Delusions of Competency

Canadian journalism is in need of an intervention, and it is long overdue. It was never good industry. Media concentration was always appalling. Nepotism, pittance salary for reporters, and sexual harassment were always big, but secret problems that very few in the business would actually openly admit.

I worked in the profession from the time I was twenty until a few years ago when I was finished with my own project: working as a journalist so I could write about the problems in the profession, and not just in Canada.

That book became Don’t Believe It!: How lies become news.

I had one enormous advantage: I wrote stories about the Canadian newspaper industry for Presstime magazine, a publication that was published by the Newspaper Association of America. I was a Canadian correspondent for them in a real way, and it was probably the most exciting gig I had.

My first story for them was one that I pitched in 1998 about the launch of the National Post. It was a big deal at the time as it involved Conrad Black, and was happening at a time when newspapers were beginning their slide into oblivion.

As the National Post did not debut on the newsstands at the time – so much of the piece was about the birth of a new newspaper in Toronto – a city that already had several newspapers serving it – The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, and to an extent The Financial Post. The article was also about how these rival papers were getting ready for the new kid in town. Everything was in a state of flux – and I had to do several complete rewrites as events unfolded in unpredictable, yet obvious ways – especially after the owners of the National Post bought the Financial Post in order to merge it with their own paper to take on the Globe’s famed crown jewel section the Report on Business.

I conducted a plethora of interviews for a fairly short piece all in the name of turning over every rock and pebble – two executives from Southam gave me a face-to-face interview in their offices and were gracious. I interviewed editors, publishers, and executives from various newspapers – some who agreed to speak with me even as they were blindsided by the shocking events that unfolded – when Southam’s flagship newspaper The Hamilton Spectator was sold to another company – the publisher at the time was a class act and gave me an interview the same day, telling me he was informed of the decision thirty minutes before the news went public.

Almost everyone I interviewed was respectful of their rivals – whether the interviewee was from Southam or another company. By the time I snagged an on-the-record telephone interview with then managing editor Jim Travers from the Toronto Star, I had half-expected another interview where a player was going to give a similarly confident, yet cordial response.

But Mr. Travers seemed to be in a fighting mood that day – so much so I was not entirely certain his bravery came from the liquid variety or not, but there was no way for me to confirm or refute it. He called the National Post the “Daily Tubby” – a swipe at the not-so-hunky newspaper baron Conrad Black. The disrespectful trash talk took me aback. He went on to say:

We’ve seen papers come and go, and we expect to see the Black paper to come and go.

I asked him point blank whether I could quote him on this remark and he said yes without hesitation. The interview went on, and as my tape recorder rolled, I wrote down my notes as a map to the interview.

The only sensational comments came from Mr. Travers and I certainly had enough jabs for a boffo story that would get me noticed – yet the story was not about insults from rivals and in the end, I decided to run with the quote that the Star saw other papers come and go – and so too would the Post (as of this writing, it is still standing). The quote, which was the least offensive, was still the one that best represented the spirit of that interview without deflecting attention away from the real story of a newspaper with a national focus entering a market that was on the verge of decline.

When the story came out, I was satisfied with the piece, given the amount of work around the clock it took to put it together, yet shortly after its publication, the Executive Editor of Presstime emailed me to tell me that Mr. Travers denied saying what I put in my story. What did my notes say?

Fortunately, I had a tape recording of the entire interview. I emailed her back, telling her that not only did Mr. Travers say far worse things in the interview that did not end up in the story, but I had evidence of the interview.

I sent the tape, and shortly heard back that the editors heard the quote and it was in context – I didn’t play up or play down the quote – it was a single piece of the story that happened the way I described it.

I heard from Presstime again soon after they informed Mr. Travers that they heard him say the quote, and he told them he would personally apologize to me – he died a couple of years ago, never keeping that promise, and I would go on to write several other stories for that publication.

At the time, I thought perhaps those sentiments of Mr. Travers were his alone, yet in 2016, David Olive, Business columnist for the Star, pretty much wrote an entire article with that same underlying mean spiritedness. In a January 30, 2106 column, he called the Postmedia Network (current owners of the National Post), a “cancer” and “abomination” on Canadian journalism, and more than hints at its demise.

In other words, those at Torstar have seen other papers come and go, and are still hoping against hope to see the National Post finally go as well.

As others in the press have dutifully pointed out, Torstar is not one to talk: they have, like all other media outlets in Canada, slashed jobs and plenty of them. They even scuttled the Guelph Mercury News after almost 150 years in publication. Their last big scoop that former Hogtown mayor Rob Ford was into crack cocaine, only came to them when a drug dealer contacted them and finally told them the big reveal as the best they could do before then is report that the mayor cheated on his diet by going to KFC.

Yes, Torstar is a shadow of its former shadow of its former self, but Canadian journalism survives on government grants and funding and not brilliant or innovative business acumen or quality products.

For all the private sector whining about the CBC, many of those same outlets could not survive if the federal and provincial governments didn’t kick in those dollars to them.

Some magazines were busted a couple of years ago for exploiting unpaid interns while their wealthy owners did not work for free.

I have observed the slow death of Canadian journalism for years. There is a lot of self-praise in this industry and a lot of denial. Over the years, I had pitched pieces about what was happening and what could be done to reverse the decay, but was always rejected. It was not easy to see so many people running on a hamster wheel, thinking all they had to do was run until everything would turn out for the best.

I knew precisely what would happen when I was a twenty year old how decided to take that bold step of entering a profession for the express purpose of trying to find ways to make it better. I saw that writing on the wall years before during my time researching my profession. Headlines always read Are your children safe at school? for instance, not Are you safe at school, meaning a generation were being shut out of the joys of getting informed about the problems they would inevitably have to deal with later on.

The biases in news reports were problematic as were the numerous lies, hoaxes, and propaganda that destroyed the credibility of the profession. I often would look for who was hiring what public relations firms and see how those individuals managed to slant the news.

If journalists were doing their jobs, that should have never have happened. No PR firm should be able to influence how criminals, wars, or scandals were being portrayed in the first place.

So to Mr. Olive, the entire profession has cancer and is dying and the profession is still in absolute denial that it is really that sick. Parts of it are spinning the cancer to be a good thing, or making vicious observations that some of the profession has worse cancer than others and it is a cancer well earned.

It is all just a dysfunctional mess. The business model does not work. The methods of gathering, analyzing, producing, and disseminating the news does not work. Nothing works. You have people parading a journalists who merely parrot the press release or what authority figure tells them without question, turning into secretaries and stenographers who are both deluded and ignorant of what it is they are expected to do.

We are now dealing with people who do not have the courage to face negative news that tells them their theories are wrong, their passive optimism is woefully misplaced, and that they are in real danger of becoming sick, homeless, and cornered. They do not want to hear their system is failing and that they are doing wrong. They now have an alternative to tune out reality and truth by staring at their social media feeds of their unappetizing lunches, unflattering selfies, and DIY propaganda posters.

How did that happen? Because once upon a time, too many in journalism were obsessed with their bylines and pseudo celebrity to care about connecting to people with information. It was about mugging for the camera and knocking rivals instead of paying attention to what was happening in their own profession.

The profession is in need of an overhaul. It is in need of a scientific approach and an understanding of the human condition. It is in need of professors and researchers who conduct experiments on how best to present information, and how to find and see both truth and reality. It is about not being in denial about problems, but facing them head on with confidence and understanding.

Journalism in Canada is dead.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t build something new to replace it: not with a system that has those same problems, but a system that is constructed to overcome the sins of the past to make a stronger future.