Monthly Archives: November 2012

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.

Newsroom managers slow to acknowledge stress injuries

Operational stress injuries in journalists can be successfully treated — and the earlier it’s dealt with the better. That was the most important take-away for me from this year’s Journalism and Risk workshop, offered by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma at Western University on Saturday.

Organized by veteran journalists Cliff Lonsdale and Jane Hawkes, the annual workshop this year featured CBC Radio’s Rick MacInnes-Rae, London Health Sciences Centre’s Karen Pierre, London Free Press reporter Joe Belanger, and Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel as panellists. Through video presentations and panel discussions, the workshop intends to prepare young journalists for the risks they’ll face — domestically and internationally — in the pursuit of their vocation. See my Twitter feed for a running summary (look for Nov. 10) of the day’s proceedings.

I was especially struck by two assertions by the panellists. First, it was Pierre’s view that stress injuries in journalists can nearly always be successfully treated, especially if they’re identified early on. Second, it was Belanger’s contention that newsroom managers generally don’t recognize stress injuries in their staff until they become very serious.

As a former newsroom manager, I can attest to the latter. Newsroom culture is not unlike the macho culture that pervades workers in emergency services such as police, fire and paramedical services — we compartmentalize the stress and shock, put it on a shelf, do our work and then go home. Too few newsroom managers appreciate the number of walking wounded within their organizations — and are too slow to recognize injury. Far too often, journalists are left untreated altogether and their efforts to cope with their accumulated injuries relegate them to sideline status. Some are demoted or transferred to other duties; others are forcibly retired or bought out.

It is incumbent on newsroom managers to deal with the injuries and stresses of their staff in a timely manner. In fact, a training module for newsroom managers, created by the Forum or some other organization, would be useful tool in many Canadian newsrooms.

Another memorable moment from this year’s workshop: Perkel’s very personal account of the final hours of the life of Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who died covering the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. It was incredibly moving. A previous post on Lang’s death is here.

Panellists Rick MacInnes-Rae, Karen Pierre, Joe Belanger and Colin Perkel participated in Saturday’s Journalists & Risk workshop.

Ottawa issues warning to Canadian Mennonite magazine

When my electronic copy of the latest issue of the award-winning church magazine Canadian Mennonite arrived in my inbox last week, I was shocked while reading editor-publisher Dick Benner’s editorial. In it, he disclosed the magazine has received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency about its “political activities.” Additional details were published in a news story by board vice-chair Carl DeGurse in the same issue. The story disturbed me on two levels: one, sudden engagement of a government department with a magazine that has had a long history of provoking discussion about the interplay between church and state; second, the notion that Ottawa is, apparently, making subjective judgments about the political activities of Canadian charities, applying litmus tests by which their charitable status might be preserved or revoked.

Canadian Mennonite is the published under a partnership agreement between six different Mennonite bodies under the umbrella of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which has charitable status so that individual church members (or others) may make personal donations. The magazine’s guiding principles, ownership and governance structures, bylaws and annual reports are all abundantly transparent and are available here. (Full disclosure: I served on the board of CMPS from 2004-2010; the last two years as board chair.) Throughout its existence, it has been a member of the Canadian Church Press and has regularly been recognized for excellence in editorial content and design.

Canadian Mennonite is, in fact, the successor to a tabloid newspaper called Mennonite Reporter, whose founding editor in 1971 was historian and church journalist Frank H. Epp. Owing to the nature of Mennonite experience and theology, both periodicals have a long history of reflecting the continuing struggle, within their constituents and readers, of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” Isolation from society, as reflected among the Amish (theological cousins to Mennonites) is one response; full engagement with it is another. There are many shades of grey in between. The point is that it is within the nature of the denomination, which sees peace and justice as primary motivators, to continuously grapple with the church-state relationship, including issues such as war, peacemaking, sanctuary for refugees, justice, humanitarian concerns, disaster relief, foreign policy and so on. Over the past century, Mennonite periodicals in Canada and the United States have reflected this. Many other denominations, such as the United Church of Canada, have had similar priorities.

I can appreciate the byzantine challenge that the CRA faces in trying to determine which applicants and holders of Canadian charitable status are legitimate. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff here must be complex and occasionally frustrating. And, indeed, it’s important for all of us, as citizens, that Canadian charities not be fronts from political organizations, fly-by-night operators, hate groups, foreign operatives and other schemes. To that extent, it’s appropriate for CRA to examine the nature and general activities of each Canadian charity on a regular basis.

But to issue a warning to an established church magazine over content that urges readers to carefully consider the voting records of MPs before casting their ballots, or opinion pieces that wonder about the Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, smacks of administrative overreaching and interference, not to mention the chilling effect it has on religious press freedoms.

Application of the same type of monitoring to other Canadian charities would mean that CRA would begin vetting the homilies and sermons delivered in churches, synagogues and mosques (Canadian charities, all) or keeping a closer watch over the activities of AIDS societies, United Way campaigns, or community foundations for some sense as to their political leanings.

I’m glad Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press picked up this story yesterday, as have a number of other bloggers, writers, newscasts and websites over the past few days. Every Canadian charity should be concerned, even if Canadian Mennonite is the only member of the Canadian Church Press to have received such a letter of warning.

Update: Marcy Markusa of CBC’s Information Radio in Manitoba interviewed Benner regarding this issue on Nov. 9; that chat can be heard here.

Update 2: Here’s Dick Benner’s second editorial on the subject; this one in the Nov. 26 issue of Canadian Mennonite.