Monthly Archives: July 2014


The Calgary Herald brings readers last Friday's news on a Wednesday (Graphic by the Calgary Herald)

The Calgary Herald brings readers last Friday’s viral sensation on a Wednesday. (Graphic by the Calgary Herald)

WHEN NEWS IS ALREADY HISTORY “It’s the hottest item. It’s in over 500 papers…Yesterday’s weather reports for people who were drunk and slept all day!”

In the 1976 movie All The President’s Men, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee laughed at an attempt to sell those reports to his newspaper.

But it’s no laughing matter when, 38-years later, Canadian dailies are publishing their own version what should be a punch line: yesterday’s news reports for people who don’t have an Internet connection.

For example, on July 23, the Calgary Herald fronted the following headline, above-the-fold: “Not tonight, ‘I feel gross’ Frustrated hubby details wife’s rebuffs in sex spreadsheet, she posts it online.”

That post had appeared five-days earlier on Reddit. Gawker Media LLC-owned Website Deadspin published its take on that story shortly after it appeared.

Other outlets followed that lead. And, by the time Herald staff stuck it on their front page, everyone from the Huffington Post to the Guardian had already taken a stab at the story.

As a result, the Calgary newspaper might as well have published an advertisement telling readers and potential readers — especially younger ones — that it is behind the news cycle not ahead of it.

That’s bad. But what’s worse is that a reporter, working at another Postmedia Network Inc.-owned paper, actually wrote that story in the first place.

Telling the public something they already know is not a sustainable business model, especially as advertising revenues decline and newspapers become more reliant on subscribers to make money.

And don’t take my word for it.

Two years ago, USA Today president Larry Kramer proclaimed: “We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism.”

Instead, according to Kramer, the media has to “say things differently” and “help people understand things.”

“Investigative reporting is going to be a huge part of what we do on an ongoing basis, not less but more. But also explanatory journalism, the things that people need.”

Nevertheless, media outlets continue to churn out this kind of “commodity journalism,” presumably, in part, because it’s easy to produce at a time when they have fewer reporters to feed their Websites, publications and broadcasts.

Postmedia’s coverage of the sex spreadsheet story is just an egregious example of the kind of warmed-over, leftovers it needs to stop serving up to the public.

After all, just think of what the reporter who bylined that story could have been doing with the time it took to type it out?

Even 15 minutes is enough time to check a lobbyists registry, file a freedom of information request or phone a source.

In other words, it’s enough time to find a potential story idea the public doesn’t already know about.

It’s enough time to find a potential story idea that hasn’t already been blasted out on social media, in a news release or by another news outlet.

So what, you may say. It’s just 15 minutes.

But writing something that has already been written is not journalism, I say.

And when you have reporters across the country producing “commodity journalism” over and over again, that time adds up.

Yet, sadly, it ultimately will equal nothing…except a punch line that is hurting the news media’s bottom line.

CANADA WON’T BE AN OPEN GOVERNMENT LEADER Critics have repeatedly described the Harper administration as being both dictatorial and secretive — qualities that are inconsistent with the principles of open government.

So it comes as no surprise that the Canadian government, as reported by, “has withdrawn its candidacy to join the Open Government Partnership steering committee.

That committee runs the partnership, a group that is committed to government that is “more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens” and includes 64 participating countries.

A statement provided by the Treasury Board Secretariat to explained Canada’s withdraw this way:

There are many countries looking to participate in the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee. Canada believes this leadership opportunity should be given to countries that will bring new perspectives to the discussion of Open Government, and allow the OGP to strengthen in other parts of the world.

The Government of Canada is confident that the OGP will be very well served by the other candidates to be elected to the Steering Committee through the current process.

BLASTING THE PAST The British Columbia government is condemning its citizens to repeat the past by reducing the chances of them knowing about the past. This week, the province’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the Canadian Press she was “shocked to learn that no government records had been transferred or preserved in the BC Archives for the last 10 years.”

The reason for that negligence: “Government transferred the BC Archives from the province to the Royal British Columbia Museum in 2003. Unfortunately, no money went with the transfer of responsibility and the museum said it could only afford to maintain the existing archives. It put in place a fee of $454 per box to archive new material — a fee no ministry was interested in paying.”

The controversy follows a similar one in Ottawa where, according to Postmedia News, “Canada’s Privy Council Office has stopped releasing 30-year-old federal cabinet records on an annual basis, resulting in a seven-year backlog of archival government material.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.


An average Canadian bureaucrat's response to questions from the news media. (Photograph by

A typical Canadian bureaucrat responds to questions from the news media. (Photograph by

THE NEWS MEDIA NEEDS UNMEDIATED ACCESS The Canadian Association of Journalists wants Ottawa to “allow civil servants to freely speak to members of the media without interference or involvement from communications staff” — a reform news media representatives in the United States also want their government to adopt.

On June 30, in a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the Canadian Association of Journalists stated such limitations have been compared to censorship — which would be at odds with the Harper administration’s open government ambitions (disclosure: I drafted and then, as one of the association’s regional directors, co-signed that document).

Now, 46 open government and journalism organizations south of the border are also asking the United States government to remove such restrictions. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, the groups urged “changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communication with staff without going through public information offices, requiring PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.”

According to the letter, “when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its government institutions.”

BACK IN THE GOOD ‘OL DAYS Civil servants in the United States and Canada haven’t always been so restricted in speaking with the news media. As an example, the Canadian Association of Journalists cited guidelines issued by then-prime minister Joe Clark in 1979.

Those guidelines stated that talking to reporters “was part of the duties and responsibilities of managers in the public service.”

That directive, which was upheld by Pierre Trudeau when he succeeded Clark as prime minister, was meant to “encourage open and responsive behaviour among public servants in their day-to-day dealings with the public, including particularly members of Parliament and representatives of the news media.”

The Globe and Mail reported those guidelines “made no mention of [civil servants] having to get prior clearance from press officers” to speak with journalists.

So there was a bit of a hue and cry five years later when Clark, as then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s external affairs minister, tried to forbid his bureaucrats from discussing “’any aspect of policy formulation or implementation or any departmental activity or operation with any member of the media, unless the departmental employee has been designated to do so by the press office. This directive applies to all contacts with the media, including social.”

Soon after that directive became public, it was superseded by a somewhat looser government-wide gag order on civil servants.

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT? In Canada, as in many other Western democracies, there’s been concern about declining youth voter turnout. But haven’t young people always been less likely to show up to the polls? And aren’t they simply engaged in politics in different ways?

Well, according to Maria Grasso, a lecturer in politics and quantitative methods at the University of Sheffield, the answer is no and no to both those questions in some European countries.

Grasso “applied cutting-edge statistical analysis to data from the European Values Study 1981-2008, which tracked the political activity of individuals born in ten advanced Western European countries, Belgium, Denmark, France, West German, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.” Here’s what she found:

While it’s true that in general younger generations are less likely than older groups to engage with traditional political parties, when it comes to participating in social movement organisations, demonstrating, or signing a petition, the 1960s-70s generation is more active than the 1980s generation, which in turn is more active than the 1990s generation. Coming of age in the radical and ideologically polarised period of the late 60s has left its mark on the 1960s-70s generation. But what this means is that older people are not merely more likely to be involved in formal politics, they are also more engaged with informal politics too.

INFORMATION RIGHTS BLOCK BUSINESS GROWTH? Opponents of openness and accountability often try to thwart Canadians’ right to know by arguing that privacy is a necessity for public and private institution to function properly.

The latest examples comes to us from Hamilton, where there is a proposal that would require those trying to influence city decision-makers to publicly disclose their activities.

That may not seem like a controversial idea. But, in a column for Hamilton Business, Flamborough Chamber of Commerce executive director Arend Kersten questions whether that lobbyist registry — represents another “nail in the coffin of economic development” in the city. Specifically, Kersten states:

Within the context of a global economy, municipalities face fierce competition in the race for new commercial and industrial economic development, complete with additional jobs and tax revenues.

One essential component of that competitive process is absolute confidentiality.

The draft bylaw for the lobbyist registry allows for exemptions (at the sole discretion of the registrar). But many in the “real world” fear those who desire to invest will simply bypass Hamilton for a more business-friendly jurisdiction where absolute confidentiality is a sacred trust.

PRESS PROBES POLITICIAN’S BEDROOM Speaking of privacy, when can journalists invade it if they are reporting on the lives of public officials?

In an interview with Vancouver-based freelancer Bob Mackin, I stated, “It’s too easy to say, ‘Well we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.K., we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.S.’” where those lives are on greater public display.

“But we also have to ask what not going down that pathway costs us, because there is a cost and the cost is that some things that should be reported on, may end up unreported.”

You can read Mackin’s full article, which analyzes the controversy over the coverage of Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson’s marital woes, here.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: Given the slowness of the summer news cycle, I’ll be publishing this column biweekly instead of weekly until September.