Thursday, April 30, 2009

The End of the Asper Dynasty?

Peter C. Newman's take in Maclean's* on an interesting group of people who were good at buying and acquiring, not so good at managing.
I still believe the breaking up of Canwest into a TV/specialty channel network and at least one newspaper chain would be the best thing to happen to Canadian journalism. The revival of a company like Southam, with a string of large-market top-quality dailies fed by a national news service of the country's best reporters and editors, would be both profitable and good for Canadian democracy.
I also expect this will be the final outcome, one that I've wanted all along.
As for the National Post, I predict (and hope) it will survive as a daily business paper with a bit of news and commentary.
Meanwhile, it's time to let economic nature take its course and for the next generation of media proprietors to step up to the plate.

(*Which I read for free on their web site. Tell me again, how does that make sense?)

Today's mystery quote - whodunnit?

Because no one will take responsibility for these wild, outlandish and controversial statements,* I offer them up to you, dear readers.
From an analysis piece in the Toronto Star on Ignatieff's decision to move the Liberal Party to the right:

"He is definitely moving the party away from the left and toward the mushy centre," says one Toronto-area Liberal insider who has worked on federal and provincial campaigns. "Some Liberals may not like what he's doing, but the centre – not the left – is where elections are won in this country."

*Actually, very benign statements of reality

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

National Post cuts Monday paper

The National Post won't publish on Mondays this summer. Probably a sensible business idea, even though the optics are bad. The Post is primarily a business paper. The Financial Post is a fantastic newspaper, but there's not a lot of business news on weekends for publication in Monday papers, so, from a content point of view, it won't matter much. And summers are news droughts anyway.
Best news from the story: no more layoffs.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why Swine Flu Probably Won't Kill You (and Me)

I think there's a lot the Mexican government is not telling us about swine flu. The official line is that the disease first showed itself in Mexico City about two weeks ago, killing about 150 people, out of the 2,000 or so known cases.
I don't buy it.
The disease is showing up in Mexico all the way from the Yucatan to the Texas and California borders. That suggests it's everywhere in Mexico. So it's been around longer than two weeks. The Mexicans finally owned up to it at the end of the tourism season, after the spring break crowd went home. And guess who most of the known cases outside Mexico are now? High school kids who came back a few weeks ago from Mexican vacations.
Now, about those percentages, and why they don't jibe with what we're seeing in North America. I suspect most Mexicans (along with most Canadians) don't bother going to the doctor when they get a mild flu. This flu is not striking healthy young people down dead like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the small outbreak of swine flu in 1975. In fact, not a single case in North America has required hospitalization at all.
We'll see accurate numbers in North America because every person who gets the flu in the next few months will run to a doctor and the doctors will report every case. That's what's happening now, and it's showing a far different situation than the media first came out with.
What we're seeing in North America is a mild flu traceable to Mexico. Yes, it could mutate into something more virulent. So could the flu that I had earlier this winter. They're all variations of the same virus.
Some of the Chicken Littles say we're overdue for a pandemic, and seem disappointed the bird flu of two years ago didn't make the cut. But we won't see another 1918, at least not from influenza, as long as we have anti-viral drugs, antibiotics and ventilators. We're not going to see Black Plague, either, because in the rare cases when someone catches it, it's cured with Cypro.
The media, especially TV, feeds on fear. I remember one recent Ottawa Citizen lead paragraph that said, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." Well, I suppose the Depression, which hardly resembles the 1930s, hasn't been scary enough. Terrorists haven't held up their end, either. So now it's swine flu. But swine flu is no SARS.
We'll be alright.

Ottawa: Second-best town in Canada

It's my home town, and my family has lived in the area since the 1850s.
It has three and a half wonderful months of the year (the summer). It's a great place for boating, though that part of Georgian Bay is getting pretty crowded. House prices are low. But it rains constantly in the spring and fall and has an incredible snowfall in the winter. No jobs. No higher education. A great place for retired snowbirds and not much else. The temptation to go back hits every few months, but Moneysense is right to rank it 140 out of 145 Canadian communities.
But you have to take all these surveys with a grain of salt. I loved living in Midland. Yea, the weather tends to be dreary but I like the history of the region and its natural beauty (which, I'm afraid, is quickly getting built over and fenced off). I just don't want my kids to have to leave home at 18 to go to university. The nearest one is 90 miles away, in Toronto. And it's York, for God's sake.
But I have friends who moved to the Midland area and probably will never leave. They are self-employed, well-connected to the community, and somewhat out-doorsy. They aren't victims of Midland-Penetang's dying manufacturing sector, and they take advantage of the natural assets of the region. As the Hurons said about Huronia, it really is a land apart.
A good friend of mine lives in Terrace BC, pegged by Moneysense as the worst town in Canada. He loves it. He works on fossils, fishes salmon in the Skeena River, and never has a bad thing to say about the place.
I like Ottawa. It has everything I need. It's not cheap and it's not warm and friendly. The civil service mentality and the sense of entitlement of middle-class Ottawans is hard to take. So is the ignorance of the inbred local population. There's lots of Francophone attitude, especially on the Hill, where speaking English is discouraged. The cabbies are scary, and, if you're a good looking female university student wanting a ride home from a bar, they're dangerous. The winters are far colder than Midland's. I'd take the snow in Midland over the subzero temperatures of Ottawa any day. But with the incredible beauty of the Gatineau Hills twenty minutes away, two universities, Parliament, great career opportunities for my wife and me, and the National Archives just up the street, this place works for me.

As for Victoria, which placed No. 1: I would be bored out of my skull there, although, yes, I would enjoy the cooler summers and the milder winters.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pontiac RIP

My grandma (nicknamed Iggy) was from Pontiac, Michigan. Her father worked for GM. So did my great uncles, after they got back from the Pacific. So, for a while in the Depression, did my grandfather.
But I have no nostalgia about the death of the line of cars that they built. The Pontiac is no longer a great car. The Pontiac Sunfire ("Built for Drivers") is a low-grade piece of trash that looks five years older than any Honda and tries to make up in bells and whistles what it lacks in quality and value. Within a few months, the cheap plastic scuffs and looks crummy. In a couple of years, the motor is worn. It is dead after five years.
It is the kind of crap pitched at twenty-somethings who have never driven a decent car. These yokels were so dense that the Sunfire is not offered with a standard transmission (though you still have to pay the "oiption" fee for an automatic, as though you have a choice). And no car "built for drivers" has an automatic transmission.
So Pontiac is dead as a brand name. Ford is wise to be losing the Mercury brand (which were just re-branded Fords anyway). Now Detroit must design its way out of the mess it's in or face the consequences.
As for Chrysler, the PT Cruiser says it all. Thank God they make Jeeps.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Trials of Larry O'Brien

I will be live-blogging the trial of Ottawa mayor Larry O'Brien on charges of bribery and influence peddling. The trial is expected to last nine weeks.
I don't know if O'Brien is guilty or not. I do know, from my law buddies, his legal bill will likely be in the million-dollar range. If he is innocent, this is a classic case for arguing for compensation for the legal fees of the wrongly accused. Larry O'Brien is a rich man, but no one who's innocent should take a million-dollar hit because a prosecutor has laid a charge and pursued it on the public dime. If he is guilty, he deserves whatever happens to him.
My bet (and it's quite objective, as I know little and could not care less about O'Brien) is that what a pol says and what a sucker hears are often two different things, and there-in lies that "reasonable doubt". I've heard O'Brien on the radio and he's extremely smooth, certainly in the top 25% of all pols I've come across. His alleged mark, Terry Kilrea, is none too swift.
I bet O'Brien walks.
But we'll see.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Beware of 38DDs

The headline du jour from the Toronto Star:

Researchers warn of smoking-breast cancer link

Journalism Educatiom

I got this set of questions from Bishops University in Quebec.

Please note that I am concerned primarily with traditional journalism and its institutionalized instruction. Many thanks!

1. Considering the “low” writing requirements of traditional journalism (i.e. writing at a Grade 8 level, etc.), what does institutionalized instruction on traditional journalism have to offer the individual prospective journalist? Does a journalism program offer significantly more to the prospective traditional journalist than does practice and familiarity with the CP style guide?

A: It offers the teaching of proper structure. There is a lot more to writing news and features than simply learning CP style. It should also teach journalistic research skills, which are somewhat different from academic researching.

2. Are all journalists improved by institutionalized instruction? Can an untrained journalist be as strong at his job as a trained journalist?

A: All journalists have to be trained by someone. I believe a person with a strong academic background can be taught on the job, but employers now want journalists to be able to do the entire job on the first day. Completely untrained journalists – people simply walking in off the street – can’t do the job. They don’t have the research skills and don’t know the writing structures.

3. Does/can institutionalized instruction lead to pack journalism? Is there enough variety between Canadian programs or within individual Canadian programs to avoid this trend? Would an untrained or a trained journalist be more susceptible to pack journalism?

A: How can you tell? Just about every journalist in Canada has either journalism school and/or academic-college paper training. Certainly, there were packs before journalism schools existed. In fact, there were, in the 1930s, written institutional rules at the Parliamentary Press Gallery about “discretion,” including a prohibition of using any quotes from an MP without permission.

4. Because of the simplicity of the traditional journalistic style, some journalism students might have to “unlearn” some of their previous training in, for example, academic writing to be an effective journalist. How effective can this “unlearning” be? Would it be better for that student to be untrained in other styles of writing?

A: No. Most bright people can learn to do academic writing, web writing, news writing, feature writing, magazine writing and book writing. I know I can. When I wrote a 450 page PhD thesis, I didn’t lose my ability to write a photo caption.

5. Is it possible to over-train a journalist in the traditional style?

A: No. You can waste a person’s time. As well, I think your idea of “traditional style” is simplistic. There’s a huge difference between the “traditional style” of the Sherbrooke Record and The Globe and Mail.

6. Are there notable/famous untrained journalists? How does their work compare with that of their trained counterparts?

A: I’m still not sure what you mean by “untrained”. As far as I’m aware, there are only two important journalists in Canada who have no university education at all: Mark Steyn and David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen. Steyn is an elegant writer. Warren’s writing is very ponderous. Both are conservative commentators. Opinions on them are often based on one’s political stance.

7. If an appealing candidate for your program were unconvinced that institutionalized instruction would help his journalism, what would you tell him to get him to enrol?

A: I would tell him or her to consider law school and write the odd op-ed piece. I believe there’s room for just one or two journalism schools in Canada. My nominations would be Ryerson or Carleton and UBC (just so there’s one in the East and the West). Quite simply, no one in journalism school has any hope of getting a job that pays more than $500 a week in the next five years. No one. There are now hundreds of experienced journalists who are unemployed and who can hit the ground running much faster than any student who’s just graduated. The business would have to re-absorb them, and the trend continues to be bad.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Some good news

Next time I give soldiers a lecture on censorship and propaganda and I talk about "listening for what you don't hear," I'll use the examples of the seven US diplomats in the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 1980, the Melissa Fung kidnapping and this. The fact that almost no coverage of this very important story appeared in the Canadian media in the past four weeks does not mean that nothing was going on.
Bob Fowler knows every major Canadian secret of the last twenty years. He was a valuable commodity for anyone who knew it. The fact that he was freed in Mali and didn't turn up dead in Lebanon or Egypt suggests those secrets are still safe.
Good work, folks.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Pulitzers

Covering Spitzer wins the NY Times a Pulitzer. Exposing Kwame snags one for the Detroit Free Press. Great news for both of these magnificent old newspapers. Let's pray they're around next year to try for a repeat.
That might be a bit harder, since some of the Pulitzer honorees are already laid off.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who says homely, overweight, middle-aged people can't have talent.

Keep your Kleenex handy. It's Cinderella time.

Canwest Corpsewatch

Um, maybe I'll hedge my bet on Prem Watsa being the saviour of Canwest.
Watsa has written off his company's investment in Canwest, valuing the stock at zero.
Andrew Willis, one of the Globe's best business writers, sees this scenario, which is the one I forecast more than 18 months ago.

Monday, April 13, 2009

We Are Very Far Into the Future

Phil Spector guilty of second degree murder. Marilyn Chambers dead. A sad day for the nostalgic.

Canwest Corpsewatch, April 13 edition

Analysts say shares in Canada's largest media company are worthless.
New all-time low: 22 cents.

Moody's says the Asepers made dumb decisions two years ago when they bought Alliance-Atlantis (partly for the CSI franchise, which had already jumped the shark) and when they stubbornly held onto Australia's Ten Network when there were people willing to buy it at a decent price.

National Bank analyst Adam Shine says: "We see no compelling reason to own, let alone buy CanWest shares which we would sooner continue to avoid.
"We can't help but shake our heads as we think about how easily a covenant breach could have been avoided, had better decisions been taken over the previous two years – better structure for the AAC (Alliance Atlantis Communications) purchase, no acquisitions in Turkey, no repurchase of minority stake in then publicly traded newspaper trust, sale of entire or at least partial stake in Network Ten (an Australian television network) at prices easily above current levels, let alone above $2 (Australian)."

Moody's rating: underperform. Moody's stock price target: 30 cents.
My target: one thin dime, just like Nortel. At a dime, I'd take a chance that Prem Watsa will somehow save some shareholder equity. Watsa is almost at the 20% ownership cap that's allowed to him. But the company, which used to have a stock cap of $2 billion, now is worth $25 million (plus $4 billion for the bankers).

D'ya thinK?

The Americans are considering a plan to attack pirate bases in Somalia.
Sometimes it feels more like 1709, except that the Americans plan to throw a lot of money around after they slap the pirates' wrists.
Meanwhile, the pirates -- who use 20ft boats with outboard motors, their most powerful weapons being rocket launchers -- vow revenge against America. Before 1945, world powers solved these problems with 18" guns. Now, "superpowers" use social workers.
I think it's time to go "Halls of Tripoli" on these guys.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gone bug hunting

Looking for these:

And these:

Back on Monday or Tuesday.
Have a good Easter.

The Obama bow: what really happened

"No. Omega."

* From James Bond and Versper Lind's conversation on the train to Montenegro. Actually, no one who knew the slightest thing about watches would mistake an Omega Seamaster (Bond's watch) for a Rolex. (Bond trivia: Bond wore a Rolex through most of his movies. He cut through the ropes binding him and Solitaire with a circular saw built into a Rolex Submariner in the climax of Live and Let Die. He wore a deeply ugly Seiko digital in Octopussy.)

The media should do better

than this. One anonymous source carries the ball for the entire story.
Do better. Work harder.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The biggest story in the world today

is here.

It involves trade protectionism, environmentalism, the future of manufacturing, the balance of power in Asia, oil consumption patterns, and so much more.

Facts with figures

Canwest shares sell for about 30 cents.
In the last quarter, Canwest lost $8.00 for each share. That's a $1.4 billion loss, about 20% of the book value of the company. And it can't handle its present debt payments. Canwest has already missed several deadlines with its creditors. They would probably have placed the company in receivership already if there were any buyers.
It's over.

(Meanwhile, I see Quebecor, which has gutted the Sun chain, Osprey newspapers in small town Ontario and the London Free Press, is likely to make a bid on the Montreal Canadiens.
Next time a newspaper publisher tells a Rotary Club about the sacred place of newspapers in democracy and the community, I hope some lawyer or accountant gives him a kick in the ass.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ah, the Quebec Nation...

I will miss it so. A little bit of Latin America, tucked into the armpit of the civilized world.

Call the lawyers

Newspaper publishers who post their articles on the Internet, where the stories don't generate enough money to cover the cost of newsrooms, seem surprised and angry that people are taking advantage of their folly.

History is Fun: Wii!

Tom Axworthy has a rather interesting idea for instilling some kind of historical memory in the next generation of Canadians.
Anyone who's interested in a collaboration should give me a call. I'm in the book.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Canwest Corpsewatch

(This one's for you, Jahnny)

Canwest has lost another revenue stream, just five days before another do-or-die creditor deadline.
Few people expect Canwest to be forced into bankruptcy in this round, but the creditors are demanding serious new cost-cutting.

BTW, if the Aspers want a legacy for Izzy, let them pay for it. Canada doesn't owe him anything, and, quite frankly, this museum is in the wrong place. It should be in Montreal, where the Jewish community did so much to try to help Holocaust victims.

Meanwhile, David Asper is about to sink $100 million into two not-so-great investments: a Canadian Football League team and Winnipeg real estate. Um, good luck, Dave. And good luck members of the Blue Bombers.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Today's G-20 Moment

HM the Queen and Stephen Harper discuss the merits of the new line of Playtex Living Bras, available in mens' and womens' sizes.

The END of MEDIA as we know it :(

The first big UK paper goes, like, totally online via Twitter.