Author Archives: Cornies

About Cornies

I teach journalism at Conestoga College, Kitchener, Ont., and at Western University, London, Ont. In my spare time, I write for MSN Canada, The London Free Press and try to maintain a blog. Someday I'd like to be able to play that trombone in my closet.

An orchestra reboots

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-3-09-37-pmAs one who has followed the triumphs and travails of the former Orchestra London for decades, I was really pleased to see its musicians coalesce around a new structure with a new name two days ago. New beginnings are always sweet — but for this ensemble, it must have been doubly so.

London Symphonia has managed a difficult balancing act: It has retained many of its core musicians, added others and reorganized in such a way as to preserve its artistic integrity and attract new support after throwing off the shackles of the organization that closed its doors in late 2014 and dissolved into bankruptcy in mid-2015. According to spokesperson Andrew Chung, London Symphonia already enjoys the support of government arts granting organizations, as well as a dedicated quorum of new and old supporters. That sounds far easier than it is.

I’ve written several columns (you can find samples here and here) over recent years about Orchestra London’s organizational failures and its struggle to battle back from life support to some sort of institutional viability. While the ensemble’s artistry was never in doubt, the former orchestra suffered from poor governance, ineffectual administrative leadership and structural models that were no longer in tune with its marketplace.

The ensemble’s musicians valiantly pursued their craft, post-bankruptcy, through #WePlayOn, which continued to play publicly, often for free, as they tried to find a suitable container for talents and aspirations of its members. London Symphonia is the result.

CTV London covered the new orchestra’s first concert, and London Free Press arts writer James Stewart Reaney provided a fitting column as one of his last acts on staff at the newspaper before his retirement.

London Symphonia’s website is here; its Twitter account is here. I wish them great success. It has been a long, hard, rocky road.

Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.

Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.

Joseph Lanza on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup

Joseph-LanzaOrchestra London concertmaster Joseph Lanza was one of the callers to CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup on Sunday, where the topic for discussion was the future of classical music. It was a timely call; earlier that week, the orchestra had announced it was suspending operations in the wake of a huge operating deficit. The orchestra spent $330,000 more than it brought in during the 2013-14 season, bringing its accumulated deficit to well over $1 million. A London Free Press story from city hall today indicates that the orchestra plans to go cap-in-hand to city council this week with a new request for funds, which includes an amount to pay for a bankruptcy proceeding.

Here, meanwhile, is the call Lanza made to the weekly CBC Radio show, hosted on Sunday afternoons by Rex Murphy:

A way forward for Orchestra London

OLlogoDiscussion of Orchestra London‘s financial woes has been robust on social media over the past few days, following reports that the organization no longer has the resources to pay its employees or proceed with planned concerts.

In response to my column in yesterday’s London Free Press, city resident and community activist Greg Fowler tweeted that, while it was a “great read,” it didn’t directly address the problems facing the orchestra. I tried responding in three bursts of 140 characters each, but here’s a slightly more detailed description of what I was thinking. My thoughts are rooted in my experience on the boards of other charities and educational institutions.

1. It’s become clear that, after more than a decade of failures on the governance and administrative side of the organization, Orchestra London’s current support structure is broken. While the artistic side of the orchestra has remained competent and even masterful, given the conditions under which its musicians have been forced to work, the administrative and managerial side has let the local community down. Even a financial monitor and a blue-ribbon panel of high-profile local businesspeople, co-opted in 2009 during the orchestra’s last major meltdown, seem to have been ineffective at either re-crafting the organization or garnering sufficient financial support from the community to sustain the orchestra’s longstanding business model.

2. The last time the orchestra’s board and consultants were so proactive in speaking publicly about the organization’s troubles, it was to assuage the sense that the organization was about to go over a financial cliff. At the time, Joe Swan, who would shortly become the orchestra’s executive director, spoke optimistically about future surpluses that would be used to chip away at the orchestra’s deficit, which was then just over $1 million. Last week, the orchestra came forward, publicly, again. Why now? I suspect it’s because the board and the ED have seen the latest audited financial figures — and they’re a nightmare. (Board president Joe O’Neill has not responded to my request for an interview.) It’s better to get out in front of a bad-news story, the theory goes (it didn’t work out so well for Jian Ghomeshi), rather than have it chase you.

3. The orchestra’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2014. No audit has yet been released, though I can’t imagine that it hasn’t been completed. Big. Red. Flag. The most recent annual report available ends June 30, 2013.

4. So how to go forward? As I mentioned in my column, I personally recoil against the prospect of just letting Orchestra London die and file for bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag. It sends a signal of abandonment and a lack of civic will. I believe Londoners can and should do better than that. I’m no lawyer — and there are numerous legal hurdles here — but where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. And here’s what I’d like to see accomplished:

• London city council commit just enough money to pay the orchestra’s musicians and stagehands through the end of December. They are collateral damage here in a disaster that is administrative and fiduciary, not artistic.

• London city council might insist, as a condition of its assistance, that the current executive director resign immediately and that the current board of directors should resign upon completion of a strategic renewal process that would include:

a musical arts summit, to be convened sometime in the month of January 2015, specifically programmed to deal with Orchestra London’s future.

using the summit to explore new synergies between London’s performing musical groups, ensembles and events, including those that are amateur, academic and professional.

embarking on a one-time, three-month fundraising campaign, broadly based and widely communicated, to deal with the the orchestra’s existing debt and to act as the great reset in its viability as a significant part of the local arts community in the future.

electing a new board of directors, once the future strategic direction becomes clear. Once elected, the new orchestra board should rewrite its constitutional documents to give the orchestra’s musicians a greater presence and better oversight into the board’s deliberations and decisions. (One orchestra member told me recently that the players’ representatives on the board are too often excluded by in-camera sessions that keep the musicians in the dark about what is really going on at the board level. This is an important governance issue.)

engaging with citizens who would respond to a very different type of programming than that which has traditionally characterized the orchestra. A night of soundtrack songs from Disney’s princess movies? Why not. A concert of music from the Twilight films? Yes. Mashups between the orchestra and headliners from Sunfest and the Home County Folk Festival, either on the Victoria Park bandshell stage or Centennial Hall, adjacent to the park? Absolutely.

formulating partnerships between the orchestra and the community, both on the artistic and corporate sides, that haven’t yet been tried — or  envisaged.

Even with its current level of indebtedness, the life or death of Orchestra London is as much a matter of political will as it is of money. I don’t for a minute believe that Londoners don’t possess, within themselves, the creativity and leadership needed to get through these next few months. Orchestra London should be allowed to live — though in a vastly changed form.

Lastly, I greatly admire the orchestra’s players, who, through all of this turmoil, simply want to life spirits and contribute positively to the community with their talents and commitment. Yesterday, amid the financial gloom, concertmaster Joseph Lanza and oboist Jennifer Short dropped by the London Public Library branch in their own neighbourhood to play some seasonal music.  Here’s a sample:

Update (Dec. 15): London Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney is reporting tonight that the orchestra’s deficit for the 2013-14 season was about $330,000, putting the accumulated deficit at more than $1 million.

Twitter handles for London’s new council

After last night’s stunning election results in London, Ont., engaged citizens may wish to adjust their Twitter accounts. Here’s a list of councillors to follow, ward by ward:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.48.18 AMMayor: Matt Brown, @Matt_Brown_
Ward 1: Michael van Holst, @mikevanholst
Ward 2: Bill Armstrong, —
Ward 3: Mohamed Salih, @mohamedMOSalih
Ward 4: Jesse Helmer, @jesse_helmer
Ward 5: Maureen Cassidy, @MaureenPCassidy
Ward 6: Phil Squire, @SquirePhil
Ward 7: Josh Morgan, @mrjoshmorgan
Ward 8: Paul Hubert, @phubert1961
Ward 9: Anna Hopkins, @AnnaHopkins11
Ward 10: Virginia Ridley, @virginia_ridley
Ward 11: Steven Turner, @st3v3turn3r
Ward 12: Harold Usher, @iamsensational
Ward 13: Tanya Park, @tanneramma
Ward 14: Jared Zaifman, @JaredZaifman

Update (Nov. 28, 6:38 p.m.): Thanks to marketing technologist Mike Wickett for his correction on Ward 11 councillor-elect Steven Turner’s handle, which I misspelled earlier today.

Transformation at Western’s journalism program

IMG_0175Western University’s graduate journalism program — one of the oldest in Canada — has formally acknowledged plans to re-fashion its one-year master’s program to offer a Master of Media in Journalism & Communication degree. A promotional description of the new curriculum is here.

The decision to shutter the existing program was made by administrators in the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) last December, but has been kept low key, as it sought approvals from various offices within the university for a transformed curriculum. Full-time journalism faculty members have been engaged in the process of building the new credential in the hope that it might save jobs and preserve some form of journalism training at the university. Paul Benedetti, a longtime lecturer in the existing program, resigned as its coordinator late last year.

Originally modelled after the journalism program at Columbia University in New York, Western’s offerings began modestly at the undergraduate level in 1946. It became a 12-month master’s program in 1974, annually admitting about 30-40 students each year since then.

Over the past 20 years, the journalism program has had a checkered relationship with the university. Senior administrators attempted to close the Graduate School of Journalism, then led by dean Peter Desbarats, who rallied faculty, staff, alumni and the members of the university’s board of governors to save the school. (That campaign is chronicled here.) Although the effort succeeded, the graduate school soon lost its standing as a separate entity and was merged with the much larger Graduate School of Library and Information Studies in 1996-97, under the auspices of what is now the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Desbarats, who had taken the reins as dean of the journalism school from ex-Toronto Telegram executive and founding dean Andrew MacFarlane in 1981, retired in 1997. Manjunath Pendakur, who now teaches communications at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, became FIMS’ first dean. Desbarats died in February. My London Free Press column on his passing his here.

The new graduate program intends to combine elements of journalism, media relations, communications and public relations. Mark A. Rayner, a FIMS lecturer, is taking the lead in coordinating development of the new curriculum.

Full disclosure: For many years, I have taught a summer course on journalism law and ethics as a sessional lecturer in the existing journalism program.

Link to downtown Brantford study

Below is a link to the study on the effect of post-secondary institutions on the core of Brantford, Ont., roughly a decade after that strategy was implemented there. It’s the study to which I refer in today’s column in The London Free Press.

2012 Economic Impact

Helping journalists cover mental illness

DownloadedThe morning that the booklet on which she and Cliff Lonsdale been been working was to be unveiled, Jane Hawkes allowed herself just a little satisfaction.

“After operating in a bubble for months, we really didn’t know if it would finally resonate — and [we’re] grateful that it seems to be,” she wrote in an email. “Interestingly, [there’s] just as much buzz outside Canada — [we’re] hearing from journos and mental health groups in Australia, Thailand, Israel, England, Ireland, U.S., Vietnam, Spain, Mexico, Kenya.”

The “buzz” is regarding Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health, a new resource by journalists for journalists, intended to improve the reporting of stories that touch on mental health issues. The slim 42-page field guide is available in booklet form or as a free download, in English or French, from the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

At a reception ahead of Thursday night’s launch at the Glenn Gould Studio inside the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, Lonsdale credited CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin with an unrelenting drive to keep the guide short and practical.

That, it is. Through seven short chapters and a quick reference compendium that includes a best-practice checklist, interviewing dos and don’ts, and guidance on language in cases of suicide and addictions, Mindset should take its place alongside a reporter’s dictionaries, stylebooks and legal guides on desktops and in backpacks, rather than on the shelves of newsroom libraries or inside yellowing manila folders.

Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health is published by the Forum in association with CBC News, with partial funding from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s a valuable resource for reporters who, in today’s newsrooms, are generalists far more often than they are specialists. And the dynamic website promises the guide will remain useful for years to come.

Below is the video, featuring Linden MacIntyre,  that led off the panel discussion at the booklet’s launch. The discussion, chaired by World Report host David Common, included Enkin, neuropsychiatrist Anthony Feinstein and André Picard, public health reporter at The Globe and Mail.