Category Archives: Journalism

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

London City Press Club needs reinvention

Berton at press club

London Free Press editor-in-chief Paul Berton bids farewell to newspaper employees at the London City Press Club on June 5, 2010. Berton is now editor-in-chief at the Hamilton Spectator.

I can’t say I was surprised by this morning’s story in The London Free Press about the imminent closure of the London City Press Club. Saddened and a bit nostaligic, maybe, but not surprised. Come to think of it, saddened and nostalgic are a bit of a stretch, too, since I was never a member.

I should have been (a member, that is). As one who worked as a journalist in London, Ont., for more than 20 years (two of them at London Magazine and 18+ at the newspaper, the last seven as its editor), I should have been a regular at the club. Maybe even served on its board. So when I read this morning’s story, the inescapable conclusion was that I — and dozens of people like me — was at least partly to blame. More than a few times, I held a membership application in my hand; each time, I set it down.

It was always an entirely hospitable place and I enjoyed each of my visits there over the years, whether it was a special function or just a swing-by visit at the invitation of one of the club’s members. And I might have joined had my commitment to a spouse and responsibilities as a dad to four kids not made a more substantial claim on my time — especially the all-too-precious time away from the office.

The London City Press Club, with its venerable history and a committed core of ardent supporters, also laboured somewhat under the stereotypes of what press clubs were a half-century ago: the early-hour, post-deadline refuge of hard-bitten reporters and editors, who, having let the presses roll or signed off the air, wandered into the club for their nightcaps. They told each other the stories behind the stories of the next day’s front pages (tales that often grew slightly larger with each telling), complained about their bosses or the rookies under their tutelage, and waxed nostalgic about the good old days when journalism was still real journalism.

The arrival of a new generation of journalists in Canadian newsrooms in the early 1990s, many of them women and many among both genders attuned to a different set of personal priorities, began to change the internal landscape of newsroom culture. Life-career balance became an imperative for many. The shrinking size of the city’s newsrooms — newspaper, magazines, radio and television — had an impact too. And those developments were mere precursors to the much more profound effects of more distributed types of community journalism through a much wider variety of delivery platforms, most of them Internet-based.

It would be a thrill to see the London City Press Club reinvented — not as a tenant or lessee that operates an establishment, dominated by a bar, around which rattle the ghosts of journalism past, but as an organization that promotes dialogue and collaboration around important political and journalistic issues within the city and its environs. An entity that looks forward as much as it looks back. Open the doors to journalists, both full- and part-time, who contribute in some manner to the growing diversity of media voices within the city, across all platforms. Sponsor the appearance of important speakers or workshops, seminars or panel discussions on emerging journalistic themes. Hold them in meeting spaces, banquet halls or private rooms in local sponsoring hotels or restaurants. Think meetup in terms of format; think Canadian Club of London in terms of organization.

The closure of the press club’s doors at Dundas and Colborne streets doesn’t need to signal the end of its life as an organization to promote collegiality, professionalism and (dare we think it?) transparency and accountability. The club simply needs a reinvention that will give it new life as London City Press Club 2.0.

CBC Online leaves impression on Conestoga students

When I asked my new media students in class today about the things that were most memorable or surprising about last week’s field trip to CBC Online in Toronto, they responded nearly unanimously: It was the buzz, the electricity and enthusiasm they felt among the staff working on the fourth floor of the CBC Broadcasting Centre. Amid the rapid changes that have seized the journalistic enterprise over the past three years, here was a group of eager and committed professionals who avidly embraced the changes that have left so many experienced journalists dour and shell-shocked. For the visiting students, the palpable sense of energy among CBC journalists was at once refreshing and reassuring.

Credit where credit is due: The visit was largely arranged by Waterloo Region Record reporter Jeff Outhit, who teaches computer-assisted reporting in Conestoga’s postgraduate New Media: Convergence program. Outhit contacted one of his former Record colleagues, Lianne Elliott (@cbclianne on Twitter), now a producer at CBC.ca; she met our group and arranged a discussion on the future of online media with Kim Fox (@kimfox), CBC News’s senior producer for community and social media.

Amber Hildebrandt

Following that session, online reporter and producer Amber Hildebrandt (@cbcamber) spent some time describing her use of new media in various reporting assignments, including the trial of serial murder Russell Williams last year. (Read Hildebrandt’s reflections on that experience here.) The morning wrapped up with demonstrations by Elliott of the software and other tools CBC.ca uses in its online reporting, as live coverage of the final landing of the space shuttle Discovery was underway. It included an interview with former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who had flown on Discovery, on a set nearby.

Along the way, there was also a quick introduction to CBC Radio weekend news anchor Martina Fitzgerald, another of Outhit’s former reporting colleagues, this time at the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Hats off to CBC Online’s staff, who went above and beyond the call of duty in challenging and inspiring our students. The trip was a stimulating and potent reminder of the power of a well-organized field trip to leave an indelible impression.