— wordbanks


I’ve tossed out a phrase to my journalism students that I wanted to act as a mission statement this semester: “Tell and SHOW.”

I know you know how to tell. I’ve seen your stories, columns and editorials from the Times. I’ve seen some descriptive prose and some telling quotes. For those of you coming from university, you’re here because when you were there, you assembled words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, no doubt supported by the appropriate sources, that allowed you to get passing grades (or not).

So you can write.

But can you get the elements that back that writing up? Not just cited sources from some book or a website, but the real thing. The data and documents that no-one can dispute, no one can rebuff no matter how hard they try.

The term “investigative reporter” is a throw-back to a time when there were reporters who did nothing but lengthy probes into wrongdoing. The most famous is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. It made Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein household names, and both men famous. The movie ‘All the President’s Men’, based on their 1974 book, inspired a generation of young people around the world (including yours truly) to join newspapers with the aim of bringing down corrupt politicians.

The movie is as much instructive as it is entertaining, and still drives home the point that good reporting is still often a face-to-face, voice-to-voice endeavor, even in this era of instant communication. It demonstrates that any worthwhile probe needs to be a deliberate and thorough process involving careful steps.

And that should be the case with every story, even profiles and features.

Every pitch accepted and every story pursued, should be an exercise in critical thought and consideration. Even the act of asking a source how to spell their name is an act of investigative reporting because it forces you to question your own assumption about how that name is spelled. Hopefully, that is now a habit for you, because failing to do so — failing to spell that person’s name properly — is the most incredible of a process that needs to be, well, credible.

That habit, which will develop into an automatic technique with time, is the same one you should develop and use when pursuing the facts behind any probe, big or small. Over time, you will develop a “gut instinct” that can’t be taught by any teacher, just experienced. So now, while you’re in college, is the time to begin that habit of questioning, of wondering why, and then looking for the answers.


The only factors that limit you are time and space, because very detailed investigations will consume both. And time and space is something that only a very few number of journalists working in Canada today have.

There’s good reason for that. The vast majority of the stories you will ever do, don’t require the extensive process that Woodward and Bernstein undertook in their Watergate investigation. Yet every one, as I said above, demands the habit of critical thought, and then a commitment to obtaining and documenting the truth.

And so I prefer the term “smart reporting”, which is less sexy admittedly than “investigative”, but it’s more accurate, especially today where you need to use the low and high tech tools available to you.

First, let’s dispel some myths about smart reporting.

The first one: the smaller the shop, the less opportunity the journalist has to embark on investigations.


I’ve been lucky and privileged to be a judge for many community newspaper competitions over a number of years, and I’ve come to see that executing the best journalism isn’t always a matter of resources, time and space, but of energy, passion and dedication.

What I mean by that is that rarely, if ever, does a project of societal importance get completed without extraordinary efforts by the journalist involved. In other words, don’t let work hours stand in the way of great journalism.

Have you ever done something that required you to go beyond your ordinary comfort zone to complete? You did it for one of two reasons, or both (1) You really really really really wanted to complete it because something inside of you drove you to get it done (that’s called passion) and (2) Something or someone depended on you getting it done.

If so, then you begin to understand that some things require you to go beyond the ordinary to, in the words of American comedian Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done.”

That’s done when small-market journalists pitch then execute long-term probes into important stories. Many have won Canadian journalism awards for their work. With reporting staffs of just two or three, these papers courageously pursued stories in the community’s interest.

In class, we’ll look at some examples from a recent competition that I judged in the Best Investigative Stories category of the 2011 Ontario Community Newspapers Association newspaper competitions. Read them and you’ll begin to marvel, like I did, at the depth and passion with which these unsung heroes of our business completed their work.


“Despite all the hand-wringing of a few years ago, it turns out that people do read long form on the web, on tablets and readers, and even on their phone. They love charts and graphs and animation and explainers. They want to know your sources and even look at primary documents. And they want it all tied up with voice and style. There’s no better time to be an investigative journalist.”

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One of my goals during this one-year sabbatical has been to consolidate and digiitize all of the website bookmarks, emailed referrals, paper notes, and conference handouts I’d accumulated over the years and integrate them into my class lessons. If it was really true that the future is now, I would have my arsenal well stocked. Nobody will be able to accuse me of failing to keep up with the times.

“If you’re not moving ahead, then you’re staying still,” one innovations guru quipped early in my re-education.

But what I’ve been discovering in going through these gems is that nearly all of them are too dated to use, that five years is a yawning shelf-life and three not much better. It is as if a toddler is introduced to the world and proclaimed an old man before he  gets to kindergarten.

Further, too many of the gurus I have listened to, trusted, have been proven wrong, incorrect in their assumptions, with the result of their being pushed aside, their websites or startups closed or moved.

The most shocking one was www.notrainnogain, maintained by respected newspaper expert Steve Buttry.  Among other things, he had spearheaded a $2.5 million project started in 2006 by the respected American Press Institute (API) and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, called Newspaper Next (N2 for short).

N2 was to be a five-year transforming project that would serve as a template for newspapers trying to find their way forward as disruptive technology was taking hold. There was great hope attached to it, having been sanctioned by respected newspaper owners in the United States, Canada and some news operators around the world. As the newspaper industry watched print revenues decline, quarter after quarter, year after year, the optimists would proclaim, “Wait ‘till N2 is out.”

I followed Buttry’s blog like a nerdy school kid reading Homer. It had been obvious to me for years that newspapers had to exploit the emerging new tools being made available to them. N2 certainly sounded transformational, with talk of “citizen journalism”, new platforms of “reader engagement” ringing in a brave new era of journalism, to replace the one that had become dusty, resistant to change and worse, absent of revenues.

Five years after it started, however, here’s what Buttry had to say in his blog on Sept. 26, 2011, the final day of the N2 project.

“N2 attracted great curiosity in the newspaper business five years ago today with the release of its Blueprint for Transformation report.

For the next year or so, the American Press Institute project was the talk of the newspaper business. My API colleagues and I made more than 100 presentations to several thousand executives, sales reps, managers and journalists at industry conferences, seminars and workshops.

As someone who spent most of two years trying to spread the N2 message and issuing the N2 call for transformation, it pains me to look back five years later and say that we didn’t bring about any significant lasting change.”

Later, he said: I expected five years ago that N2 would transform the newspaper business. That was naïve of me. I didn’t have much expectations for my own career at the time, except that I would ride the N2 wave into the future with API, learning and teaching more about innovation as the business moved forward.”

The Newspapers Next site is gone.

On Jan. 25, 2012, API, the most respected newspaper training institution in the world, the same Reston, Virginia institution  I attended in 1995 for a career-altering week, merged with Newspaper Association of America.

API, which claimed the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the top daily titles had resided under its tent, was declared insolvent.

My old alma mater had gone the way of the dodo, folded into NNA which itself has problems keeping members.

Buttry had this to say in his Jan. 25 blog:

I won’t dwell on the decline of API. It serves the newspaper industry, which has been in a free fall. I don’t know what could have been done to prevent the decline of an institute tied to an industry whose primary revenue source was declining. I have noted before that the industry did not do enough to follow the advice we presented in the Newspaper Next project. But I wish some newspapers would have tried everything we advocated. I think the business and API would be doing much better.”

It was an inelegant exit for someone who was fond of using historic moments in technological change to underscore the need for urgent change in the newspaper industry.

“Western Union was the king of telecommunication. In 1876 they said the telephone has no inherent value and a means of communication.”

In the early 1980s, AT&T asked McKinsey to estimate how many cellular phones would be in use in the world at the turn of the century. The consultancy concluded the total market would be 900,000 users. At the time, this persuaded AT&T to pull out of the market.”

Today, this number of phones is sold every 18 hours.

Buttry said newspapers needed to be the place the community turns to for data. Cincymoms.com is an example of how you unlock the collective wisdom of the community. He held up Clevelandcountykids.com, a site monitored by the Sherrif’s office, as an example. I checked it out; the last entry on the website Screenshots says this:

 The most recent screenshot for this website was taken on Oct 24th, 2010.

The site had unceremoniously closed for unexplained reasons.


To be fair, Buttry was far from the only digital prophet pointing us toward the future. At the same conference in 2008, Bruce Annan, a former southern Ontario newspaper editor and new media guru with a consultative startup called CallsifiedIntelligence.com, cited blogcabin.com as one worth looking at.

Google said it was blogcabin.net and this comes up:

Not exactly what Annan showed us back then. Oh, and ClassifiedIntelligence.com has been swallowed up by airmgroup.com, which bills itself as a consulting service for interactive media and classified advertising.

What about newassignment.net, “an experiment in open-source reporting.” Well, its last entry was March 12, 2011 by Jay Rosen, whose name I recognized as an occasional contributor to API. It was then a WordPress blog. In 2008, Baketopia then had nine or 10 different websites separate from the newspaper. It’s gone.

Scoopt.com was heralded as “positioning itself as the middle-man; we’ll broker the deal to the newspaper.” Gone.

This was tweeted from Canadian Sunmedia Parliamentary bureau chief David Akin April 2012: “Blog publishing platform http://www.blogware.com, created in Canada (and which I used for years), is out of action.”

And on it goes. As I worked through the list, it was clear that these sites and services were unveiled as certainties, but really, they were seductive best guesses. That anything new needed to be watched, obeyed, emulated and accepted as a sure bet, because we were told by the high priests of new digital, this is the way it is, and it ever will be.

A very few number of sites, services and apps have stood an intermediate test of time, though not many of them. Facebook, Linked In, YouTube we’re all familiar with.


We’re seeing Facebook’s IPO doing a tailspin and revenue projections falling short.

Surely, though, Google has stood the test of time!

Well, yes and no. Here’s an article I retrieved from the July 23, 2012 (page 39) issue of Maclean’s magazine. Click on the image to read the piece.

In 2008, the best search engines cited were Firefox, Dogpile and Google got a distant mention as the last one to use.

Placeblogger.com  is still there, and it still claims to find you a blogger by area. But it has that look of inactivity and chronic lack of oversite, with its most recent listing as 2012 August – in March 2012.

How about the non-profits? Not so good either.

Here’s a piece about the demise of the Chicago News Cooperative, a non-profit local and hyper-local journalism site. The team were professional journalists who wrote polished prose. The site apparently broke news and got a decent number of page views and mindshare in the Windy City.

What Non-Profit News Orgs Can Learn From Yelp


22 February 2012 by Alex Salkever

“It was sad to read that the Chicago News Cooperative was going to suspend operations. This was one of the big efforts at non-profit local and hyper-local journalism. The team were professional journalists who wrote polished prose. The site broke news and got a decent number of page views and mindshare in the Windy City. So what happened? And does this mean the end for non-profit news collectives? For their part, the CNC said that they did not rely on multi-million dollar donors to sustain them and, likewise, the New York Times reported that the CNC lost out on funding after one of its primary donors, the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, changed grant rules in a way that limited potential disbursements.

“The CNC is probably not alone. Rumors have swirled that the Bay Citizen (caveat emptor – I am a donor and member) has sought out mergers with other non-profit journalism efforts. Other non-profit locals have struggled, for sure, to find a happy spot between sponsorships sold to businesses (basically, advertising) and outright donations.”

Remember Leonard Asper? One year before his company, CanWest, sunk and was taken over by PostMedia, a company with an uncertain future itself, told a packed Toronto audience at a Canadian Association of Newspapers conference in  that,  given the intense disruption to his industry, five-year business plans have turned out to be “a cruel hoax” and was convinced that any plan needed to be reviewed every three months.

The Aspers were a celebrated media family in Canada in the last decade, but of course, the name, along with Conrad Black and others whose exits were far less visable, proved that very little today, can be relied upon to last.

As a onetime reporter, editor, publisher, columnist and now journalism educator, I have to turn to those resources, methods and products that show sticking power. I can no longer afford to teach students radical new ideas. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to spend time this past year, shadowing reporters in the trenches, and avoiding too much the libraries of academia in search of answers whose questions were posed before the internet.

Thanks to them, I’ve learned a lot, but not without adopting a little voice in the back of my head cautioning that these are days, like the Higgs Boson particle, in which creation and death are nearly instantaneous. The stuff that remains for longer than a blink of an eye is worth a longer gaze.

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“Despite the continuing shift from print to online media over the past several years, most Americans still like to read the newspaper away from their computers.

Sixty-six percent (66%) of American Adults say they prefer reading a printed version of the newspaper, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Twenty-eight percent (28%) like reading the online version of their preferred paper instead.”

Source: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/april_2012/66_prefer_reading_print_newspaper_to_online_version

That’s the word from the latest media survey in the United States on whether and how Americans like to read their newspapers.

Data from Canada appears to reflect an even better picture of printed news readership.

NADbank (Newspaper Audience Databank Inc.) released its mid-year readership results in March 2012 and found that nearly eight in 10 Canadians read a daily newspaper each week. Readership for the six largest markets grew slightly over the past six months both for print and Web site products.

Print readership continues to grow at about 2% a year, NADbank said. Web site readership is growing faster, 4% from December 2010 to June 2011. As of June 2011, 9.1 million adults read a printed edition, 2.9 million at the Web site for a total of 9.7 million readers or 77% of the adult population in those markets.

You can read more here: http://nadbank.com/en/study/readership

At the same time, ad revenues at U.S. newspapers fell again in 2011, according to Newspaper Association of America statistics released March 14, 2012. The industry posted $23.9 billion in ad revenues, down 7.3 percent from 2010.

Of the total, $3.2 billion came from online sales, up 6.8 percent. “But the segment, viewed as a critical revenue generator, still only represents a sliver of overall sales and the growth within the sector slowed considerably from the 11 percent uptick it enjoyed in 2010,” said an NNA story.

In Canada, in April 2012, Postmedia Network reported its second quarter results for a net loss of over $11 million, and revenue that sits 7.6 per cent below where it did in the same period last year.

A release from Postmedia said “that the $16.4 million decline in revenue can primarily be attributed to a 10 per cent decline in print advertising revenue, with the national category seeing the largest declines. Digital ad revenue – upon which many news organizations’ future revenue hopes are hinging – rose a mere $100,000, or 0.5 per cent from the same quarter last year. That said, Postmedia says that they saw an increase in local digital ad revenue, but that it was offset in a decrease in national revenue in the same quarter.”

Advertising across all media and platforms — traditional and non — has fallen off the cliff over the past months. Steve Ladurantaye, the Globe and Mail’s media beat reporter, told me Saturday at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Toronto that there has been a 40 per cent drop in advertising revenue for online and traditional media platforms.

So as print readership remains steady, ad revenues are drying up.

The next question is, what does all of this say about readership vs. revenues and the future of printed newspapers?

That’s another blog entry, but clearly the public still enjoys printed matter, in spite of the rush by metropolitan newspapers to experiment with mobile and online delivery.

My theory is that as newspapers try out these new delivery modes, so are their advertisers.

I play a Scrabble-like game on my smartphone. Every time the screen refreshes, an ad pops up for about three seconds, then disappears exactly at the point when it becomes annoying. You can pay a fee to make those ads disappear forever.

This is but one tiny example, a single drop in an ocean, of how start-up apps are beginning to gain a foothold among advertisers. It’s interesting, exciting and aimed at the right demographic. Who knows what big companies like banks, grocery stores and car manufacturers are working on at this minute to answer the call of how people use media in all its forms?

But far from shutting down presses, based on the likes of readers and the above-mentioned statistics, publishers should begin innovating in print again, to find a way to leverage online and show the world the magic of the “newspaper experience.”

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We’re very close to learning whether the news consuming masses will accept something that would have been an absurd notion two decades ago: paying for digitally-delivered news.

Up to now, readers have been able to get their news fixes free by simply clicking on a newspaper’s website, or using a news aggregator like Google or any one of thousands, and scanning the headlines. Most of the stories they’ve seen originate from the printed product or a news agency, though the “digital first” strategies have even upped that ante. Reporters now tweet their notes as they work a story, revealing the minute details of the emerging story before it’s even written. And news readers can even have news flashes sent directly to their desktops, handheld devices without having to pay a dime to contribute to the costs of maintaining news staffs.

The proverbial chickens have come home, however, and the ongoing bleeding of advertising lineage and paid subscribers at daily newspapers has forced even the mighty New York Times to get serious about putting up toll gates to force dedicated news junkies to pay up. If it works, expect others to quickly follow.

The Times is going to lower the cantilever on March 28. At that point, there will continue to be free access to the Times’ homepage as well as free side-door access (via outside links, etc.) to individual Times articles. And you can gaze and graze freely each month until you hit 20 articles. After which: Wall up. Pay up.

The Times has divided its payment offering into different packages: $15 for a month of access to NYTimes.com and the paper’s smartphone app; $20 for web access and an iPad app; and $35 for an all-access plan.  Print subscribers, as the Times has said from the get-go, will get digital access included in their subscriptions. That’s true for any subscriber, seven-day-a-week or less — a nice reward for brand loyalty.

Gannett Newspapers will be launching digital subscriptions they hope will return $1.3 billion to shareholders by 2015.

I hope to speak to the publisher and editor of one of those Gannett papers, the San Antonio Express-News, when I travel to Texas March 20. I’m there to shadow their reporters, to allow me to see firsthand what has changed in the journalists’ toolbox as a result of the smartphone/tablet revolution. But the big picture is just as fascinating.

Why study an American paper?

PostMedia in Canada will follow with a similar model later in the year. Publishers recently visited the Times and CEO Paul Godfrey has extolled the virtues of the pay wall concept. While not as adversely affected by the digital revolution and economic slowdown south of the border, PostMedia has been watching its newspaper revenues decline each quarter and is aware of the lag in trends between the U.S. and Canada.

I hope they all work. In spite of all the hype, the “citizen journalism” movement, where ordinary citizens through their tablets and smartphones fill society’s demand for watchdog reporting,is failing. The term “robocalls” would not be on our lips if it were otherwise.


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One of the most common dreams of young journalism students is to travel and write. They envision a glamorous life on the move overseas, financed by travel stories they would be writing for clientele back home. A few of our grads have managed to do that over the years, but many find out the dreams rarely line up with reality, especially for those graduating with substantial debt.

Still, it is possible, and through tools freely available on the Internet, could well become a realistic and attractive option for the unemployed writer.

The more successful travelling journalists I know have found jobs at a given location on the planet, and parked their pens and notepads there for a year or more before moving on, or moving home. They work as local reporters in that country, and sell a bit of work back home to interested clients as a sideline. To do that, a traveller would have to find out what publications there are, what language the paper publishes in, and how to get in touch with them. That used to be quite a chore.

Enter newspapermap.com, a fantastic global newspaper locator tool that provides all the information on a country’s newspaper population. It’s as easy as using Google Maps, and the user can zoom in and a key identifies which language the paper employs, all within seconds.

In one day, an interested person could contact dozens of overseas newspapers and inquire about internships or paid work. In developing countries in particular, like east Africa or India, a Canadian-trained journalist would be a highly prized addition to any newsroom.

It’s not 100 per cent accurate, and looks to be a work in progress. All of Canada’s dailies are there, but few of the community papers, and it’s likely the case for the rest of the world.

And of course, going hand-in-hand with that research would be the need for investigating how much these publications pay, so the journalist could afford to live there. I give the same advice to a grad looking to relocate to a rural paper: make sure you can afford to live, because the editor won’t worry about whether you can afford to pay rent, food, run a car and make payments on your student loan.

Planning and research is key to any foray overseas and this app just made both a lot easier for the travelling journalist.


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The headline at left was something I posted to the administrator of  a group looking for somebody to take over moderating/managing the forum, ‘Cyberjournalism.’ I knew the answer was no, but I wanted to prove a point about the “here today, gone tomorrow” tendencies of online ventures, and the thin budgets so many of them have.

The chap who was giving it up came to see it was a thankless job. And certainly a job it was, easily worth some kind of compensation, even free lunch once or twice a week. But who would pay the freight to pay his freight?

It’s the central question that remains unanswered as those who extoll the glories of “free net for all” still don’t get that somebody has to pay someone, at some point, for all this activity. Or it, as most often happens, simply ends.

This blog I’m posting is on a free service. WordPress is hoping it will be able to sell advertising around it to eventually make some money from my work. I have the time to write it because my employer is paying me a reduced salary to take a year off on sabbatical. But the point is, somebody will have to pay something eventually.

Others don’t believe that, so many under-financed start-ups and projects rely on free work; contributions, and the desperation of journalism students and grads to fatten their portfolios/resumes. This has led to a diminishment of the value of content, of journalistic work, and self-image of people who are passionate about journalism.

That was underscored yesterday when the mighty Knight Foundation, the single biggest contributor to journalistic experiments in the world, announced it would no longer be funding “networks” projects (web sites) as part of its $5 million innovation competitions. Instead, it would be granting funds to projects that make maximum use of existing products and technologies. See more at http://www.knightfoundation.org/what-we-fund/

The exact wording, from Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation:

“There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.”

Knight has realized that the journalistic products and projects that are still with us, are the best bets to survive and thrive now and into the future. That’s because they’ve been accountable to the vagaries and standards of industry, where the right people were hired, the wrong ones fired, and managed a company that had to be accountable for all of that.

Walking away from projects is too easy when you’re using someone else’s money. It is the great untold story of our times, as that relates to government funding of start-ups.

Making money isn’t easy. Somebody has to meet payroll, make often tough decisions to make sure that they and others get paid. Knight now knows they afforded many people the luxury of walking away from projects in which they’d had little or nothing personally invested.

The companies and people who have survived months, years and centuries of change, like good and innovation-seeking newspapers, are those best positioned to experiment. And they are doing so today, with mixed results, as society works out what it will pay for, at least when it come to content.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburgs aren’t common. They were successful not because someone handed them a grant, but because they were driven, talented, ruthless and lucky. For the rest of us, earning a living won’t come from working for nothing.

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It’s a routine question from both journalism students and parents whose kids are interested in our program: if newspapers are going broke, am I crazy to be pursuing a career in journalism?

My honest and completely unequivocal answer is no, you’re not crazy. And if you’re willing to grit your teeth and make some tough decisions, live frugally and put off kids and a mortgage for at least 10 years after graduating, you can expect to look forward to a long, rewarding and fulfilling career in the field.

Unfortunately, those are tough words for young people to hear. And they may not be the most inviting advertisement for a career in journalism. But it’s true, proven so countless times by our graduates who have thrived in journalism careers, in good times and bad.

Despite what you hear, there are no shortage of jobs in journalism in the broad sense. It’s true that large metropolitan daily newspapers have been laying off reporters now for five or more years because print revenues have been declining, really since 9/11. But dailies have never been a big employer of our grads anyway for a simple reason: the well-paid, unionized journalists who work at them don’t leave unless it’s through buyout, retirement or forced layoff. They pay very well, there are great benefits and there is still prestige attached to working at a big city daily.

Unfortunately, those legacy costs salaries and benefits — which evolved when times were good in the industry and before digital advertising became a factor — are now considered to be a drag on the balance sheets of these companies, which have seen precipitous declines in advertising and circulation revenues. They own big buildings and printing presses that cost a lot of money to heat and run. They have car fleets, highly-paid executives, advertising representatives, clerical staff, circulation and press room staff. All of them need to be paid, and the overhead, covered.

And, of course, since most of Canada’s big-city dailies are owned by publically-traded corporations, they have to turn a profit for shareholders. These are the operations that have been most affected over the last decade.

And while these same newspapers are seeing quite astonishing increases in digital advertising sales, it has not been nearly enough to make up for the losses in print revenue. So they’re finding themselves in an in-between and highly stressful phase, watching the dollars blow out the window while the pennies and nickels stack up at the door. Nobody knows how long it’s going to take before the relative pocket change from digital reaches the levels to make big newspapers as profitable as they once were. It may never happen.

In the meantime, reporter turnover among smaller papers, where the traditional newsprint product is still king, remains steady. There are more openings at smaller newspapers, more frequently, as new reporters tend to use these entry-level jobs as a stepping stone to something bigger. At most, they stay at these papers for a year, sometimes two, before moving on to a better-paying job at a bigger paper. Or they leave journalism completely and get into communications, often as assistants for local politicans or comms officers for companies or government.

Unfortunately, the mood reflected in the mainstream media is downright gloomy, because that’s what the people who write those stories are experiencing themselves. All around them, they see layoffs, editors wringing hands, advertising reps coming and going with regularity. Quarterly financial reports are about as welcome as skunks at a garden party.

One of those daily reporters, Adam McDowell, called me the other day. He was among the lucky few who’d landed a plum reporting job right out of a Toronto journalism school years ago, at the National Post. When the layoffs came, as the new kid on the block, he was one of the first to be laid off. Today, he’s a freelancer, and was interviewing me for a story he was writing for OpenFile, a start-up that publishes stories entirely online.

He wanted to know why there were still so many journalism schools out there churning out grads when the industry was in decline. Ah, a burned journalist, I thought, one of those the city dailyists who have proclaimed the sky was falling.

You can see the story at http://ottawa.openfile.ca/ottawa/text/are-journalism-schools-doing-their-students-disservice and my comments in it.

Read it, and you’ll see I’m not fan of doom and gloom, and the headline really didn’t reflect the reality of the story’s contents. But that’s urban journalism for you.




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Every journalism veteran who has spoken to our students at Algonquin College have shared a philosophy that seems to me has been lost as newspaper companies demand more tech-saavy skills.

That is, tear yourself away from the screen, leave the building and meet and talk to real people.

But by all means, take the smartphone with you.

That may be self-evident to those of us who know that the best stories come from conversations, either by phone or in person. But it’s worth repeating as technology threatens to be an all-consuming method of operation for the modern reporter.

Ironically, technology should be freeing journalists from the tyranny of the static newsroom. Smartphones are now so sophisticated that it’s no longer necessary for reporters to be chained to a desk. A smartphone can now do everything a desktop or laptop computer can do, and often, more efficiently.

But avatars don’t count as real people. Social media is important, vital, in fact. But it is not and should never be all-consuming. People will say things face-to-face that they would never say or write in text form, especially people who may have information that’s sensitive. But beyond that, the best story comes from a good conversation, a connection that has been directly made face-to-face.

Body language, gesturing, posture, voice intonation — these are really visable cues and signposts in the course of a conversation. The journalist has an option whether to include those cues in their story; they can’t by using any other tactic of reporting. The (regular) phone has made it easier and more efficient for reporters to get the information they need, but it’s really the second most desireable way to conduct an ideal interview.

The worst is what I’ve heard some people refer to as an “email interview”, where the reporter posts questions and the source sends back answers. This is an information exchange, not an interview, and the reporter may as well quote a website.

That great post-modern commodity called “time” is usually cited as the reason reporters say they can’t get away from their desks. But a self-audit of how much of it is wasted in the course of a regular work day would surprise the average scribe working at any level and at any salary.

By all means, use the technological tools at our disposal, and use them to full exploitation. But there continues to be no substitute for the face-to-face interview. Er, conversation.

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been waiting for the community newspaper wars in Ottawa to bring us better local news and feature coverage of Osgoode Ward within the City of Ottawa, where some 14,000 residents live. That’s the size of a fair-sized town in Ontario.

During that time of hope, Metroland Ottawa had started up a string of Ottawa This Week papers, re-plated and zone-distributed to the four quadrants of the city, as well as vast points in the Seaway Valley. It did this by re-alligning the traditional weeklies formerly owned by Fred Runge who I worked for in the 1980s. Those were heady years in the small town newspaper business in the Ottawa Valley and Runge took its responsibility as the owners of such papers as the Carleton Place Canadian and the Almonte Gazette very seriously. But those adventures are for another day.

In the meantime, the EMC (Expanded Market Coverage) was head-to-head in the same markets, while the independent, The Messenger out of Manotick, circulated here too. Of course, there are the paid dailies, the Citizen and the Sun, all of whom were chasing the lucrative flyer business that has been so coveted and the true reason behind the acquisitions by Metroland.

Despite this during these wars, I have been disappointed in most of the coverage, or lack thereof, by all of them. Both Metroland and EMC relied far too much on the city councillors’ reports, recipes and duplicates of daily city hall reports, which are lengthy self-interested information compilations which did not, and have not, provided objective news of our community.

Now, Metroland has bought the EMC papers, and has closed its This Week brand, giving itself a virtual monopoly in the community newspaper media segment in this part of the city. If coverage was spotty before, it’s about to get practically invisable. EMC has laid off seven reporters and when you do that, it’s pretty obvious you’re not planning on hiring any more to fill the gap. The Manotick Messenger has closed its freely-distributed Packet, which had done a good job of being a regional feature newspaper. Now the Messenger itself is distributed free, and barely hanging on based on the few ads we see in its issues.

With the dailies simply trying to keep up with what’s going on inside the Green Belt, on reduced staffs themselves, there is no coverage from them except for the odd coyote or car accident story. So these days, I am feeling stranded out here in Osgoode ward, which was a hive activity before amalgamation.

Osgoode Ward used to be Osgoode Township, with its own municipal government and politics which stimulated interest among the community, in their own backyard. Now, all of the local issues which used to be reported by our local papers, from zoning changes to road paving to planning, are all being dealt with by anonymous committees far away at city hall, with only our councillor Doug Thompson to fill us in on what’s going on. That’s hardly an acceptable way for the community to get an objective view of the decisions that directly affect them.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the papers serving us were focusing on profiling people. Just last week, the Manotick Curling Centre’s junior team won the Ontario Junior Women Curling Championships, and they’re off to the Nationals in Napanee Feb. 4. None of the local papers covered that.

That’s a singular example, I realize, and I’m not going to blame the few reporters and editors who survived the Metroland downsizing. I know from experience they’re doing what they can, with what they have.

But by eviscerating its reporting staff and relying on free hand-ins by overworked community volunteers for the balance of its editorial content, the new EMC is not only shortchanging its readers, it is begging for new competition. With the rise of alternative ways of distributing news (online), that’s easier done than it was just a few years ago.

To stave that off, to maintain its distribution strength, EMC management would be well advised to reverse the editorial downsizing and spend a buck on making a mediocre product, a much better one.

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Every year immediately after the holidays, I and scores of my colleagues and industry professionals are asked to judge journalistic excellence drawn from Ontario’s community newspaper industry, in the annual newspaper awards competitions. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years and I always look forward to seeing what the province’s best community journalists have produced over the past year.

There’s a few reasons for that. One, as a former publisher and editor in the industry, I know the people who produced the work entered, completed it in less-than-ideal conditions, often under-paid and over-worked. They overcame internal and external pressures to publish work their boss has deemed worthy to represent the newspaper in competitions. Second, it gives me examples of great local stories I can bring into the classroom to show my students at the college that print journalism is alive and well and even thriving. And that reaffirms my strong belief in the future of our province and country’s community press.

I’m judging the ‘Best News Story Over 10,000 circulation’ which is my favourite category next to ‘Best Investigative Story’ (another judge claimed that first). I will be judging more than 60 entries from towns and cities such as Smiths Falls and Port Perry, to Milton to Sudbury. Examples of the kinds of stories run from fires to deaths to plant closures, often tragic, but stories that require steadfast reporting to answer the community’s questions.

But the story that will win this category from my perspective will be the one that goes beyond the obvious five Ws reporting and the standard police press release. Scale of a news event is important — that is, its overall impact on a community — but I’ll be looking for the extra dedication spent in telling the total story at every level, to ensure that there are no, if any, unanswered questions a reader may have.

I want to see examples of “smart” reporting, in which sources that may not have been obvious at first, breaks information that unlocks key information that competitors overlooked.

Once I’m done and the winners are announced (first week in February), I will be highlighting the winning entries in this blog and provide my rationale behind my decisions. Stay tuned!

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