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.

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.

The Taliban, the Globe and the Emmy

Less than a generation ago, Canadian newspapers considered the National Newspaper Awards, sponsored by the Canadian Newspaper Association, to be the holy grail of peer recognition for outstanding journalism. Sure, there were the annual Michener Awards for meritorious public service journalism and Canadians occasionally won Pulitzer Prizes (winners include the likes of novelists Ernest Hemingway, Carol Shields and news photographer Paul Watson). But the NNAs were the mainstay of year-to-year bragging rights when it came to public and industry recognition of significant journalistic accomplishment. In some respects, they still are.

Reporter Graeme Smith introduces the Talking to the Taliban series on the Globe and Mail's website.
Reporter Graeme Smith introduces the Talking to the Taliban series on the Globe and Mail's website.

The Globe and Mail, however, has raised the bar once again. Last night’s win at the 30th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards is an extraordinary accomplishment for reporter Graeme Smith, multimedia producer Jayson Taylor and interactive designer Chris Manza. The Emmy recognizes the Globe’s landmark Talking to the Taliban project in the category of New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming: Current News Coverage. Talking to the Taliban had already won an Online Journalism Award for best investigative piece by a large website, an Editor and Publisher (“EPpy”) online journalism award, and an NNA in the best multimedia feature category.

The Globe beat out entries from the New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters for the Emmy honour; the award was accepted at New York’s Lincoln Center ceremony by Smith, who expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to work for a Canadian news organization that could compete with the world’s best.

In winning the Emmy — an award most widely known as one that honours television arts and sciences — the Globe has emphatically underscored the reality of what used to be called “convergence” in days when the notion of legacy media delivering information through a variety of platforms was considered novel or prescient.

The Globe’s story on its Emmy honour is here; it properly acknowledges the work of a large team of journalists in bringing the project to fruition, including foreign editor Stephen Northfield. One name notably absent from the list of contributors is that of Christine Diemert, the former managing editor of globeandmail.com who was sent packing earlier this year and who fairly quickly found work at MSN.ca. Diemert put hundreds of hours into the Taliban project, and no doubt is taking some quiet personal satisfaction in the accomplishment.

Update: The Waterloo Region Record followed up with its own story on Sept. 23. Smith is a native of New Hamburg, Ont.

Ontario Morning visits London

Ontario Morning host Wei Chen interviews a guest during the show's visit to London.
Ontario Morning host Wei Chen interviews a guest during the show's visit to London.

CBC Radio’s regional morning show Ontario Morning made a rare field trip to London this morning, escaping the confines of the studios at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to get out among its listeners. The occasion: this year’s Doors Open London, a weekend of opportunity for those interested in seeing behind the doors and walls of some of the city’s most interesting edifices.

I’ve been a stalwart Ontario Morning listener for many years, because I believe the program does what more media organizations should be doing: journalling the distinctive cultural and political landscape that is Ontario, beyond the shortsighted vistas of Greater Toronto.

I had this discussion several times (to no avail) with editor-in-chief Ed Greenspon when I was a page editor on the night news desk at The Globe and Mail. The Globe, which possesses the capacity to produce up to 10 distinct editions across the country each day, is content to distribute its GTA edition, printed in Mississauga and containing the early Toronto pages, to subscribers from Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo, through to London and on to Windsor. As a result, readers in those cities get basically the same content, usually consisting of two pages midway through the paper’s A section, as do readers in the GTA — columns and stories derived from the (mostly) Toronto police, politics, education and urban culture beats. With minimal effort, I told Greenspon, those pages — in the Ontario region beyond the GTA — could be converted to “Ontario” pages that would gather in the most important developments of the day from the great rural-urban mix from Windsor to Guelph. It’s home to more people than live in all of Atlantic Canada, billions of dollars in annual research budgets, and a key piston in the country’s economic engine. Alas, I never did manage to sell him on the idea.

Unfortunately, the CBC gives residents of Southwestern Ontario similar treatment in the late afternoon, when it sends the signal of its Toronto-centric Here And Now, hosted by Matt Galloway, to transmitters through the region. Some of the discussion on that program is all but irrelevent to anyone beyond the sightlines from the CN Tower’s observation deck.

All of which makes Ontario Morning, with its strong provincial emphasis and regional correspondents, a unique and valuable pleasure.

Kudos to Globe for North Korea series

Inside a North Korean train car, shot by Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail. Gallagher is a freelancer based in China.
Inside a North Korean train car, shot by Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail. Gallagher is a freelancer based in China.

I’m finding the current series of articles, diary entries, photographs and video clips by Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon and freelance photographer Sean Gallagher on life in North Korea absolutely fascinating. It’s undercover reporting at its finest — illuminating, revealing, well-written and robustly illustrated.

I had the pleasure of getting to known MacKinnon on the days, during my tenure at the Globe, when I acted as a substitute assistant foreign editor. He was always a pleasure to deal with and his prose was unfailingly well-crafted and accessible. At that time, he was stationed in Jerusalem; he had earlier served as the newspaper’s correspondent in Moscow. MacKinnon is currently The Globe’s eyes and ears in Beijing.

I plan to make the series compulsory reading for my journalism classes this week. In addition to discussions about the qualities of feature writing, the series will undoubtedly provoke debate about journalism ethics, especially the uses and abuses of deception.

Watch for the MacKinnon-Gallagher series on the list of this year’s National Newspaper Awards nominations, as well as various online journalism competitions.

New chief at The Globe’s Ottawa bureau

More changes at senior levels of The Globe and Mail. Ottawa bureau chief Brian Laghi is leaving Parliament Hill to tackle a new career, which he characterized to colleagues as a bid to satisfy a need for change as he turns 50. Sylvia Stead, who editor-in-chief John Stackhouse installed just weeks ago as his senior manager in charge of staffing and training, was at Laghi’s side this morning as he made the announcement to bureau staff.

Ottawa bureau chief-designate John Ibbitson
Ottawa bureau chief-designate John Ibbitson

Replacing Laghi in Ottawa will be columnist John Ibbitson, who former editor-in-chief Ed Greenspon sent packing to Washington several years ago, despite Ibbitson’s dazzling work in the nation’s capital, where he frequently set the agenda for Question Period with his incisive and provocative columns.

Ibbitson has done yoeman service in Washington, covering American politics through the second term of George W. Bush, an intense and scrappy primary process and the historic election and inauguration of Barack Obama. But his posting to the U.S. capital seemed, to me at least, never to have generated the buzz or impact of his earlier stint in Ottawa, where he was a daily must-read. His return there bodes well for national political journalism.

Here’s editor-in-chief John Stackhouse’s memo to staff today:

I am sorry to announce that Brian Laghi, our Ottawa bureau chief, is leaving The Globe and Mail next month to pursue a new career.

Brian was hired in Edmonton in 1995 where he was the Journal’s legislative bureau chief. He was The Globe’s reporter in Edmonton and the north, specializing in politics and the creation of Nunavut. His experience as one of the first journalists in the country to understand and appreciate the grassroots Reform movement served him well when he moved to Ottawa and shone as an expert in the conservative movement. Along with politics, he covered federal-provincial relations, immigration and other issues. He has been bureau chief since 2004, helping direct coverage of two elections, budgets and major assignments and explaining federal politics to our readers. He won a National Newspaper Award in 2002 as part of a team on bank mergers and was nominated with Jeffrey Simpson last year for their profile of Stephen Harper.

Brian will start a new job in September as director of communications and public affairs for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

At the same time,  I am delighted to announce that John Ibbitson will be the next Ottawa bureau chief. In this role, he will report to Sinclair Stewart, the new national editor.

For nearly two decades, John has been a front-row observer and writer of Canadian and U.S. politics. Along with his deep knowledge of politics and government, he will bring to his new role boundless energy and enthusiasm for our coverage of national affairs.

John started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen’s Park columnist, Ottawa political affairs correspondent and, since May 2007, our Washington correspondent and columnist. He’s also the author of the just-published Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper.

Born in the  Ontario town of Gravenhurst, John graduated from the University of Toronto in 1979 with an Honours B.A. in English and from the University of Western Ontario in 1988 with an M.A. in Journalism.

Before joining the Globe, John worked as a reporter, columnist and Queen’s Park correspondent for Southam papers. He’s also published three works of political analysis: Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution; Loyal No More: Ontario’s Struggle for a Separate Destiny and The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream. In his spare time, he writes plays and young-adult novels. His latest, The Landing, won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. John’s writing has been nominated as well for the Donner Prize, the National Newspaper Award, the Trillium Award and the City of Toronto Book Award.

John and Brian will be in the bureau together for a formal handover early next month. Please join me in thanking Brian for his great contributions to the Globe, congratulating John on a brilliant run in Washington and wishing them both well in their new roles.

John Stackhouse

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?