Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Journalists as Social Climbers

Rick McGinnis, ex of Metro, writes a lively and rather thoughtful piece on why journalism is fucked. The core of his argument concerns Garth Drabinsky, a thieving scumbag with who I had my own little clash almost 30 years ago, but it fits the situation in Ottawa, too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Today's great moment in speech freedom

Oh, well, there's always tonight's Toby Keith concert.
I'd actually be a little less cynical about all this if the Canadian security agencies were any good at stopping the flow of remittances from Canada to the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah, al Qaida, the Shining Path and every other group of freelance killers in the world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Canwest Corpse Watch

I thought the rumors of a bailout would push Canwest's stock up. (Then, when I reported on it, Jahnny Kay could call me a "pro-Canwest activist".) But even the hint of a bailout isn't enough to move Canwest stock, even at a time when the market has been on a bit of a rebound. Today, it's still stuck at around 30 cents.

In Montreal, there's a rumour circulating that the Greenburg brothers, who own Astral Media., might make a move for the Gazette. That's precisely the type of local ownership that could save that great old title and reverse the decay of the post-Southam years.

Meanwhile, a US Congressman has come up with an idea I hadn't heard of: re-incorporate papers as non-profits, with generous tax breaks in return for non-partisanship. It's an intriguing idea for the business, once the de-leveraging process is finished.
HT www.Drudgereport.com

Monday, March 23, 2009

Today in Stupid

Yea, Canada should protest. But, really, isn't this where print and broadcast news is going? Ignorant, flippant, banal, empty and superficial... that's the new norm. It is the natural progression of things as the media is dumbed down and "what's hot, what's not" replaces real analysis.

I notice, when choosing between our kids in Afghanistan, who are fighting and dying for Canada, and their fascist heroes at Fox News, who are simply dying for attention, Canada's rightwingnut bloggers have come down squarely on the side of Rupert Murdoch's stooges.


Another one bites the dust

The Ann Arbor, Michigan Post, dead at 174.

Bailing Out The Media

The Hill Times, March 23rd, 2009

Commons to look into media crisis

Canwest News Ottawa bureau prepares for the worst, but hopes for the best.

By Harris MacLeod

The House Canadian Heritage Committee will hold hearings later this month to look into how the country's media industry is being hit by the global economic crisis, and if there is anything the government can do. But NDP MP Charlie Angus, said the situation for some companies, such as CanWest Global Communications Corp., which has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for months, is so dire that the government needs to act now before large chunks of Canada's media infrastructure disappear forever.

"I'm very, very concerned that we're going to lose media infrastructure that is not going to be replaced," said Mr. Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.). "Once these regional domestic voices are gone it's going to be very difficult to replace them."

Mr. Angus said the government has been "asleep at the switch" in protecting Canada's media industry.

Canwest, CTV, and public broadcaster CBC, three of Canada's largest media organizations, have all been hit hard by the economic downturn along with daily newspapers across the country.

CTV has already closed TV stations in Southern Ontario, and has also laid off staff, and CBC is expected to announce massive layoffs in the coming weeks. Canwest is suffering the most, though the company has managed to get another extension, this time until April 7, to negotiate an agreement with its creditors to manage the company's nearly $4-billion debt.

Last week The Canadian Press reported that the government was considering stepping in to provide some relief for Canwest, possibly by loosening regulations and making tax changes.

The company's CEO, Leonard Asper, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) have reportedly had at least one face-to-face meeting.

"We're thinking about whether or not there's anything the government can do, but I can't be any more specific than that right now," Heritage Minister James Moore (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, B.C.) said last week.

The House Heritage Committee's first witness will be Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission Chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein.

CTV and Canwest have both complained that the CRTC's refusal last fall of their request to charge fee-for-carriage for their television services has hindered their commercial viability.

Mr. Angus said the CRTC has "dropped the ball" in regulating Canada's media industry, and that in addition to Mr. Von Finckenstein he also hopes to hear from those effected by the downturn, such as the managers of CTV's A-channel TV-stations that have faced substantial cutbacks to both staff and programming.

"We've got a crisis at CBC, we've got a crisis at CTV, and we've got a crisis at Canwest," said Mr. Angus. "But I don't even think we've seen the other shoe drop yet in terms of the media crisis."

In addition to owning the Global television network, CanWest owns dozens of newspapers across the country including the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen. Some of the company's individual properties are profitable entities and are therefore likely to survive if the company falls into bankruptcy.

The Canwest News Service, which was founded in 2003 in Winnipeg and replaced The Canadian Press as the central newsgathering provider for Canwest papers in 2007, is in the most precarious position of the company's properties.

Mary Agnes Welch, a reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press and president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said it's possible that if Canwest goes under and its papers are sold off individually or in chunks, then maintaining the link with the news service could be part of the sale agreement. She said it's more likely, however, that the surviving papers would return to CP.

Ms. Welch said Canwest is still quite new, and therefore does not have the scope or the breadth of expertise that CP does.

"Once you see some of those newspapers that feed the service fall off, you'll see the service weaken even more. That's not to say that the Canwest News Service couldn't become a really solid thing if the economy was good and the company wasn't in such trouble, but right now if you see some of the newspapers start to be sold off, or Canwest start to really consolidate and face bankruptcy, I think the survival of the Canwest News Service would be pretty tenuous," said Ms. Welch.

The news service's Ottawa bureau, which was founded in 2007, has recently had a change in leadership with the former bureau chief, Gerry Nott, moving to become the editor-in-chief of The Ottawa Citizen. Scott Anderson, who stepped down as editor-in-chief of the Citizen more than a year ago, now heads up the news service.

Most of the news service reporters that The Hill Times contacted for this story declined to speak on the record about what was going on internally, however a few would say off the record that they've been given very limited information about the fate of their bureau and that they are essentially preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best.

"Don't get me wrong, you always want the company you work for to be flourishing and there's no questions that these are tough times not just for Canwest but the entire media industry," said Canwest News Service reporter Andrew Mayeda. "People in our shop have been aware of the overall general decline in advertising revenue and newspaper circulation, and when you pile on top of that an economic crisis it's not totally surprising that we're seeing the things that we're seeing. Management is being as transparent as they can with us and really once you have all the information you can there's really nothing else you can do but do your job."

A former Canwest employee who spoke to The Hill Times on condition of anonymity said the company broke with CP because it was more cost effective to have their own newswire service, however CP editor-in-chief Scott White said that was not Canwest's given reason at the time.

"That was never the reason that Canwest cited to us. It was that they wanted to have complete control over their own content, they didn't like the cooperative nature [of CP]," said Mr. White.

On the possibility of CP stepping in to fill the void if Canwest News Service doesn't survive, Mr. White said his organization would be "ready to speak to any paper, any outlet that wants to take our service." Whether CP would stand to gain from the possible breakup of Canwest is unclear, however, as the Sun Media chain recently broke with CanWest in favour of its own news-sharing service, called Quebecor Media Agency.

CP recently changed its corporate structure, whereby members of the cooperative will become clients who can pay for specific services that CP provides as opposed to the former membership-based structure where news organizations had to pay for everything CP offers.

Ms. Welch said the most in-depth reporting comes when newspapers are well-staffed with their own reporters, and also subscribe to CP. The Winnipeg Free Press, one of Canada's last independent newspapers, has an Ottawa bureau reporter who reports on Parliament Hill, and also receives reports from CP reporters on the Hill.

"If everybody [forms their own newswire service] it actually dilutes the power of having a national wire service that everybody feeds into and everybody participates in. Frankly, I think it's kind of counterintuitive for the Sun to do that, just as I thought it was counterintuitive for Canwest to do it," said Ms. Welch.

(The practical considerations of who gets a bailout, who doesn't, and whether the government takes equity or bonds seem to me to be insurmountable. The problems in Canadian media are not short-term, they are structural. They involve the over-leveraging of Canwest and CTVGlobemedia, and they can't be fixed until these companies are de-leveraged. This would involve spending billions of taxpayers' dollars on privately-owned media, with the very real risk that the bulk of Canadian media could end up passing into the hands of the government. The chances of that gaining traction with the opposition parties in this minority parliament and the public lie somewhere between extremely slim and none.
Other than carriage fees (see post below), I can't see the government being able tio do anything for the media. This really is an issue for the free market.
I also don't see Canwest's main operation being under any greater threat than any other part of the operation. The news copy it creates is needed by the papers and would have to be replaced with CP material. Any threat would be long-term, such as a scenario in which the newspaper chain is sold off piecemiel. Even that would be no huge deal. CP's gains would make Canwest's losses a zero sum for Canadian journalism.
Don't forget, too, that the old Southam chain had one of the best Ottawa news operations while the papers were still members of CP.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Carriage Fees: Why Not?

Carriage fees are payments specialty channels get from cable companies. Yet network TV channels, even hard-pressed local ones, don't get them.
Why not?
I just watched a movie on Showcase Action. It was loaded with commercials. BCExpressview charges me for Showcase Action, and the owners of the channel get a little money from me every month.
If I watched the movie on the local CTV, Global, A Channel or CBC station, they would get nothing.
So, why is that?
Bundle up the network stations and sell them as a package, or look at "basic" cable as a package, and pay these people. We do need to save local TV. In fact, we need more local TV stations owned in the community, creating material that actually covers them.
Later, when broadcasters are back on their feet, we can have a pick and pay system that will allow people to vote with their pocketbook for the survival of individual channels, network or specialty. But right now, the private broadcasters have a point: they deserve to be paid.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Judging the NNAs

My statement re: Jonathan Kay's blog attacks on me:

As a judge in the National Newspaper Awards, I can't divulge the details of the deliberations that went into choosing the three finalists and the winner in my category (beats).
However, I can say all three judges took this responsibility extremely seriously. For my part, having been nominated five times for national writing awards (NNA, National Magazine Awards, CAJ), I brought to the effort the same serious care that I would hope judges used when judging my own submissions to these types of competition.
We did not look with prejudice or favor upon any company. In fact, the NNAs in this category are personal awards to reporters, and it was on the basis of the quality of the reporting that we made our choices.
I have been very critical of Canwest on this blog, but I have not criticized Canwest's reporters. I certainly would not cheat any of them out of a National Newspaper Award, which is what Mr. Kay suggests.
In fact, in the category that I judged, two of the three nominees are from Canwest newspapers.
I believe it is extremely unprofessional for Mr. Kay to attempt to draw the NNAs into disrepute with innuendo.

Mark Bourrie PhD
Concordia University

Why no new blog posts?

Because I'm sick as a dog.
Back soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Future of Journalism

Seattle Post-Intelligencer goes "all online".

All the reporters are cut.

An ex-mayor, his wife (who's a member of Congress) plus various other vested interest bloggers get gigs.

Hearst plans no local coverage, just re-hashes of magazine copy and other free pap.

Did someone say something about journalism's importance to democracy?

The Agenda: The Death of Newspapers

Looking back on it, I should have gone after them harder for lousy content:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A recipe for a quicker death

Is here. Randall Denley says papers like his should charge $2, with the extra money being plowed into better journalism.
The Citizen can charge $10. Hell, why not $20? Then, when I read it for free on its web site, I'll feel like I'm getting an even better deal.
BTW, Randall, the chances of the Aspers putting another cent into journalism are pretty remote. In good times, they never did. Why would they start now?
The Globe is about to raise its price, just after a round of staff cuts and bureau closings. The result should be pretty sad.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Crisis in Canadian Newspapers: Badgering the Ostriches

I was on TVO's Agenda tonight discussing the state of the newspaper business with TorStar's sorta new top exec John Honderich, Globe and Mail editor Ed Greenspon, and Carleton University's Chris Dornan.
I'll add a link to the show when it's posted on TVO.org Monday.

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy the "public service" claims of media managers anymore. When I sat there listening to Honderich and Greenspon talking of the importance of their work to democracy, I knew their real loyalty lies elsewhere.

These are some of the things I wanted to say but never got the chance:

1. Has anyone noticed that all of the debt that's been saddled onto the news industry was used for mergers and acquisitions? Not a penny went toward making a better paper or TV newsroom.

2. How can the Globe claim to be a serious, important paper when it has done so much to trivialize the coverage of politics? "Who's Hot and Who's Not" must make Dick Doyle spin in his grave.

3. What is journalism doing to bridge the huge gap between the age of its newsrooms and the demographics of the general public? (Since most newspapers haven't done serious hiring in more than twenty years, and many reporters being well into their 50s, there are two generations of Canadians who are not well understood by journalists).

4. How can Honderich talk about the importance of journalism to the community when his own company's chain of weeklies, Metroland, has ravaged the coverage of small-town Ontario? It buys up good papers and turns them into bad ones and drives independents to the wall with cut-throat competition.

5. Why are newspapers doing nothing serious to get people under 30 reading them? Honderich talked about the Star's strong home delivery. That's newspaper sales to seniors, people from generations when newspapers were a badge of the middle-class, like having a piano in your home. That market is literally dying off.

Steve Paikin was amazing when he brought up the Star and the Globe's decisions to get rid of their Queen's Park columnists. Greenspon looked like he had been hit by a plank. He lamely tried to compare the Globe with TVO, then promised some sort of magic secret thing that would make Queen's Park coverage better. In the context of what he said earlier about columnists adding value to the old news the Globe prints, the whole thing was laughable.

And Honderich's scoffing at my remarks about convergence was a howl, considering where I was sitting: in TVO's studio in Ottawa, in the CTV-Globemedia newsroom, which is a converged TV and print operation, one in which the Star just took a $200 million bath.


Here's something truly bizarre: Michael Cooke, the Toronto Star's new editor, hatched a plan when he was still at the Chicago Sun-Times to outsource editing to Canada or India, according to the Chicago Tribune. The plan was supposed to result in cuts to another 30 newsroom jobs. Of course, the Newspaper Guild and the journalists at the paper reacted with horror. Now, the idea has been shelved by the paper's new management team.
It's not as off-the-wall as it seems. Canadian and American law firms are already outsourcing some briefs writing to India. And if you can paginate all Canwest papers in Hamilton, why not do the work in Calcutta? I'm sure they can spell most English words right, so they should be able to copy edit.
Later, you can add cop checks, obits, maybe even movie and CD reviews.

And the Canwest Deathwatch continues, with the Aspers expected to be toast perhaps a little later than I thought, though still within the calender year:

Market analysts expect Canwest to be bankrupt by the end of the year.

And the future of journalism looks like this:

heGlobe and Maildrastically modified Tits book re-view coverage several weeks ago, becoming the latest, as far as I know, in a long list of newspapers

(From the front page of the Midland Free Press web page. The Midland Free Press was Canada's best independent newspaper in the 1940s, '50s and early 60s. It was bought by Thomson from its local owners. Then, in the early 1990s, it was sold to Southam. It was later flipped to Osprey. Then Osprey was sold to Quebecor. In 1990, it had a staff of five reporters and a full-time editor. Now it has a part-time editor and a staff of one reporter.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

While politicians play in Parliament

Real people suffer in the hinterland.
I worked for this company for a year when I was 20. It was in Terrace Bay, on the Trans-Canada Highway 140 miles northeast of Thunder Bay. Terrace Bay was a company town, planned and built after World War II to take advantage of a large nearby hydro plant, a good timber source, and decent transportation. Back then, it was part of Kimberly-Clark's network of mills headquartered in Wisconsin. There was a deal between the people and the company. You would work for the mill and live in a fairly isolated community, away from things like universities, arts centres, opera houses, domed stadiums, and all the rest of the things your tax dollar was paying for. In return, you got as much of a middle-class lifestyle as was possible in a small town, one that was very pleasant if you were an outdoorsy type. It wasn't a deal I took, but many decent people did.
Now the deal's off. These people are on their own. Their home equity is gone, they have no transferable skills, and, because the place hasn't hired in years, they're on the wrong side of 40.
Quite simply, they're fucked.
And who cares about them?
No one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Memo to Jim Flaherty

When you want to know what's going on, drop by.

OCT. 30, 2007

Now, what happens if, as I expect, we do have a recession next year? Flaherty's tax cuts are now built into the system. They are, essentially, refunds from the windfall the government has been blessed with in a time of incredible prosperity. But if the economy tanks with the US', we'll be running Mulroney-type deficits again as quick as you can say "Michael Wilson".

SEPT 22, 2008
Let's see the cash first
I've been following the credit meltdown for well over a year, and it's played out the way I expected. Today is sickening. Thank God so few people know any history or have any idea where this thing is going.
It's particularly strange to teach university students who don't have any recollection of recessions. Most of the weren't even born during the recession of the early 1980s.
This one is going to be far worse. The 1980s recession was a contraction of manufacturing. This is a total vapor-lock of credit. This hasn't happened since 1929 and we haven't seen bank failures like this since the winter of 1932-1933, when, at least, a bank relief bill made it through Congress with bi-partisan support. I can't imagine what would have happened in 1933 without the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and the federal re-organization of banking. Unless Congress acts, I fear we will find out.
As for Canada, we're doing exactly what we did in 1929: pretend the downturn will be kept to the States. In early 1930, the Toronto Star sent Parliamentary reporter Wilfrid Eggleston across the States to write about the lousy conditions down there and, by comparison, praise William Lyon Mackenzie King's policies. That didn't save King in the 1930 election campaign. And by the end of 1930, we were worse off than the Americans (but our banks did survive the storm of 1932-1933, when banks collapsed across the States, money disappeared from circulation in America, and people resorted to barter and municipal scrip until a deal was reached between the outgoing Hoover administration, the incoming Roosevelt team, Congress and the banks.
As I said above, today's politicians don't have it in them to work for the betterment of the economy. And, if anything, this collapse is worse. The 1932 collapse began when individual savers pulled their funds from regional banks. It was solved by getting cash to those banks so people would have faith in them and return their savings). Our exports were killed by American tariffs, cheap Soviet wheat came on the market, and pay cuts ruined the purchasing power of those who had jobs.
There's a myth that the war ended the Depression, when, in fact, the economy grew fairly steadily from 1934 until 1939. Without the war, the economy probably would have recovered by the early to mid 1940s, and much faster if there had been a concerted effort to end trade barriers.
Now, banks are not only afraid to lend to businesses and individuals, they're afraid to lend to each other for fear they will lose their money. Quite simply, trade and investment cannot function without this credit.
If you want to know what I think of this mess, read through the blog. It's all here, beginning last August. What's the way out? Well, a lot of people are going to offer a lot of ideas over the next few years. Some of them will be pretty scary as people look for easy answers.
First, we'll have to absorb and work off the losses. A lot of people are going to end up as debt slaves, since American bankruptcy laws were changed by the Bush administration to prevent the types of walk-aways that we have in Canada. House prices are going to have to drop to a level in which it makes sense for the average family to buy.
They way out involves a shift in how we do business and politics. It involves investment in real productivity, not in paper assets. It also involves seeing business differently, especially in the way quarterly results are so over-emphasized. That, much more than anything, has resulted in the drying up of real physical investment.
Many companies will need to be de-leveraged. Eventually, this will be good for the media as it emerges from the debt heaped upon it by the various buy-outs and asset sales of the last twenty years.
But the only real way out is to invest in communities, especially in manufacturing. Quite simply, we don't make anything. We don't process our natural resources. We've become a nation of hole diggers and paper-pushers. We don't even hew wood anymore.
It's the same in the States.

But I am too whacked from watching the day unfold (and lecturing for two hours) to deal with this.

So, instead, I'll mock this guy. I don't think he has more than 4 trillion pounds at his disposal. As for proving evolution, it's fairly easy, to anyone with an open mind.
In fact, it's easy as hell to disprove Noah's Flood as the cause of the deposition of continental sedimentary rocks, but that isn't the bet.

HT to Norman Spector for the link.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Pushing the boundaries of journalism

to an all-time low: Canwest is 27 cents. The equity value of the company (the total of all the shares at 27 cents) is about $50 million.
Meanwhile, the Globe says the chickens will come home to roost by the Ides of March. Canwest has a $38 million interest payment due that day (a Sunday). It does not have this money. And even if it did, the rest of the bankers won't sit by while one creditor gets paid and the rest of them circle the drain.
So it really will be over next Wednesday, when the last extension by the banks times out.

Pity the Poor Orphans

Including the New Republic, which will probably go out of business when CanWest is dismantled.


It looks like the magazine has been "sold" back to its former owner/editor. That's a little bit of good news out of an otherwise bleak situation.

Today's Punchline

"John Tory"
I suspected he was in trouble when I saw the campaign commercials on the Peterborough TV station: "Vote Johnson. Vote Local."
In small town Ontario, which feels overwhelmed by Toronto and ignored by it at the same time, Johnson's hokey litte ads were devastating.
Meanwhile, for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, today's phrase is "Interim Leader".
It's too bad, because Ontario needs an effective Opposition.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Today in Bad Jurisprudence

Here's a case in which a judge has stepped far into the political sphere. I agree the government should not drop the support it gave, but I disagree with this judge's attept to set government policy.
As an aside, this is yet another case that reinforces my gratitude for the Martin government's decision not to appoint Marlys Edwardh to the Supreme Court of Canada.

CBC Humour

Still about as funny as amatuer dentistry.
How many tens of thousands of dollars did it cost Canadian taxpayers to gather and broadcast footage last night of Rick Mercer eating pancakes at the Hoito restaurant in Thunder Bay? Not that Mercer's piece was particularly bad. It's just annoying that Mercer's smug, pandering segment from T-Bay was the first piece of CBC film out of northwestern Ontario since Terry Fox's run.
Guess what, CBC? There's more to life in northwestern Ontario than making fun of Finnish words. There's been nothing on the $1.1 billion-a-year network about the economic catastrophe in the region, no mention of the fact you can buy a decent house in every town along Lake Superior for less than the sticker price of a Chevy Cavalier. When the CBC facilitates national dialogue, it's confined to Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, with a bit of Halifax thrown in for that down-home colour.
The This Hour Has 22 Minutes schtick, however, does need to be retired. It wasn't funny when the annoying fat woman and the tedious gay guy used to do it on Parliament Hill, and it's just tiresome now.
In the film clip from Queen's Park, Dalton McGuinty and Peter Kormos were obviously not pleased. I can see why. The premier was talking about an economic milestone, the loss of Stelco in Hamilton. Kormos represents people in the region.
But get a load of the press. They think it's a hoot.
It reinforces my belief that most political reporters no longer care about, or understand, Real Canada. They are only there for the "gotcha" moments. Journalism has become like high school, with the dumb, shallow rich kids in charge.
As for Crown Corporation humour: If we're going to be taxed for "funny," please make us laugh.

Warren, Skippy, Ezra, Kate, Kathy, Jason, Scott et al.

Let me make a suggestion to all the angry, warring, partisan bloggers, those who have received writs and those who have issued them:
Take a week away from the computer. Do it for Lent or for Purim, or just for your own sake. Do it for your mental and spiritual health. See how very small the so-called "blogosphere" is, and how its fights are not worth your time and money.
It's easy to get caught up in the Internet. Lord knows, even media owners and senior execs have been caught in the Net, making irrational decisions based on their own Internet use, not on reality.
Anyone noticing that the pool of "important" bloggers hasn't become any bigger in the past five years or so? Or that Kate MacMillan, the most-read blogger in Canada, still has her day job? Or that the commenters on most blog sites tend to be the same group of about 30 people, going on and on, day after day? Or that none of the politicians who took up blogging in a big way are important players in Canadian politics?
So step back. Give your heads a shake. In 50 years, we'll all be dead. Is all the ugliness on the Internet worth the time and effort?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Canwest corpsewatch

New all-time low: 29 cents. Then a dead cat bounce to 31 cents.
Meanwhile, the Izzy Mahal got a million-dollar cheque of Sifton money, earned by a family that actually knew how to run newspapers.