Archive for October, 2009

Requiem for the National Post

October 30, 2009 Leave a comment

The long, painful and inevitable death throes of The National Post — at least in its present form — seem near an end.

In Toronto, a court spent most of Friday (October 30) mulling a request from CanWest Global Communications Corp. to roll The Post, along with its other newspapers, into a new corporation separate from CanWest TV holdings.

The accounting strategy is to free up the newspapers from the colossal debt of the company’s TV arm, now around $4 billion.

Grant Robertson has an engrossing story on the failures of debt-laden CanWest in the current ROB Magazine. You can read it here.

The papers, market leaders in major cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal, are all money-makers although all are bearing wounds of the recession, and the fragmentation of media markets caused by the Internet.

CAN_NPBut the National Post is a different animal. Launched by Conrad Black in 1998, it was meant to provide a Toronto outlet for his cross-country chain of former Southam newspapers.

It also shook up Canadian journalism. Espousing a frankly right-wing bias, it brought excellent analysis and features to readers at a time when the dominant Globe and Mail was about as dreary and predictable as a newspaper could get.

From day one, the advent of the Post forced the tired Globe to wake up and reinvent itself. To its credit, it has done so, brilliantly, and is now a far superior paper to what it was eleven years ago.

The Post has never turned a profit. It lost $60 million in 2001 and is said to now be losing a million and a half a month. It owes CanWest’s parent holding company $139 million.

The big mistake of the Asper family — first the late Izzy Asper and now son Leonard — was to fund their acquisitions via debt. Now, carrying a debt load that its reduced earnings can’t handle, CanWest’s future is bleak.

Will it get so bleak that there’ll be no solution but to stanch the losses of the National Post by killing it off? And would that be enough to save CanWest from a take-over by bottom-feeders? Probably not.

A solution short of shutting down the Post completely would be to resize it as business daily, like its predecessor the tabloid Financial Post. Some potential buyers are said to be weighing this possibility.

But a successful newspaper needs to find a multi-layered audience. The Toronto Sun has done it with a weird three-way mix of heavy sports, tons of ads from electronics retailers, and crazy right-wing columns and editorials. It’s worked for the Sun, because none of these three demographics gives a damn about what else is in the paper.

It seems to me Canada isn’t big enough — especially while we’re recession-ridden — to support two national newspapers. The Post has become what I call a “broadsheet tabloid” — a paper printed in the traditional large size format of a serious newspaper, but with big headlines and sensationalist content that is better suited to a tabloid. And the two don’t mix.


Margaret and me at Harvard

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s Sunday night in Cambridge and the crowd has lined up for more than a block to get into the Unitarian Church Meetinghouse to hear Margaret Atwood read from — and perform bits of — her new book, The Year of the Flood (Doubleday.)

We hadn’t expected to encounter Canada’s pre-eminent author during our weekend visit to Boston. A casual examination of an events magazine told us she would be in town, so we headed out on the “T” to Harvard to catch the reading.

Margaret Atwood is deep into the third month of what is probably the most gruelling book tour of her career. But it’s one she’s obviously enjoying. She was having great good fun reading, answering questions, and singing one of the hymns she’d written for God’s Gardeners, the church devoted to the melding of science and religion that she’s invented for her 40th book.

Ms. Atwood says Flood is neither a sequel nor a prequel to Oryx and Crake, her 2005 work that took readers into the same abandoned territory as her latest opus. She admits it’s a dystopian outlook she offers, but insists that it’s a destination we’re bound for if we don’t change our ways.

All the same, the message comes with an infectious spirit of deviltry. The same deviltry that must have seized hold of her when she created her two protagonists who begin the book as the only survivors of a natural calamity: Ren, a trapeze dancer trapped inside the upscale sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener who’s locked herself up in a luxurious spa “where many of the treatments are edible.”

Year of FloodI had to wonder whether she had as much fun writing Flood as she’s having in talking about it. I suspect not. But Ms. Atwood clearly enjoyed being back at Harvard where she spent four postgraduate years.

She let us in, by the way, on the fact that she’s used many Harvard buildings and locales for settings in past works.

Amid the good humor of the evening, it seemed to me that Ms. Atwood was a bit defensive about the bleak future she depicts. Asked if she didn’t agree that we’re better off than at any time in the past, she answered with a question: “Who do you mean by we? The billion people in the world who are starving to death?”

My answer would be: Yes, we are better off. The fact there are more people starving now than ever is because there are more people now than ever. But a larger proportion of the planet is living better than at any time in the past.

Asked whether she thinks the demise of mankind (it’s assumed it will come) will result from misuse of technology or from some psychological cause, Ms. Atwood opted for a combination of both.

And she graciously gave mention to The Golden Mean, the novel by Annabel Lyon that’s made the short list of Canada’s three biggest writers’ awards (while The Flood has been shut out). She said it’s the book she’s most recently read, and greatly enjoyed.

The Flood is being driven by the biggest PR campaign ever mounted for a Canadian book. Margaret Atwood has been everywhere in the media: op ed pieces, interviews, author readings (supported by musical performances) and an international tour that takes her to, for instance, Chicago on November 6th.

Considering the usual discreet, “gentlemanly” promotion  given Canadian books, I’m wondering if this intense, high profile campaign has anything to do with the reluctance of the award juries to short list The Flood. It’s been overlooked for the Giller, the G-Gs and the Rogers Writers’ Trust award. All this fuss a bit “unCanadian” perhaps?

Doesn’t matter. Any writer would sell their soul to have hundreds line up the way they did after Sunday night’s reading, Atwood books in hand, to meet the author and go away with a precious signed copy.

The end of ‘The National’?

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

They’ve finally done it — it’s the end of The National on CBC-TV as a serious, trustworthy, watchable account of the day’s news.

Their endless tinkering with proven program formulas reached its nadir last night with an abysmal, production-poor effort that is certain to drive away more viewers than it will attract.

CBC’s reliance on confusing, rainbow-colored graphics that provide nothing but a distraction is truly mind-boggling.

Its focus on contrived news such as Adrienne Arsenault’s report from London on the survey showing Canadians are indifferent to the monarchy is troubling to anyone who cares about understanding what’s important (or even interesting) in today’s world. Ho hum – we’ve known for decades that Canadians don’t give a damn about Prince Charlie. For the past thirty or forty years, we’ve viewed the Queen as no more than a nice lady.

Even the set on the new National looks dismal. They’ve got Peter Mansbridge standing around like a school teacher about to bring out the strap, while errant pupils like Amanda Lang (business reporter) and Wendy Mesley (muck-raker) line up for their punishment.

For years now, the CBC’s been trying to fight audience losses. It’s strategy has been to opt for more American low-brow shows like the dreadful Jeopardy and to glitz up its graphics in the hope that style will win out over substance in pursuit of younger viewers.

CBC: People who want wavy colors (pink, blue, orange) fluttering over their screen aren’t interested in the news. You won’t get them, anyway.

I have a marvelous idea: Prop a man or woman in front of a TV camera and let them read the news, calling in correspondents around the world whenever you have some meaningful film to show. This is what the BBC does.

And by the way, I resent losing BBC World News at 6 on CBC Newsworld (or News Net or whatchamacall it). I always admired the job Evan Soloman did on CBC Sunday, but his new “Power and Politics” format (what else is politics about but power?) just doesn’t excite.

We appear to be watching yet another unfolding CBC disaster that is sure to embarrass and antagonize what’s left of a loyal audience, without any offsetting gains.

For another opinion on The National, here’s Greg Quill’s take in the Toronto Star.

Digging up the facts on history

October 22, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m at the Toronto Reference Library where the British military historian, Antony Beevor, is being quizzed by Ian Brown of the Globe and Mail in a “Writer’s Room” special event.

These meetings are part of a new outreach program by the Toronto Public Library. A couple of hundred people are enjoying the new Bram and Bluma Appel Salon, financed in part by a $3 million dollar contribution from these generous donors.

Miracle of miracles — you could buy a glass of wine at this event. I never thought I’d be able to get a drink in a Canadian library!

Beevor is the author of 13 books, both novels and works of non-fiction. His latest, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, is threatening to outsell his Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege. In total, his sales are nudging the 4-million mark.

Who said people don’t care about history?

You can see Beevor discussing his Normandy book on You Tube:

I always look for writerly advice on occasions like this. Beevor had lots of it. A couple:

  1. Never, never,never start writing until you’ve done your research. “Spend three months on your first sentence.”
  2. Writing is a lonely life. If you’ve got a spouse who can be your “first editor” (he does) you’re lucky.

Beevor had some hilarious stories about cracking the Russian military archives, which sadly are now closed to outside researchers. The most reliable source of information about the battle of Stalingrad, according to Beevor, was the nightly reports flown out by plane for the personal edification of Joseph Stalin. Beevor found they recorded in intimate detail the day’s heroic (and traitorious) events.

On the German side, according to Beevor, were reports written by doctors and priests attending the soldiers. When he mentioned this to the Russian archivist, he was reminded, “There were no priests in the Soviet Army.”

Beevor told him, “I know, but you had political commissars.”

There’s one book on Beevor’s list I’ll be especially interested in reading: Paris After the Liberation, 1944-49. Those years must have set the tone for everything that’s happened in France since. Beevor reminded us that more French died from Allied bombing that did Brits from Luftwaffe assaults. That single fact, he says, helps account for the tension that has since characterized French-American relations.

Among the dozen people who lined up to ask Prof. Beevor a question (all men) was Brian Stewart, the CBC commentator. I was impressed that he’d get in line with the rest of us, and I told him so when we chatted for a few moments afterwards.

Stewart is off staff at the CBC now, but you’ll be seeing him frequently in ad hoc appearances.

For more information on the TRL Writer’s Room program, go here.

The real problems at eHealth

October 22, 2009 1 comment

It’s being called “the billion dollar boondoggle,” the attempt by the Ontario government to create an electronic health record for everyone in the province. The idea is to harness computers and the Internet to improve patient care, safety, and access to medical services.

So far, it’s not going very well. eHealth Ontario has been roiled by controversy over millions of dollars in untendered contracts that went to past associates or close contacts of its president and chairman. Both are gone, resigned or fired. And the Minister of Health, David Caplan, has had to resign.

eHealth represents the second abortive attempt by Ontario to bring its Ministry of Health, OHIP, and the province’s doctors and hospitals into the electronic age.

“Smart Systems for Health” was launched with great fanfare in 2002. It was going to “revolutionize health care delivery with an electronic health information sharing network.”

It failed to deliver on its promise and was replaced by eHealth. Today, nearly a thousand people work for eHealth at seven locations.

According to its web site, work is going ahead. One example: tenders are now out to establish a Diabetes Registry.

Other priorities are online management of prescription medications and a program to reduce wait times in hospital emergency rooms.

In all the fuss, there’s been virtually no light shed on the real problems at eHealth: what actually has or has not been achieved to date. The media have been singularly uninterested in examining the operations of this agency. I’ve not seen a single example of investigative journalism applied to the problems of eHealth.

These problems have been easy pickings for the Opposition parties. They don’t seem interested in getting a real reading on the agency’s work. They prefer to concentrate on the scandal over untendered contracts, rather than on what work’s been done under those contracts.

Now, they’ve got an even juicier target: the $25 billion deficit disclosed by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in his economic update.

The Deputy Minister of Health, Ron Sapsford, was equally unforthcoming on eHealth’s operations when he appeared before the Legislature committee that’s investigating what’s gone wrong at the agency.

His main message was that none of it was his fault – the eHealth bosses had ignored his warnings about following “proper procedures” in awarding contracts.

It would be helpful if someone in authority could explain exactly where eHealth stands in fulfilling its goals.

Here’s a tip: Around half of all technology projects fail and have to be abandoned. It costs corporations and governments hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

This is the “dirty little secret” of the technology industry that no one talks about.

In the U.S., the Computer Audit association says half of the executives they surveyed report their companies have “killed” a technology project because it didn’t deliver as promised, or the company’s needs have changed.

In Britain, a survey of call centers by the Customer Experience Foundation showed that overruns and delays usually add 90 per cent to the cost of a project. New systems fail fifty per cent of the time.

“The expectation of frequent failure was epidemic,” the CEF says.

There’s no defense for untendered contracts in public business. But a contract scandal shouldn’t be allowed to cover up more serious problems of non-delivery.

That’s the real explanation that eHealth owes us.

Mackenzie King – Godfather of pensions

October 19, 2009 Leave a comment

He was Canada’s most successful politician — Prime Minister of the country for 22 years — and he’d probably have some answers for the questions now being raised about the future of pensions in Canada.

William Lyon Mackenzie King brought in Canada’s first old age pension in 1927. It paid a measely twenty dollars a month, and you got it only after passing a humiliating means test.

I’ve been thinking about Mackenzie King and today’s pensions since my visit last week to Kingsmere, his country home in Gatineau Park north of Ottawa.

Kingsmere 008I drove up on a drizzly day when I had some idle time while on a visit to Ottawa. The clouds cleared as I arrived and I got a good tramp around the ruins that King — a fan of ancient relics — had put up on his estate.

As any student of Canadian politics knows, King was a strange man. A spirituralist, he communed with the dead, including his mother and his dog, Pat.

This encouraged me to take along our dog Morag. She didn’t seem spooked by the ghost of Pat.

Today, we have a more generous Old Age Security pension plus the Canada Pension Plan. And company pensions and private Retirement Savings Plans.

But all is not well in Canada’s pension land. The recession is putting many corporate pensions at risk. It’s generally agreed that Canadians aren’t saving enough. A full-fledged pension crisis is shaping up.

I’m with those who favor increasing the scope of the Canada Pension Plan.  It’s working well but needs bigger contributions by both employers and employees. That way, everyone can  be assured of a living income when they’re no longer of working age.

Of course, the opponents will knock any increase in CPP premiums as a tax increase. What’s wrong with that? We get what we pay for.

The CPP has proven itself to be our most cost-effective pension instrument. Financial institutions eat up too much of our savings in management fees. The CPP doesn’t do that.

Mac KingMackenzie King would no doubt find some compromise that would allow him to ease the country into a gradual solution, a bit at a time.

He’s famous for his wartime comment, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

If you’d like to know more about King, I recommend Mackenzie King: Citizenship and Community by John English. (I’m eagerly awaiting the second volume of this author’s Trudeau biography.)

For anyone who has the time, the Mackenzie King Diaries make great reading. You can search by date or keyword by going here.

The King “go slow” sentiment is being echoed today by Michael Ignatieff as he contemplates his situation in Opposition. “An election if necessary, but not necessarily an election.”

But likely with less success!

Thank you Taser, for the truth

October 11, 2009 Leave a comment

This being Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on things for which we can be thankful.

We can be thankful for an unexpected bit of news from Taser International. At long last, the company admits that deaths can result from the use of what many consider an instrument of torture. Taser says police should no longer aim the Taser charge at the heart or the chest.

The RCMP picked up on this immediately. The force sent out orders to its detachments to revise their guidelines, and to provide their personnel with new training.

The story, with a link toTaser International, is here.

In a statement, Taser soft-pedals the danger of its weapon. Taser suggests its new “taser targeting guide” is meant to “avoid the controversy” about whether the deaths that have followed use of the weapon are a direct result, or merely coincidental.

Hopefully, the admission by Taser will sufficiently curb use of the stun gun that we will see no repetition of the deaths that have occurred across Canada when police deployed the instrument.

Cfruel & unusualIt’s unfortunate that Canada’s been infected with this made-in-USA device. There’s a direct parallel that can be drawn between such weapons and the American propensity to violence and cruelty in carrying out law enforcement.

Cruelty in law enforcement receives a much-needed airing in Cruel and Unusual: the Culture of Punishment in America,  by Anne-Marie Cusac (Yale University Press).

Cusac, an assistant professor at Roosevelt University, provides both a historical overview and a cutting present-day analysis of the practices into which the United States has fallen in dealing with people who present a perceived threat.

Cusak demonstrates how the dramatic increase in the use of torture and restraint has done little if anything to curb crime rates or reduce terrorist threats at home and abroad.

Ms. Cusac links how this climate of punishment has infected American culture, ranging from religious beliefs to TV programming, child-rearing practices and politics.

Perhaps this helps to explain why the American public seems to be so forgiving of torture practices at Abugraib and Guantanamo, or the fact that America’s imprisonment rate has multiplied five-fold in the past forty years.

Why this puritanical insistence of extreme punishment — the long prison terms imposed for minor infractions such as marijuana use, or the way in which police flaunt the use of handcuffs and leg irons in transporting non-violent prisoners to and from court?

Do these practices arise from a fundamentally insecure society, one overwhelmed by change and unable to cope with the pressure of modern society?

Ms. Cusac observes that early in its history, the United States repudiated Old World cruelty toward criminals and moved toward rehabilitation along with punishment. This philosophy, she says, has now been abandoned.

A book like Cruel and Unusual should cause Canadians to hesitate in contemplating the so-called anti-crime measures being proposed by the Harper government. To often, such measures are not only unnecessarily retributive, but likely to put society in more, not less danger.

An example: The bill rejected by the Liberal-dominated Senate would have forced some prisoners to serve their full sentences, rather than be released early under mandatory supervision.

“Let them do their time,” the hardliners say. But these people are going to get out eventually anyway. Isn’t it better to manage their return to society, rather than dump them loose with no control or supervision?

A NOTE ON CANADIAN THANKSGIVING. I was intrigued to find out recently that Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on the first Thursday in November until after the First World War. It was then moved up to the second Monday in Octoberso that it wouldn’t conflict with what was first called Armistice Day, and is  now Remembrance Day, on the 11th of  November.