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.

Will La Presse be Canada’s first paperless newspaper?

The front page of La Presse on March 12 featured coverage of the earthquake in Japan.

Whenever I’ve taught courses in the history of print journalism in Canada, I have invariably made reference to a book that is now more than a quarter century old: Wilfred Kesterton‘s seminal work, A History of Journalism in Canada (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1984, 304 p.). First published in 1967, the book meticulously chronicles the development of Canadian journalism through four distinct press periods and is an authoritative collection of the significant names and dates along that odyssey.

Yesterday, amid reports that the Montreal newspaper La Presse plans to go entirely digital within five years, I wondered whether some future history book on Canadian journalism (would it be published on paper?) might not point to La Presse and yesterday’s date as the harbingers of a new “press” period.

La Presse is beginning the transition immediately. It plans to offer long-term subscribers a free iPad and hopes to trim its print run drastically over the coming years. The newspaper company, a division of Gesca Limitée, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Power Corp., has a printing contract with Transcontinental Inc. that runs through 2018.

J-Source.ca reported yesterday that La Presse has already invested more than $7 million in its “iPad plan” and expects to spend another $25 million to realize it. Postmedia News newspapers, including the Windsor StarOttawa CitizenMontreal GazetteCalgary HeraldEdmonton JournalSaskatoon StarPhoenixRegina Leader-PostVancouver SunVancouver Province and Victoria Times Colonist, have been delivering its products via the iPad since late last year. But the La Presse announcement goes further in that it foresees a complete transition to digital.

As a postsecondary journalism educator, I often get asked about the future of newspapers and, for that matter, the future of journalism. My answers: The future of printed newspapers (“ink on dead trees”) has a finite horizon, as it should. Few of today’s journalists entered the vocation because of a love affair with ink-stained fingers, giant printing presses, metal plates and rolls of newsprint (those romances belonged to an earlier generation). Rather, they entered — and continue to enter — the vocation because of their interest in research, interviewing, an innate curiosity, writing and storytelling across a variety of delivery platforms, and a deep desire to better understand the world, from big-picture issues to esoteric minutiae. That future, I think, remains bright.

Newspaper companies and elections: a modest proposal

Back in the mid-2000s, as federal lawmakers and bureaucrats were working out the details and regulations for the National Do Not Call List, the Canadian newspaper industry was in a bit of a tizzy. Telemarketing, after all, lay at the heart of every newspaper company’s strategy to build circulation and wage daily warfare against subscriber “churn” (the rebuilding circulation with new customers as the subscriptions of other customers lapsed and weren’t renewed).

As a result, the Canadian Newspaper Association undertook a concerted lobbying effort for an exemption. They argued for it on the basis that a well-informed citizenry was essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. And that, by the time the ink was dry on the regulations in 2006, was enough to earn them an out, alongside charities, pollsters and other organizations, on the exemptions list. (Plus perhaps the adage, ringing in the ears of federal politicians, that one should “never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel” — an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain.)

The time has arrived for a quid pro quo. Newspaper companies have argued, successfully, that they are an essential gear in the clockwork of a healthy democracy. They’ve been granted special licence by the federal government in acknowledgment of that function. Meanwhile, voter participation rates in Canada have been plummeting. Voter turnout during the last federal election on Oct. 14, 2008, was a mere 58.8 per cent — an historic low. In Ontario, the rate hit an all-time low on Oct. 10, 2007, when only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. At the municipal level, the news has been even worse. While high-visibility municipal campaigns last fall in places such as Toronto garnered participation rates that edged over the 50-per-cent mark, many cities, such as London, Ont. — at 39.9 per cent — saw a positively miserable voter turnout.

So here’s a modest proposal: During the writ period for federal and provincial campaigns, as well as the final weeks of municipal elections (between the close of nominations and voting day), publishers of Canada’s daily newspapers should provide their full electronic editions, to readers who request them, free of charge.

I’m not referring here, of course, to the websites maintained by most newspaper companies which are already free and carry a sampling of that day’s editions. Instead, I’m referring to the more comprehensive electronic editions published by many of Canada’s dailies and distributed on platforms such as personal computers and iPads, via apps and software such as PressReader. Postmedia Network Inc. provides iPad apps for all of its major dailies; PressDisplay.com makes dozens of additional titles available to Canadians and other readers worldwide, usually via subscription to e-editions. Titles such as The Globe and Mail provide their products in discrete electronic formats (e.g. Globe2Go).

If newspapers are indeed part of the national conversation that informs citizens in a viable democracy, organizations such as the Canadian Newspaper Association, part of Newspapers Canada, should seize upon such an opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Federal legislators would be very much interested in seeing whether the faith they placed in these companies, through the NDNCL exemption, continues to be merited. And it should be the aim of such an experiment to see voter participation rise.

There would be an upside for newspaper companies, too. Additional electronic editions would impose only marginal added costs. Yet what greater treasure trove of potential subscribers might there be than the account information of hundreds of seven- or eight-week e-subscribers — readers who have already proven their interest in civic engagement and dialogue through media that portend the future of the news business?

Egypt earns headlines around the globe

The front page of Al-Ahram, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 12, 2011

It was Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963, who coined the phrase that has since almost become cliché in the world of journalism and beyond. In a speech to Newsweek’s correspondents in London on April 29, 1963, he urged them, “Let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing, every week, a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Yesterday was one of those days when it was easy for journalists in Egypt and around the world to feel as if they were, indeed, writing the first rough draft of history. And today is one of those rare days where one story dominates headlines around the world: Egypt. The resignation of president Hosni Mubarak inspired front-page designers on five continents to mark the day in unusual and special ways.

That makes it a perfect day to check out the website maintained by Washington-based Newseum. Sort through the world’s front pages by region, compare visual treatments of the story from continent to continent and notice the headlines, including their emphases and nuances. The Newseum’s newspaper front-page index is here.

Murdoch bets on the tablet platform with The Daily

Say what you want about News Corporation magnate Rupert Murdoch (and people do, mostly about his conservative brand of politics and radical reshaping of American journalism). But his unveiling of The Daily this week — a virtual news product built on the platform of Apple’s iPad — provided a prescient peek at the future of news delivery and consumption.

Murdoch introduced the tablet-only “newspaper” at a press conference this week at the Guggenheim Museum in New York:

In the end, however, it’s not Murdoch’s massive financial investment, determination or reputation that will see the virtual newspaper to sink or swim. It’s whether or not the tablet format and its presentation capabilities will catch on with news consumers. Here’s a glimpse of some of the features (not all) of The Daily on the iPad platform:

Murdoch and his team have made no secret of the fact they’re preparing to deliver The Daily to other tablets — they’re merely starting with the iPad and will discern future direction based on the newspaper’s success on that device.

For publishers, the arrival of tablet-only news products means no newsprint, no printing presses, no ink, no trucks, no home delivery contractors. Even The Daily’s website will be a scaled-back version of its tablet edition. The larger question for those of us in journalism is how much in the way of resources will be redirected to the editorial side of the product and, most importantly, to the kind of incisive journalism that, in the long term, sustains any news enterprise.

Tablet news products offer storytellers a vastly different canvas on which to paint their versions of the day’s events — quite different, in fact, even from online presentation via websites. What will it mean for the way we train journalists?

• Content will continue to be king — and that’s our job. Reporting, interpretation, insight and context remain the cornerstones of the journalistic enterprise. Journalists won’t need to learn to write code for tablets any more than they needed to learn to operate a printing press.

• Journalists will, however, need to continue to think about the storytelling process and how the tablet’s capabilities affect how they do that. Multimedia storytelling skills — lucid writing, digital photography, rich audio capture, videography, database development and mobile presentation — will become indispensable within an expanding journalistic toolbox.

• While journalists won’t need to become preoccupied with presentation, they’ll be required to be increasingly conversant and collegial with those who are. A couple of decades ago, reporters and editors (grudgingly at first) permitted art directors, designers, graphic artists and visual journalists to join their news meetings and, more importantly, their pursuit of new forms of telling stories. We began to learn the language of graphic artists and to see that linguistic capability as being essential to communicating ideas, vision and possible storytelling packages. The arrival of tablet news products will necessarily mean we learn the language, if not the technical expertise, of the designers and engineers who translate vision and aspiration into charged electrons on high-resolution screens.

In short, The Daily holds a bucketful of journalistic promise — and may be showing us the near-term future of news delivery and consumption.

The Economist and digital-image manipulation

The digital manipulation by The Economist for its cover, left, of a news photo taken by Reuters photojournalist Larry Downing, right, is a recent example of the ethical challenges posed by imaging technologies.

Since the advent of digital photography in the early 1990s, there have been hundreds of cases of manipulation of news photographs by newspapers and magazines for editorial, artistic and cosmetic purposes. The practice, of course, preceded Photoshop and its competitors: Airbrushing, touchups and other forms of darkroom sleight-of-hand have been in use for decades, especially at magazines. But the arrival of digital photography software in the newspaper industry and at the consumer level introduced a new set of ethical questions within journalism.

The current debate over the use of an image of President Barack Obama at the Gulf of Mexico, with an oil platform in the background, is only the latest. In it, a cover version of the Reuters photo, manipulated by The Economist, has local resident Charlotte Randolph digitally scrubbed away, while another figure in the original shot, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, was cropped out.

An article yesterday by Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times cogently presents the arguments for and against such treatment. It’ll be a good case study for discussion at my journalism ethics class at the University of Western Ontario tonight. Reuters, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying the edit at The Economist violated its policy.

For a good summation of the view commonly held in newsrooms, both in Canada and the U.S., see this essay by photographer Frank Van Riper in The Washington Post.

The proposed takeover of The Canadian Press

If a deal by CTVglobemedia, Torstar Corp. and Gesca Ltée gets federal approval, one of the fixtures of Canadian journalism for nearly a century will be fundamentally changed. The companies, which operate CTV and The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and La Presse, respectively, have announced they’ll take The Canadian Press private.

The Canadian Press has a long and distinguished history in the annals of Canadian journalism. The news cooperative was formed in 1917 by Canada’s newspaper industry as a means of sharing news across the broad expanses of an emerging country which, only a dozen years earlier, had grown to stretch from sea to sea to sea. The real catalyst for its creation, however, was the First World War and the growing appetite among Canadians for news from the front. Information was relayed via telegraph wires.

Over the ensuing decades, CP, as it became known, became the mainstay of print journalism in Canada. It was maintained by member newspapers, which also contributed stories to the service to supplement CP’s own national staff and news agenda. A photo desk was added as transmission of pictures over great distances became feasible, and broadcast news services were added as television took hold in the early 1950s.

As might be expected in an enterprise where the public interest and corporate interests frequently conflict, The Canadian Press has been close to collapse several times in its history. Canwest pulled out of the cooperative on July 1, 2004, to form its own news service to feed stories to both its newspapers and Global Television outlets. Quebecor Media Inc. formed QMI Agency last year for similar purposes; its participation in The Canadian Press ended on July 1 of this year. The agency’s pension plan continues to be hugely underfunded and needs urgent attention.

If the three-way deal gets Ottawa’s approval, it will be interesting to see how the new owners (currently, the three largest members) integrate the news service into their operations and what impact that integration will have on jobs at all four entities. Of national concern should be the extent to which the Canadian Press news service will make its content available to other subscribers — and at what price. Will small, independent or start-up news operations in small communities be able to afford the news services offered up by Canwest, QMI or The Canadian Press? How will information flow across the country be affected? Will competition between the three major companies improve national news coverage or will a narrowed focus by the three corporate news-service owners, as they seek to service the needs of their own properties and divisions, constrict that flow? If, as playwright Arthur Miller said, “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself,” is a robust news service, or a series of them, vital to the conversations of a nation?

Far less important, but esoterically interesting among those who teach journalism, will be the question of how The Canadian Press’s new owners deal with the question of style at their operations. The Canadian Press Stylebook differs in many respects from The Globe and Mail’s Style Book, which is different again from Toronto Star style. In classrooms and labs, the importance of learning to adapt one’s news writing to some style standard — whether it be The Canadian Press (the standard at most Canadian schools) or some other — is the bane of many a j-school student’s existence. Some additional consistency here might actually be a good thing, though there are strong arguments for the differences between the news organizations on niggling points. And the style purists won’t be easily persuaded.