Let them die and decrease the surplus…

Paul Willcocks writes a blog with the perceptive eye of a skilled and experienced journalist and editor. I suspect Vaughn Palmer might even exclude Paul from his description.

Nincompoops ranting in their underpants is the term for people blogging, for me.

Paul’s latest contribution at Paying Attention has a title designed, for purposes of illustration, to grab attention. In KILLED AFTER OFFICE GOLF PARTY NIGHTMARE OF CRASHES. Paul writes,

…the people who go on about the great quality journalism in the old days – a decade ago, 40 years ago, and a hundred years ago – haven’t actually read the old papers. Then, as now, there was some fine work, a lot of average work and some hackery.

I might reminisce about journalism in the old days but I did actually read the old papers each day, local and national, morning and evening publications, when that was an option. I read most sections of each paper, which might have been slightly unusual. However, that reflected the utility of old broadsheets; they were what each of us we wanted them to be.

Some readers scanned the front pages, read a favourite columnist or two and finished with a preferred section, be it editorial, sports, style or another. Others might devour the entire content and feel knowledgeably disadvantaged if they missed anything. Heck, I even scanned obits before they included my acquaintances. When pre-school teacher asked each student to sketch a family member, one of my sons drew a man seated behind newspaper.

Newspapers were sources for information and they taught us about life. Edith Adams appeared in the Sun 90 years ago with tested recipes and instructional tips on pickle making, dieting, extending the life of nylon stockings, “how to make a home-made foot scraper” and, my favourite, “having fun with bleach.”

Sports pages had a share of moist and garrulous jock sniffers but there were also the wonderfully creative and plain funny. I grew up on Jim Taylor and learned to regard professional sports as something to smile about. Had I been a decade older, I probably would have loved Province writer Hugh Watson.

He sustained the Howe Sound basketball league for months, though it was composed of phantom teams from lightly populated Squamish, Woodfibre, Port Mellon, Britannia Beach, Gibsons, Horseshoe Bay and Deep Cove. (The last perhaps was an intentional snub of Snug Cove on Bowen Island.) With help from the Vancouver Sun, Watson’s accounts of great basketball in unlikely places spread widely. National basketball officials searched for figment Len Schwartz so they could invite the Horseshoe Bay scoring star to play for Canada.

While composing this, I found an article by eastern writer Pat MacAdam, B.C. Basketball Hoax was impressive, but not original. He remembers a legendary, but non-existent powerhouse, the Plainfield Teachers College of New Jersey. Today, harmless and humorous frauds like these would not succeed for 24 hours and that reflects current reality that “facts” do not exist in unchallenged isolation.

The information world has grown small and consumers are in charge of their own filters. With little effort, I can read journalism of The Narwhal, The Intercept, The New York Times, The Guardian, Spiegel Online, and many more, along with, countless bloggers who are not all nincompoops, no matter what Vaughn Palmer says.

To avoid propaganda, we can look at original sources and go beyond opinion that regurgitates press releases and government talking points. Had Vancouver Sun survivor Barbara Yaffe done the same, she would not have written this lately realized information, B.C. no better than ‘middle of the pack’ economic player in Canada.

Seemingly, Yaffe learns economics from reading the Sun’s business pages. She is surprised this province trails others in a number of economic indicators and that BC was “the only province last year to suffer a net decline in jobs.”

Yaffe notes, without recognizing the conflict with opposite predictions by the newspaper,

…consumer prices declined fractionally in B.C. last year because of the HST’s cancellation.

Wait a minute. Did not the newspaper insist that prices would decline because of HST? The columnist gets back on track though when she complains that taxpayers are missing an opportunity to fund more business subsidies:

The province’s failure to compensate B.C. businesses for extra costs they now incur as a result of PST reinstatement has them operating at a disadvantage…

I suspect that daily newspapers cannot regain significant parts of the broad influence they once held if they only aim to be advocates for the business classes.

However, established properties might survive if they focus on regional interests and offer a diverse mix of ideas, including controversial opinions instead of ones that conform to a safe list of concepts preferred by editors, advertisers and the world of multinational corporations.

Though not a model for leadership of world opinion, this might be appropriate for journalism that is relevant within a region. When it sold community papers to Glacier Media, Postmedia was separating itself from the small, to support its larger efforts. However, the marketplace might have preferred the opposite.

I believe there is a place for a daily newspaper that connects with its readers, that stimulates, informs and entertains. If they see themselves instead as promoters of particular interests and narrow points of view, let them die. The sooner, the better.

The Guardian’s Margaret Simons:

All guidelines and codes of ethics come back to the same thing: the first duty of journalism is to the public.

10 replies »

  1. Norm, your stuff about the phantom basketball league reminds me of a columnist who was writing for the Sun or perhaps the T-C or Province in the early seventies. Anyway he had this imaginary politico, he may have been an MLA, or some other variety. Anyhoo, what I remember best is that part of the imaginary dude's shtick was that as a hobby, he not only grew avocados, on Vancouver Island. but grew such great avocados that his crop was bought by the Callfornia restauranteurs, cuz his were better than those from Santa Barbara or Escondido, or Mexico, I guess.

    Maybe you can recall the writer I'm thinking of. These days I think of the imaginary guy as the good twin to evil twin, B.S. Bullhorn Bill Bennet, rudest supposedly educated guy in the Kootenays, if not the entire province or universe! Oh wait, I just remembered Richy Coleman, the BC liaRs are a bottomless pit of underqualified opportunists and scam artists whose effluent doesn't even smell or so they have convinced themselves.


  2. Koot, I don't know about growing avocados on Vancouver Island but I remember them doing really well at the family plantation south of Powell River. We preferred growing them in the pineapple fields.

    About the Hugh Watson basketball story, here is more detail item from another blog, More musings about news-cruisings

    “…In 1951, Hughie was night editor for The Province. Erwin Swangard was the sports editor of The Sun. Hughie hated Erwin, which didn't exactly put him in a class by himself. (I never knew Erwin Swangard, myself, but while he was respected in his profession, people who actually worked for him had rather strong views about his personality.)

    “So Hughie set out on an elaborate plan. In the fall of 1951, he started telephoning in scores and statistics to the Sun from the Howe Sound Basketball League. Teams from Deep Cove to Squamish would do battle on a regular basis, and Hughie made sure the Sun got the scores and stats in time for the afternoon papers.

    “Gradually, a scoring hero began to emerge from this. I know he had a name, but I'm danged if I can remember it. His exploits were legendary, and by season's end, he was a “lock” for the MVP honours.

    “So now, Hugh went for the coup de grace. He sent an elaborate invitation to Erwin Swangard, to be the guest speaker at the annual awards banquet for the HSBL, to be held at a hall in Deep Cove. He was also to present the MVP award. On the appointed evening, Erwin got dressed up and set out for this hall in Deep Cove.

    “Remember that at the time, the route from Vancouver to Deep Cove involved crossing the original Second Narrows bridge, with the two lanes, railway track and lift span, then following the euphemistically named Dollarton Highway into the foothills of Mount Seymour. There was a large Indian reserve (presided over by a chief named Dan George), few homes aside from that, and even fewer street lights. So Erwin spent a lovely evening driving around this area trying in vain to find this hall and the banquet…”


  3. Norm, I was with the CBC in the early 70s and we were pretty diligent at policing ourselves and each other for the quality of our reporting and, especially, “hackery.” You were conscious of the need to uphold your reputation every day. Accuracy was everything. What you wrote you had to be prepared to defend when challenged by your editors and they could be pretty cold. We wound up with an amazing newsroom, many of whom went on to the big leagues – Paul Workman, John Blackstone, Eve Savory, Lorraine Kimmel, Jacques Grenier. I, to my eternal regret, allowed myself to be talked into law school.

    To suggest that journalism hasn't declined since the 70's is more than contrarian, it's ridiculous. As small news outlets became carrion for today's corporate media cartel what passed for “news” changed remarkably and not for the better. The free press that used to revel in its role as watchdog of government under its corporate restructuring morphed to become the lapdog of government, at least if they're right-leaning.

    News was commodified. Only very rarely is there any property in facts, the stuff of true information. Transform fact, information, into messaging, however, and you do have something proprietary that can command an added market value. Much of what is served up as news today is fact well larded with spin – messaging.

    Look at newsrooms today. Where once 20, 30 or 40 scribes might have toiled, today there'll be perhaps 10 or 20 at the outside covering relatively insignificant local stuff while the big news is manufactured by head office. That was openly practised at CanWest which dominated several large markets with some pretty raw ideology.

    We once understood that democracy depended on public access to the greatest range of information and opinion, news that spanned the spectrum from far left to far right and everything in between. Without it you cannot have an informed electorate and by its very diversity it becomes, in a way, self-policing. Today we suffer from a narrowed range of information and opinion manufactured by corporations that have reaped the benefits of both concentration of ownership and cross-ownership of media outlets.

    We also have “news by press release” today. Press releases are written as scripts or printable stories and they are published, almost invariably without attribution. That never, I repeat, NEVER happened 40-years ago. That only happens in newsrooms that have long ago abandoned their last shred of journalistic integrity and, sad to say, they are legion.

    Watch RealTime with Bill Maher. An occasional feature is a compilation of news anchors repeating the very same catchy phrase, verbatim.

    Forty years ago we didn't have FOX News or Sun news. We knew better. The market for that sort of thing had to be manufactured. Several years ago, back before it lost its cojones, 60 Minutes aired an item about how the Republicans were manufacturing news. They freely admitted what they were doing. It began with planting an idea on open-mouth talk shows and getting it spread around. Then it moved to 'opinion' shows (Hannity, O'Reilly, Beck) on friendly networks like FOX. From there it's greased into actual news programming that use the item's dispersion as proof of fact. A lie oft repeated… Eventually credible news organizations, even the New York Times, will run some variant of it. That's not pack journalism, it's herd journalism complete with backroom cowboys.

    I could go on but I won't. I'll conclude by observing that anyone who says journalism was no better 40 years ago isn't just a contrarian. He's a fucking liar.


  4. My wife held a physical newspaper in her hands once last week, I think at the house where her quilting group was meeting, and came home speaking wistfully of the joy of the experience, since we (mostly I) had cancelled out subscription to the local Glacier paper, to which we had subscribed for more than thirty years. When asked by the circulation desk last December why we had decided not to renew, I explained that first and foremost, the content was blatantly biased with content imported from other communities to reinforce the heavy right-wing chamber of commerce editorial stance, the lack of opportunity for rebuttal of both opinion and flawed reporting in the factual sense, the preponderance of advertising content (less than 10% actual reports) and the wasteful use of resources to deliver said content, and, lastly, the fact that they were raising the price for the privilege of reading their sponsors' ads and the selfish editorial screed. So, despite the desire to support local journalism, no more Times. I feel for my wife in her grief over the missing tactile connection with a good old broadsheet. One of my great weekend pleasures was to line up some big-city papers, brew a pot of coffee, and blow a whole morning revelling in an orgy of news and opinion, some ads, comic strips and the general rustle of turning pages followed by the slap of read-out sections hitting the floor. I quit that a decade ago, finally accepting that it had become a spur for elevated blood pressure levels and nasty epithets rather than a fulfilling and stimulating read, but we held on to the local in the thought that perhaps it was part of our civic duty to be informed on local events and issues. Old habits are hard to break: we still end up following some news in broadcast media, but I can see that coming to an end as the frustration mounts about what is reported (missing dogs) and what isn't (the decay and collapse of civilization). The press is dead! Long live the nincompoops!


  5. Christy morphed the “Lie Oft-Repeated” into the “Lie-Embellished-Each-Repetition”; such whopperism can exist only as a result of the steps you outline above.

    “…repeating the very same catchy phrase, verbatim…” is what I've noticed doctors doing, lately. Such rote professionalism—as contradictory as the term might seem—can be partly attributed to internet access: heck, I've seen doctors consult with Wiki on their iphones, right in front of patients, most of whom don't seem to mind, and with one hand, too!


  6. The world has changed and so has print journalism. Back when 80% of us lived on the farm and only a few of us were functionally literate, the newspaper was a different commodity—usually as blatantly biased as possible— one simply purchased the bias most suitable to one's taste (nowadays we'd be critical of a politician owning and editorializing in a mainstream newspaper like Amour de Cosmos did); a broadsheet would be savoured for the week, often read aloud for the benefit of illiterate family members, the perfectly discreet opportunity to censor unpalatable content; consumer goods advertised were designed to last a lifetime, making advertisers extremely touchy about potentially offensive journalism—a resulting missed sale to a disgruntled partisan couldn't be easily recovered—but, at the same time, newsstand sales covered feasibility well enough. All that changed with the outbreak of War in South Africa, and further during the First World War, when hyper-partisanship, especially around Queen and country patriotism, became socially unacceptable. The second World War amplified this phenomenon but also ushered in fundamental changes that affected print journalism immensely: a better educated and more urbanized readership, and the advent of mass consumerism as war-making capacity was converted to a huge range of new consumer goods (think plastics); the dearth of “furlough-babies” was replaced by a cheapness of “baby-boomers”, a huge, better educated readership that demanded journalistic veracity over blatant partisanship, and who took for granted cheap goods and services to satisfy every need; this was a market newspapers could easily accommodate profitably. Now in our dotage, we boomers bemoan the state of print journalism the internet age has necessitated. Nevertheless, the elements remain the same: advertising, partisanship and the urban/ rural dichotomy. The ultra partisanship we see in both print and electronic media resembles a return to what used to be the norm in a more rural, illiterate world; advertising remains as important today as it was back then, despite new phenomena like online shopping and heightened disposability. I'm afraid the supply of uneducated, rustic bumpkins will probably not be as elemental as it once was—but then again, we do have plethora of semi-literate, low-info reality TV candidates, most of whom are fairly plugged-in to whatever ultra-biased formate suits their tastes. The conundrum for journalism is, of course, how to make money from these elements; they have yet to fail in adapting to such drastic social changes as we've had.

    I satisfy my news needs online; opinion and commentary is vastly superior to letters-to-the-editor in print format. Even minutely local news and commentary is available online (I enjoy perusing what's happening in, say, small arctic communities—and I don't care how parochial or trivial it is—that's what I'm looking for). But that tactile, olfactory sensation of an in-hand newspaper cannot be duplicated online—I mean, does anyone actually hold on to a broadsheet whilst reading a screen? I get my fix on Saturday when I pay cash for the local rag, read the obits and real estate ads, the editorial cartoon, the letters and a few of the less inane articles after putting a few pounds of glossy advertising inserts into the recycling at our Free Store. I used to feel sorry for print media's demise—until they mostly became bugles for the neo-right; now, as far as I'm concerned, they can go to blazes while choking on that green weeny. There's way better online. Like right here, for a really good example.


  7. Scotty, I don't disagree with you and, as avid a newspaper reader as I was for many years, I wouldn't want to go there again. The internet allows information and opinion from many sources and works well for those of us willing to spend the time to mine for gold and brush away the dross.

    But, I suspect many people would appreciate an easier way of gaining knowledge. That's why I think a daily paper would be useful if it had the nerve to allow expression of all points of view and hosted all sides of issues debated. Not likely to happen though because their first duty is to their shareholders and advertisers, not the public.


  8. From the time I was about 7 or 8 (1957) I read the Vancouver Sun pretty much cover to cover, starting with Jack Wasserman, the comics, then back to the front page. That continued until I left home in 1970. I continued reading the paper as an adult, but somewhere along the way the Vancouver Sun just wasn't reporting news anymore. By 2000 I stopped purchasing the newspaper altogether.

    I currently receive a Black Press newspaper at my door, free of charge, which reports the local news. Its o.k. but not good. The Sun isn't worth reading even for free.

    It really is too bad. The Vancouver Sun, with its Edith Adams column, is how many women actually learned how to cook, can, make jam, etc. Penny Wise was another column which provided great information and actually took on campaigns. Sim Holt did investigative reporting, Bruce Hutchinson still wrote, Marjory Nichols helped shape my political opinions. Jack Wasserman, who wrote a salon column, was most influential in my becoming pro-choice–he actually used to report when women died of botched back street abortions.

    They don't do newspapers like that anymore. Its really too bad. Local newspapers actually do a better job of what they are supposed to do, than the major papers do of theirs. Times have changed, but there still is room in the mass media market for good, honest journalism. Would I go back to purchasing a newspaper if it actually said something and reported on things of interest/importance. You bet I would. I'm reading blogs aren't I.


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