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Perfect storm for newspapers

January 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I cut my eye teeth on newspapering, so you can understand my dismay at the problems confronting newspapers today.

All over the United States, major newspapers are going into bankruptcy or being put up for fire sales: Tribune Media, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times; the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Miami Herald.

Even the venerable New York Times, a billion dollars in debt, has had to accept a rescue offer from Mexican billionaire Carlos Helu.

I’ve been an inveterate reader of any newspaper I could get my hands on. Now that I spend a lot of time at my country place where I can’t get a paper I’m relying — like more and more folks — on the Internet for  news. I must confess it’s not the same thing. Words on the screen don’t, for me, convey the same magisterial authority as words on paper.

In Canada, the problems aren’t as evident but they’re lurking just below the surface, ready to pop out. The combination of decreasing public literacy in a visual age, the alternatives offered by the Internet (like Craigslist for want ads) and now the recession, add up to the proverbial perfect storm.

I was a little non-plussed by the Toronto Star’s reaction. A fine newspaper with a dedication to social justice, the Star made a big announcement about how it’s going to concentrate the most important news in its front section. It’ll also restore the editorial page to Section A. Isn’t this what the Star did for years and years? Sounds like back to the future.

globeOne newspaper that seems to have responded effectively to the Internet is Toronto’s Globe and Mail. It’s made a serious effort at convergence, linking stories in the paper with expanded coverage on the web. Blogs, reader comments, and other signs of interactivity represent a serious effort to accommodate readers who are  at home with the web.

The pattern was set when Ken Thomson was alive and he moved the Globe into information processing by acquiring outfits like Carswell who supply services to lawyers. Since then, Thomson Reuters has come into being, wrapping in the old Reuters global news service. But their main revenue comes from selling data to the financial services industry.

Ironically, for all the news that’s on the web, most of it stems from newspaper parents. If the paper goes down, what becomes of the web site?

On CBC Newsworld yesterday, I heard an interview with Matthew Fraser, the first editor of the National Post. He talked about the dismal future for papers, especially the Post. It’s lost money since its launch almost 10 years ago.

“It’s difficult to imagine a newspaper like the National Post will survive. The banks will soon knock on the door,” he said.

The Post is owned by Canwest Global, C anada’s biggest media company. Its share price has dropped from $30 to around 50 cents. It’s carrying a load of debt.

Fraser thinks the only hope for papers is to find wealthy investors looking for “billionaire sandboxes.” That’s what the New York Times seems to have done.

It’s all so sad, especially when there’s no real Internet alternative to newspapers for their investigative reporting, in-depth coverage and local community service.

I started my career in newspapers straight out of high school. When I was 20, I was editor of a chain of 35 Alberta weeklies. Ironically, it’s probably the small community newspapers that have the best chance of surviving the Internet Age.

Interesting discussion on PBS Newshour a while ago. Have a listen:

Death of the Coalition

January 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Michael Ignatieff has dealt himself a hand he hopes will put him in charge in the high stakes political game of who’s going to govern Canada.

The Liberal leader’s stance on the federal budget — saying he will let it pass but will put the government “on probation” — may for the moment give him the upper hand in the war of nerves over handling of the economic crisis.

But it’s the death-knell of the Liberal-NDP Coalition. And he’s dealt the country a doubtful hand. He’s disappointed many by not demanding specific improvements to Finance Minister Flaherty’s flawed fiscal plan — backed up by the threat of non-confidence.

Iggy says a Liberal amendment will call on the government to issue public reports in March, June and November on how well it’s carrying out the commitments it made in the budget.

And in case Prime Minister Harper isn’t paying attention, Iggy adds, “each will be an opportunity to withdraw our confidence. We’ll watch like hawks.”

The Liberal leader says it’s not the Opposition’s role to rewrite the budget. He allowed that it does contain some good measures. They’re there, he said, “only because Opposition parties did their jobs. The system worked.”

He was referring, of course, to the threat of a Liberal-NDP Coalition that led to the seven-week shutdown of Parliament, and speeded up the presentaiton of a 2009 budget.

Mr. Ignatieff indicates he prefers to leave the Harper government in office rather than assume power at the head of a Coalition. We know he’s never been keen on the idea.

He’s saying this is not the time for an election. This sidesteps the reality that if the the government fell now, the Governor General would have no choice but to call on Iggy.

So the Liberal leader’s position disappoints me. He’s not offered specific changes that would make the budget better. He clearly doesn’t want to lead a Coalition into power, especially during a recession.

As I’ve written, he prefers to wait for the opportunity to force an election that the Liberals would have a good chance of winning.

His stance leaves him vulnerable to Conservative charges of “chicken.” And to Liberal complaints that he lacks the “royal jelly” of a real leader.

So will the Conservatives accept Iggy’s amendments? You bet, especially in view of NDP leader Jack Layton’s decision to veto any Liberal motion.

“There’s a new coalition on Parliament Hill,” says Layton. “A Liberal-Conservative coalition. Mr. Ignatieff has made his choice.”

Budget 2009 a big disappointment

January 27, 2009 Leave a comment

 After all the pre- budget announcements of the past week, there wasn’t much left for Finance Minister Flaherty when he presented the federal budget this afternoon.

He might just as well have settled for a press release.

The budget, all in all, is a big disappointment.

A disappointment to Canadians who thought the Harper Conservatives had learned their lesson and would opt for progressive policies in the face of the growing recession.

A disappointment to mayors across the country who learned, like David Miller of Toronto, that the money promised for infrastructure development is going to be tied up in red tape, and very hard to access.

A disappointment to taxpayers who thought that a significant tax break RIGHT AWAY would put money in their pockets that they could spend by Spring.

A disappointment to the culture community that believed the Minister of Heritage, James Moore, when he boasted that the Tories would be showing that they really do like artists and they really don’t think, as Prime Minister Harper said during the election, that they’re not “ordinary Canadians.”

A disappointment to ecnomists who believed this government had learned its lesson and would provide the kind of economic stimulus that every other industrial country is offering.

The letdown of the budget is incredible, considering the near-death experience of the Harperites before Christmas.  Yes, there are a few positives, as Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, said, but it’s also loaded with an awful lot of negatives.

For the New Democrats, the budget gave Jack Layton another heaven-sent opportunity to pillory the Harper government as “untrustworthy.”

Here’s what the government could have done on each of the points I’ve raised above:

Infrastructure – Put the money at the immediate disposal of the cities, rather than bury it in an Ottawa-controlled pit of red tape.

Income taxes – Declare a tax holiday on a major part of our 2008 taxes payable, so that people would get an immediate refund when they file this Spring, instead of a dribble of a couple of hundred bucks a year over the next six years. By then, the recession  will be a distant memory and the tax breaks will have been eaten up by inflation.

Culture – The boast that Ottawa will pony up $60 million over the next two years to help build local libraries and museums is penney ante stuff. My nearby city of Orillia is spending $20 million by itself on a new library. How far will three times that much go when spread across Canada?

Economic Stimulus – Experts are in agreement tonight that the budget lacks focus and will have a marginal impact on the economy. Once again, the Harperites have tried to target different interest groups, rather than mount a coherent, coordinated strategy to promote productivity, new technology, the environment, and deal with our excess energy dependence.

What is Michael Ignatieff thinking tonight?

The pundits are saying he’ll vote to allow the budget to stand. He’d rather let Mr. Harper struggle on with the recession than  take the reins of office right now.

In his own words, spoken right after delivery of the budget:

“We have to make a global judgment whether the budget is in the national interest.”

Ignatieff met with top Liberals tonight, and tomorrow morning he’ll address his caucus. He’s to announce the Liberal decision Wednesday at 11 o’clock EST.

My guess is that Mr. Ignatieff is unwilling to gamble on leading a Coalition bid to upset the Conservatives. He’d rather wait it out, thinking he’ll be able to win a Liberal majority in  the next election.

But voting to prop up Mr. Harper? Sounds too much like Mr. Dion. The prospect of a Liberal abstention on the budget vote looks pretty good right now.

Coalition redux – It’s time (again)

January 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Seven weeks, and a sea change in Canada’s political profile. When Prime Minister Harper got the Governor General to prorogue Parliament early in December:

  • Harper was in denial about the effect on Canada of the world economic crisis,
  • He was standing by his Finance Minister’s projection of budget surpluses in the coming five years,
  • The public had little stomach for the idea of a Liberal-NDP Coalition.

Now, as we get ready for the re-opening of Parliament on Monday and a deficit-busting  budget on Tuesday, where are we?

  • Harper admits we’re in recession and no one knows how bad things will get
  • The government is filling the news cycle with details of what will be in the budget (that used to be a hanging offence!)
  • And the public has swung around to favor, narrowly, the replacement of  Harper’s government by the Coalition.

This is the key to what might happen in Parliament this week. It’s not been widely reported, or discussed, but while Harper and Flaterty have desperately been going through the motions of consulting with Canadians, there’s been big time erosion in support for the Conservatives.

An Ekos-Globe and Mail survey revealed last Thursday that 50 per cent of Canadians would support a Coalition led by Michael Ignatieff. Forty-three per cent would oppose it, with the rest undecided. (Remember, two-thirds voted AGAINST Harper in the election election.)

Elkos president Frank Graves summed up the results as follows:

“This is a huge change from the period right after the Coalition agreement was struck, when the Tories took an apparently unassailable 20-point lead.”

On a straight party vote, the Conservatives now hold only a 3-point edge over the Liberals. Only 35 per cent approve of the way Harper’s doing his job. Liberal support is surging in Quebec.

The spluge of pre-budget announcements reflect the desperation of the Tories . The unprecedented disclosures we’ve been hearing almost hour by hour reflect, also, a huge change in Tory communications strategy.

Used to be that Harper had the only voice when it came to speaking for his government. The new approach, which has cabinet ministers rushing about the country telling us of big spending plans in the budget, reflects the line  the PM’s new communications director,  Kory Teneycke, has been laying down.

Remarkable, as Harper’s never been known to take advice before.

Is Michael Ignatieff willing to become Prime Minister as head of a Coalition government? He’s let drop a few clues:

What Ignatieff has said about the Budget

Last week, Michael Ignatieff spoke to the Canadian Club in Toronto. He delivered a tough but well-received message: cut out the games and let’s get down to business. Listen to it here:

The fact the budget will be loaded with stimulus spending doesn’t mean Harper can count on it getting through Parliament. Everything in Harper’s make-up suggests what we’ll hear in the budget isn’t what’s in his heart.

Better a Coalition with policies it believes in, than a Harper regime with policies it detests.

Morag and Me

January 24, 2009 Leave a comment

“I can see you’re just not up to training a puppy,” Deborah told me. We were in the car, on the way to pick up our new Wheaten puppy from Jan Cunningham, down in Prince Edward County.

“What do you mean?” I asked her. She reminded me I hadn’t done very well training our previous dog, Rory.  “You just weren’t into it,” she told me.

Two weeks later, we headed over to Esther McGee’s training school in Lindsay, with Morag in tow. “It’ll give us a chance to see how we’ve been doing,” I said. “Morag’s a year old, she’s housebroken, and she’s taken to our place like a duck to water.”

Esther gave us a hand-out on how to train a puppy. It was headed “Rank Reduction.” I looked over the rules.

Rule #1 – Never carry your dog! It make him your equal.

When we first arrived home with Morag, Deborah carried her into the house because the garage floor was dirty with mud and sand from the winter roads. This in and out of the car got to be a habit pretty quickly. In the house, Morag bounced around and sniffed out every corner. Then …

Rule #2 – Do not allow the dog on furniture!

Once done bouncing, Morag spied our white softa. In a giant leaping arc, she bounced over an end arm and onto the sofa where she sat dead-centre, with a smug self-satisfied look on her face. Deborah got a blanket to cover up the cushions. “Look,” she said, “the Sofa Queen!”

Rule #3 – Do not allow dog to sleep on your bed!

The first night we had Morag, I led her into her crate at bedtime. We’d put it in the laundry room. No problem, in she went, meek as could be. I’m into bed. Half an hour later, little murmurings are heard. Then a whimper. A whine. I go and get Morag and bring her to the bed. Now she knows just what her rank entitles her to – the pillow, unless it’s aleady occupied.

morag-in-snow-jan-2009

So you can see we’re doing about average – failing all tests. And that was just the first night. But we’ve taught Morag “Sit” and “Down” on command. She’s learned that “Go Outside!” is her signal to bounce to the door and prepare to plunge into the snow.

For a brief hour Friday afternoon, with the sun shining and the air warming, it almost seems like Spring. Morag and I go for a romp on the frozen canal. She loves it. What I don’t anticipate are the snow balls she collects on her silky Wheaten hair. Takes an hour with hair dryer and towel to dry her out.

But there’s an easier solution.  Esther has doggy snowsuits that’ll avoid all that. Who’s training who?

Harpo, Iggy and the $64 billion question

January 22, 2009 Leave a comment

I haven’t written on Canadian politics for awhile, mainly because I’ve had more interesting things in my life such as my new puppy Morag. She’s a beautiful Wheaten who locks her jaws on any thing left within her reach and climbs on my shoulders to show her displeasure at my taking a telephone call.

morag-040

But I can’t let the news today that Prime Minister Harper will plow Canada $64 billion into debt over the next two years pass without a comment. Talk about a $64 question!

It was only weeks ago, you’ll all remember, that Harpo’s finance minister, funny man Jim Flaherty, predicted we’d enjoy year after year of budget surpluses over the next five years. And these guys, dyed-in-the-wool conservative, pin-stripe banker types, claim they’ve got a plan and it’s working!

The orchestrated leaking of the Big Red Ink shortfall came just a day after the parliamentary budget chief warned that Canada is likely to run $100 billion into debt over the next five years. That’ll wipe out all the gains we made in reducing the national debt when Paul Martin was Jean Chretien’s finance minister.

We seem to be looking at a carefully staged PR exercise to soften up Canadians to  sigh with relief when we see  all the goodies coming at us in next week’s budget. Tax cuts, infrastructure spending, auto bail-outs, help for farmers and seniors, and a big new credit pump-up for the banks.

We probably need all those things. It’s too bad we’ve had such a hypocritical government that Harpo couldn’t bring himself to face reality until he came within an inch of getting his neck ina  parliamentary guillotine before Christmas.

So what’s my prediction forthe budget vote? If $64 billion is spread around in such a way as to put some real stimulus into the economy, the Liberals will have no choice but to support it. But as Michael Ignatieff says, it’s the reckless past spending and unnecessary tax reductions (especially in the GST) that have crippled the country’s finances. “Mr. Harper is going to have to wear this deficit,” Iggy says.

All somehow much reminiscent of George W. Bush!

The Conservatives are now doing what they’ve all piled on Bob Rae for doing — priming the pump with deficit spending when Ontario was deep in recession in the 1990s.

The NDP and the Bloc are in a great position to attack — and vote against — the budget on the presumption it will have Liberal support.

But a word to the wise for Stephen Harper. The Liberal-NDP Coalition remains Iggy’s ace card. He’s not keen to play it. He’d rather see Harpo squirm through a year of painful recession before pulling the plug for a new election. But the Coalition remains a potent threat. It’s forcing the Conservatives into accommoding a minority Parliament.

Now, it’s time to give Morag some puppy training (I wonder who’s training who?)

Canada in film on the web

January 21, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve been surfing the new web site of Canada’s National Film Board, a gateway to a collection of some 700 of the thousands of films that the agency has made about Canada and the world since 1939. It’s at www.nfb.ca

nfb NFB

My attention was immediately grabbed by two marvelous films. One, The Enemy Within, is a touching documentary  by the daughter of a German prisoner of war who spent three and a half years in a POW camp in Lethbridge, Alberta. Eva Colmers has drawn on her father’s letters and her experiences as a Canadian filmmaker to describe how the humane treatment her father and 25,000 other German prisoners received in Canada changed their lives forever.

The second film I watched also was about imprisonment during  World War II, but it told quite a different story. Savage Christmas: Hong Kong 1941, is part of the Valour and Horror series by Brian McKenna which has attracted much controversy.

The survivors among the 2,000 ill-prepared Canadian soldiers who were sent to help defend Hong Kong spent the war years in Japanese prisoner of war camps. As the film’s promotional blurb puts it, “many of them would come to envy the dead.”

The National Film Board is one of those unique Canadian institutions supported by public funding which has given Canadian creators an outlet when the private sector was not sufficiently developed to provide an opportunity for artists to film, write, paint and otherwise depict the Canadian story.

Today, with multiple production companies supported by such agencies as Telefilm Canada and the Canadian TV Fund, the NFB no longer plays  a dominant role in capturing Canadian filmmaking. But it still produces much entertaining and worthwhile material.

The decision to put these films on what the NFB calls its Online  Screening Room should stimulate and deepen interest in our collective past.

The NFB’s first commissioner, the great John Grierson, established standards for documentary films that have since been emulated throughout the world. He was followed by Ross McLean, who ran afoul of the witch-hunting attitude of the1950s, and then by Arthur Irwin , the Canadian diplomat who “calmed the storm” and put the agency on a solid basis.

As of 2007, the NFB had garnered 70 Academy Award nominations, winning 12 Oscars.

Spend some time on this site!