kind of reporter that managers love to have in their stable, despite the fact that he’ll give them his share of administrative headaches from time to time.

Maclean’s senior columnist Paul Wells agrees Milewski’s assignment to Ottawa will help reinvigorate the network’s journalism on the Hill, praising him for his ability to “jump onto the back of a complex, significant story” and “sink his teeth in up to the gums.” Even the departing Boag told the Hill Times that dramatic change is ahead and that Milewski’s impact will be felt.

I confess I don’t quite understand the CBC’s decision to move Boag to Los Angeles. Informal chatter indicates the City of Angels will be as much a staging ground for assignments to places such as Mexico and the western U.S. as it will be the locale for reports from Hollywood and California. I’m skeptical about that kind of journalistic investment, but hope I’m wrong.

Other significant moves, according to the CBC announcement: Evan Solomon replaces the retired broadcasting giant Don Newman on the talk show Politics. It’ll run two hours daily on Newsworld. Meanwhile, Susan Bonner will go from the Ottawa bureau to Washington, to be joined there by Paul Hunter, and David Common will head to New York from Paris.

Update (Aug. 4): This morning, CBC announced additional reassignments, effective this fall. Peter Armstrong will return to Toronto from Jerusalem to anchor the morning news program World Report on Radio One. Meanwhile, Mark Kelley, who has been a correspondent for The National, occasionally also filling in on the anchor desk, will host a two-hour evening news-talk program focused on the day’s breaking news stories. (Sounds a bit like CNN’s Situation Room or Anderson Cooper’s AC360°, no?) Kelley has also been a contributor to the investigative program Disclosure.