Monday, November 29, 2010

The Guild election, gender bias and a new generation

I had the tremendous opportunity of attending a conference this year called Stepping Up, Stepping Back about how unions must revitalize themselves and attract young workers – especially women.

The conference report makes no bones about it: unions are at a tipping point and risk losing relevance unless they become more reflective of the demographics of the workers they represent. And if unions don’t make changes, young women activists in particular will give up and invest their energies elsewhere.

The report says union structures are to blame – that they are shutting young women out of leadership. “Union political structures reward incumbents regardless of results,” it says.

One of the report’s recommendations is term limits, which I proposed at the 2010 CMG Convention. The motion was narrowly defeated though more than half the delegates were in favour (it needed 2/3 majority).

With these issues weighing on me, I decided to step down as president of the CMG and prompt a new generation of leaders to come forward.

But I’ve been saddened to learn that even in 2010, this election is turning out to be split down gender lines. And some older, mostly male leaders are actually telling people that some younger women candidates “just aren’t ready”. As far as I can tell, this sweeping statement is never applied to any of the male candidates.

They just aren’t ready? In this race, there are candidates with much more union experience than I could have imagined having when I became president twelve years ago. There are people with track records of actually solving problems, chairing tough committees and doing the really difficult work of unionizing new workplaces by signing workers up one-by-one. One (Carmel Smyth) is even the president of the CMG's biggest single unit (CBC Toronto, with more than 2000 members!!!).

I hope that if you hear that “they just aren’t ready” line – you ask precisely what it means. What has the other candidate done that makes them more “ready”? That’s the only way to get at the roots of this gender-biased slur.

Our skills and experience as media employees don’t necessarily prepare any of us to lead a union. Being ready means being ready to listen, to learn and to lead. You need the instinct to know what members want, the ability to make priorities happen, the smarts take on office and staff management functions, and the will to enlarge the network of people in leadership roles so you can avoid entrenching an insider clique.

This election is about members choosing who is most ready to truly represent them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A reminder about how dangerous our work can be

Being a news camera operator is one of the most physically demanding, and as we've been sadly reminded today, dangerous jobs in our industry.

Let's keep our fingers crossed for City-tv cameraman Bill Atanasoff who was hit by a car as he was shooting a separate police investigation in Toronto late last night. He had pulled up to the scene where other journalists were newsgathering, crossed the street to start shooting and was hit by the car.

Atanasoff was thrown several metres by the impact, in full view of the other media and police. He is in hospital in critical condition with injuries to his neck, skull and legs.

Police say they don't know if Bill's camera obscured his vision of the street or the oncoming car.

We know camera operators are incredibly vulnerable to injury. They are often looking through eyepieces and rushing to get to a scene at the same time -- meaning their own vision is obstructed and balance jeopardized. We know alot of shooting goes on in busy areas often at night and in bad weather. We know alot of news gathering takes place in unruly crowds and angry confrontations. And we know people are working longer hours, travelling further and doing more.

So let's take a moment to think about what we do, remember to be careful in what is a stressful profession, and talk openly to one another when we think enough is enough.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cutting his way to being "digital first"

Funny how the media doesn't report on how it's decimating itself.

Both CBC and CTV reported today on how 42 Ottawa Citizen staffers are taking the buyout offered by new Postmedia owner Paul Godfrey last month. The Citizen itself was strangely silent about it. Ever wonder why big general buyouts are the staff-cut method of choice? So there's no noise. No "L" word, as in layoffs. But the positions are still lost; the expertise gone and there's no added value to anyone.

Trouble is, this is only the tip of the iceberg at Postmedia. The numbers of positions being lost across the whole former Southam/Canwest (Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Sun and Province, Victoria Times Colonist and others) chain are at least triple that number of 42 and there are plans to centralize the business and advertising operations in a single city. If you read one of these papers, your local newspaper will be local in name only. Godfrey talks about being "hyper local" in news content but beware. Unless there's evidence of hiring people to do local news...those are just cute words. The strategy appears to be to cut an already lean newspaper empire to its very core, go public next summer and sell it all for profit.

Forget the demographic deficit. We have an information deficit.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sign of hope for free TV in small-town Canada

Last Friday, when the CRTC approved the application by cable and satellite giant Shaw Communications to take over Canwest Global, it also took an important step to ensuring Canadians in smaller towns continue to have access to free, over-the-air TV after the switch to digital in 2011.

The CRTC told Shaw that, within the next five years, it must upgrade some 66 transmitters, mostly in the interior of BC, central and northern Ontario and Nova Scotia, serving smaller markets. It includes places like Sudbury ON, Kamloops and Kelowna BC, and Sydney NS that would have otherwise lost free TV signals after the transition. Previous owner Global had planned to shut down some of the existing analog transmitter in each of these 66 locations on August 31, 2011, and keep the others running only as long as they still worked.

The Guild has driven people crazy talking about the potential of free digital TV in smaller markets, using the ability of a single transmitter on a single frequency to send out up to six channels where an analog transmitter can only send out one. It's called digital multiplexing and, perhaps due to sheer repetition, or because the CRTC wants us to go away already, the Commission also said in the Shaw decision that it is "persuaded of the benefits of multiplexing with respect to the promotion of media diversity and access, and its potential to offset some of the negative impact resulting from media consolidation."

What multiplexing means concretely for the Sudburys, Kamloopses, Kelownas and Sydneys of the world is the potential for viewers to get more than just Global for free. Shaw has said it would consider multiplexing, and therefore sharing with other broadcasters, in some of these 66 locations. And perhaps what the CRTC is saying is that it would be good for media diversity if a new local TV service were launched in these places (perhaps a true community station?) that could piggy-back on the Shaw transmitter.

The ironies in this are delicious. First, that it's cable giant Shaw that is the first with a national TV network to commit to over-the-air TV in smaller communities in Canada. Way to go. Second that Shaw might well end up helping independent community TV. This may be a pay of patching things up with supporters of independent community TV after the scrap they had earlier this year over the country's community TV policy and where the $120 million in cable money that's supposed to be devoted to "local expression" is really being spent.

Over to you, mayors of smaller communities. You can bring several channels of free TV to your city. Any takers????

Meanwhile, there's a growing chorus of support for free, over-the-air TV, especially among those in major cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver and those who live along the US border who are already receiving the new high-quality digital signals for free. You can see the latest love letter to over-the-air TV here and an article about how to get free TV here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Good news: Sun TV's straight talk takes a turn

Quebecor is retreating on its bid to force all Canadian cable subscribers to pay for its proposed Sun TV News ... aka Hard News, Straight Talk ... aka Fox News North.

This is a victory. The about-face comes after thousands of Canadians voiced their opposition through organizations such as and to what was perceived as a politically-connected corporation trying to get a special deal via the Conservative government. This appears to be a rare example of the public getting involved and forcing a shift in the broadcaster's plans.

The CRTC has been planning a hearing on the Sun TV News application (we'll soon see if that hearing goes ahead). The Guild made a written submission supporting the existence of the new channel, with conditions, and objecting to the request for the special treatment.

Among the conditions, we proposed that Quebecor commit to a base level of editorial staff for the new channel, based on concerns about Quebecor's recent commitment to news and journalism at its other outlets. The company has cut hundreds of newspaper jobs cut across the country in the last two years and yet says it will rely heavily on these print journalists to feed the all-news TV network. And then there's the way Quebecor values its newspaper operations in Quebec, where a lockout at the Journal de Montreal is now in month 20; a lockout at the Journal de Québec ended in 2008 after a year and a half.

The Guild also proposed that the CRTC hold a hearing on the definition of news programming. While news is clearly dear the CRTC - they set up that local program fund in 2008 to support it, and that's good - no definition of it exists in broadcast policy. That's dangerous when media owners such as Quebecor, with the Sun TV News application, and Corus, with the Local 1 application, cleary want to stretch the boundaries.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Canadians in for a rude shock after transition to digital TV

The major deadline in Canada's transition to digital TV is now less than one year away, but you'd never know it from the deafening silence on the issue.

Beginning next September 1, Canadian over-the-air TV viewers in 32 cities will need digital equipment to continue watching television. They will need either a newer TV with a digital receiver or a converter box for their older analog set.

But it's Canadians in the other cities, towns and rural areas that are in for the really rude shock. Starting in less than a year, their local stations will start unplugging the analog over-the-air transmitters and replace them with ... nothing. If you want to watch TV in those areas, you'll need a cable or satellite hookup, unless you are close enough to US stations to pick those up over the air.

It is quite a shock to compare the before-transition and after-transition maps of Canada. Check it out.

Here's a live version of the after-transition map, where you can see what stations will be available in what cities:

View Free digital TV in Canada/La télé numérique gratuite au Canada in a larger map

Don't forget to compare it to the map of where free, over-the-air TV is available today.

Meanwhile, viewers in the US, where the transition is already more than a year old, and Canada who have tried digital over-the-air TV seem to love it. First, there's no monthly bill. Second, the picture quality is great. There is evidence of a growing grassroots movement in favour of over-the-air TV.

Too bad so many smaller-town and rural Canadians are slated to be thrown under the digital bus.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Richard Stursberg: early thoughts about a demonized man and his impossible job

Richard Stursberg fired. Those words aren't in the official CBC release (see italics below), but they might as well be. Reports are that he was escorted out of the building today. I can't think of a more significant development at the CBC in years.

"Hubert T. Lacroix, president and CEO of CBC/Radio Canada, announced today the departure of Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president, English services, from CBC/Radio-Canada effective today."

Stursberg has been the head of English-language programming since 2004. I often thought of him as the Dick Cheney of the CBC, in the way he approached his power, his influence and the way he was openly derisive of different points of view. He took on battles that changed peoples lives, yet he seemed oblivious to the impact he had.

Most significantly, Stursberg took the CBC -- our public broadcaster -- down a very commercial road. It was his way of dealing with tepid funding and unreliable support from the federal government. Programs were judged as successful only by ratings, not by the value they may contain for public discourse or the public record. In fact, he rarely talked about the CBC as a public broadcaster. He once referred to programs about Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau as "goddamned legacy programming" in one heated discussion with me about his approach to public broadcasting.

Under his tenure, the CBC locked out its employees in 2005, shut down the CBC design department in 2007 -- ending the CBC's own ability to make sets and create costumes and props, and hired U-S based TV consultant Frank Magid to advise local news programs about how to be quick and snappy -- and talk alot about crime and weather.

Yet it should be said that Stursberg resuscitated local TV programming too by creating the 90-minute supper-time newscasts and the 10-minute late night newscasts -- even if wasn't necessarily because of the value of local journalism but because of the chase for the elusive eyeballs. He brought a lot of in-house production back to the network (even if he dismantled the department that supported that production).

He was a lightning rod for all kinds of opinion, a man easy to demonize. He was mercurial and surprisingly undiplomatic in meetings with staff.

Yet at the end of the day, what matters is why he's leaving.

"We are in the midst of developing a new strategic plan that will guide CBC/Radio-Canada through the next five years. This is the opportune time to bring new leadership...." the release says.

It seems apparent by reading between the lines of the CBC release is that the "new strategic plan" is linked to his departure/firing. What is that strategic plan? Let's hope it's a departure from the overly commercial approach that Stursberg pushed for so many years. Let's hope the new strategic plan values programming that's made in the public interest as much as for the potential "eyeball" numbers. Even better, let's hope this marks the end of the "Ottawa isn't going to give us any more money, so let's just deal with it" approach that's particularly depressing. It's time for this CBC administration to move forward post-Stursberg by embracing its public mandate, by reaching out to Canadians and working with them to make a strong case for a really public public broadcaster.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Working 9 to 5: how quaint

The news industry is at once shrinking yet expanding...but in the expansion, there's a catch. The expansion is in online news...where everything is about speed, hits and the need to constantly update -- not necessarily inform. This piece in the New York Times is an excellent warning about the effect this is having on media workers -- early burnout.

Reporters are being measured by simple output -- which is assessed by "most viewed" lists on home pages. Pay is based on how many readers click on your article. What kind of world is this? One that burns out its young, apparently.

When digital technology turned our work into "multi-platform" and the distinctions between online, TV and radio were erased....most of our jobs morphed dramatically. We are expected to do it all, on many services and media, twitter/blog about it and do it five minutes faster than the competition. Workload has become the main issue for employees, far outpacing compensation. Looks like the treadmill will only move faster -- before anyone has time to think about the effects on our industry -- and those of us who work in it -- as a whole.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What's happened to all the G20 video, pictures?

Amy Miller, one of the arrested independent journalists at the G20 summit last month (see previous blog post), tells me that all the journalists and others she knows who recorded police arrests/abuse/beatings etc. had their cameras wiped or "gone missing" while they were in the detention centre.

That video would obviously be useful for the public record about those fateful two days. It may be evidence for someone's defence. It could be damning evidence about the actions of the police. Or it could support the actions police took. In any case, it's all gone, and we should all be demanding whether police kept copies of the material confiscated, and whether and how it will be used.

Here's an example of some of what these independent journalists tell me:
Scott Weinstein says he was arrested July 1 at the Montreal G20 solidarity demo. He says he was told "that the group of agent provocateurs/undercover police who tried to infiltrate the demo previously" were at the demo, and he started filming them. "I was on the street and they then left the sidewalk and surrounded me, grabbed me and tried to take the camera. I want to state clearly that I at no time touched them or tried to fight back. I simply held onto the camera as long as I could (about a few minutes). I lay on the ground, trying to get into a fetal position as they were kneeing me and hit me with a few punches. It seemed about 4 or 6 of these guys were on top of me, and for a while, I had the illusion that I could actually keep them from taking the camera away... I was arrested, charged with assaulting the police with my bicycle, and they got the camera....I was held till about 5:30 p.m., and to my surprise, I was released. My camera and digital card were returned to me, but the file containing the film of the agent provocateurs was erased, along with photos I took of some of the speakers at the demo, and some of the vans carrying riot police."

Lisa Walter, the Our Times journalist, says she got her still camera and video camera back from police after her detention, but the memory card was taken from her still camera, and they erased the data on the video camera's hard drive.

Jesse Freeston, a video-journalist with The Real News Network, says he was attacked and had his mic temporarily taken away from him on Friday June 25th while covering the "Justice for our Communities" march. He thinks it was in order to stop him from filming what appeared as excessive force by police in order to clear an area after they made "a very suspicious and violent arrest of a deaf man named Emomotimi Azorbo". His video is here.

Some find it easy to dismiss the complaints of the G20 independent journalists because...well....they're independent and they have a point of view. They happen to be young, in most cases, and consider themselves activists. So what? Those are not good enough reasons for police to steal their private property and rob them and the public of the valuable images that was contained on all those hard drives and memory cards.

Friday, July 2, 2010

G20 journalists garner support from Canada and abroad

It's comforting to know that groups far and wide are coming to the support of the media who were roughed up and/or arrested during the G20 weekend.

The latest is a release issued in Vienna from the International Press Insitute, a global network of media executives, editors and journalists. The IPI Press Freedom Manager says journalists "have a right to cover such events, including any protests that accompany them, without interference or harassment from police".

We at the Canadian Media Guild are asking members to tell us about what happened to them, to make sure that the whole story affecting media employees is heard, in all the right places. Julian Falconer and four journalists have filed complaints with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director in Toronto. That complaint is important. But it's not all that should be done. If and when any other inquries are called, the way the police handled all members of the media ("mainstream" and independent alike) must be documented and included.

The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression is doing what it can to make sure what happened is properly documented. It's doing a survey of journalists who believe "their freedom of expression was compromised by police/security personnel".

Now that we've had almost a week to hear from people, it's clear that the range of interference and harsh treatment directed at media workers was unprecedented. The cases of the independent journalists that Falconer is handling are the most publicized. But going largely unreported is the way the "mainstream" accredited employees were prevented from doing their jobs, in varying degrees. Read this account by Colin Perkel, long-time Canadian Press reporter who's done several tours in Kandahar (and yes, at one point he was a CMG executive member). He tells of the police operation that trapped hundreds of regular citizens and media personnel at a city block (Queen-Spadina) for five hours on Sunday. What I had not heard before is the degree to which equipment owned by Canadian Press was ruined by this operation, as police kept these people trapped in a torrential downpour in an operation now known as "kettling". I understand the cost to replace the damaged gear may be higher than $20,000.

Gear can be replaced, of course. It's the disregard for professional news gathering during public events like these that's cause for concern.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

People in their 20s with cameras: the new enemy?

Now that we are hearing more from those who were arrested or detained over the G20 weekend, it's becoming apparent that police were particularly irritated by people in their 20s documenting the protests in one way or another for alternative media publications.

Lawyer Julian Falconer announced yesterday he is taking on the cases of four such journalists, and the stories they tell are horrible.

Amy Miller was covering the demonstrations for the independent monthly Dominion when she says she was verbally abused, arrested and taken to the detention centre. Most alarmingly, she says one of the officers threatened sexual violence and added "you won't be a journalist after we bring you to jail".

Lisa Walter (who is the only one of the group not in her 20s) writes for the labour magazine Our Times. She says she was thrown to the ground and cuffed, her credentials challenged and was called a "f-ing dyke".

Adam MacIsaac was covering the same protest as Miller for the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. He was arrested, taken to a hospital after telling police he had a pacemaker. He was handcuffed to a bed according to this profile of 20 detainees in the Toronto Star. When he was let go 7 hours later, police said they had no idea where his $6K worth of camera equipment went.

Cameron Fenton was also reporting for the Dominion. He told the Star that about 30 people near a protest were boxed in by police and all were arrested and put in the G20 detention centre to be released later the same day.

Then there's the physical abuse of independent journalist Jesse Rosenfeld, who I wrote about Monday.

There may be some gray area between activism and journalism in all these cases. These are young, independent reporters with a point of view. But it appears that those who aggressively pursued the G20 story, who were not backed by big media companies, and who were young and seemingly vulnerable were particularly targeted for abuse.

It's like the police were sending an ominious message to the journalists of the future: don't go there.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why These G20 Media Arrests Should Concern Us All

On the day after a weekend of mayhem, it's important to focus on those who’ve been detained, arrested or imprisoned this weekend at the G20 summit just for doing their jobs: the journalists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time or looked the wrong way.

The hundreds of citizens, onlookers, and even joggers who were detained, arrested or imprisoned should be angry and have their stories told too.

But for the sake of solid information about these events, we should really be concerned about the people who had formal G20 media accreditation issued by the federal government’s summit office and who were still kept from doing their jobs.

• CTV News Channel producer Farzad Fatholahzadeh. He says he was looking to hand off his tape to another producer behind one of the police lines Saturday afternoon, and with his media pass clearly visible, a dozen police officers approached him. They asked him what he was doing there. Fatholahzadeh says he pointed to his news truck, the police told him to relax and then arrested him. His hands were fastened with plastic ties and he was brought to the Eastern Ave. detention centre. Six hours later he was released with no charges against him.
• National Post photographers Brett Gundlock and Colin O’Connor. The two were arrested and taken into custody Saturday at about 6 p.m. while taking shots of the clashes between police and demonstrators. They were charged with obstruct peace officer and unlawful assembly. They spent 24 hours in custody at the Eastern Ave. detention centre.
• Canadian Press reporter Terry Pedwell. He was detained for two hours in Huntsville while covering the G8 meeting, after police found he was carrying a standard-issue (for reporters covering demonstrations) gas mask in his trunk.
Jesse Rosenfeld a Canadian freelance journalist based in Ramallah. He was covering what had been a peaceful demonstration on the Esplanade when two police officers grabbed him at about 11 p.m. He did not have an official media accreditation, but that's no excuse for the abuse he suffered. The case is getting widespread publicity because TVO host Steve Paikin witnessed and tweeted about it. The following are Paikin’s tweets during the arrest and beating:
“they repeated they would arrest me if i didn't leave. as i was escorted away from the demonstration, i saw two officers hold a journalist.”
“the journalist identified himself as working for "the guardian." he talked too much and pissed the police off. two officers held him....”
“a third punched him in the stomach. totally unnecessary. the man collapsed. then the third officer drove his elbow into the man's back.”
“the officer who escorted me away from the demo said, "yeah, that shouldn't have happened." he is correct. there was no cause for it.”
the demonstration on the esplanade was peaceful. it was like an old sit in. no one was aggressive. and yet riot squad officers moved in.
Let’s get beyond the burning cars and smashed-in windows. Those acts of hooliganism come with G20 summits and they are completely predictable. By all accounts, the police simply let the cars burn and the windows be smashed. They were even lauded for their restraint by some. It was later Saturday and through the day Sunday that became really crazy. Because that’s when police, possibly frustrated at being ineffective with the Black Bloc when they were rioting, turned on activists, onlookers and just plain regular people randomly, people who happened to be in the way at the wrong time. Including journalists doing their job.

There will be many official reports filed about this weekend of protest in Toronto. I ask that at least a portion of those reports be reserved for coming up with better ways to allow accredited journalists do their jobs – whether or not the situation is uncontrolled and frantic. If we go through the hassle of formal accreditation, let’s make sure it means something when it really matters.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sun's idea of "news" a joke, but will the CRTC care?

I see that Quebecor/aka Sun newspaper chain isn't toning down its slanted "reporting" about CBC just because it's trying to get a license to compete with it in 24/7 news.

Check out this "news" story from Althia Raj , the Sun reporter who seems to be assigned the job of taking the Quebecor party line in these must-do anti-CBC pieces.

She writes: "CBC received almost 900 complaints from 2007 to 2010".

What Raj means is that 900 Access to Information requests were filed about the CBC in those three years. A big difference. Access to Information requests are routinely filed by reporters or citizens in order to get information from public corporations. They are not "grievances" which Raj also calls them.

Two paragraphs later, we learn that most of the requests were filed "on behalf of QMI Agency". That's Quebec Media Inc., Quebecor's own newsservice (Raj's employer), which Raj never points out.

In other words, this story is really about the fact that Quebecor filed hundreds of Access to Information requests about its competitor, the CBC. And it did so by abusing a process that's about making public corporations more transparent. The Access to Information process is NOT designed to be used by companies to get information to use as a competitive weapon.

You can count on more of this type of "news" on the 24/7 Sun TV News channel too. Wonder if the CRTC considers this type of "news" worthy of a must-carry cable designation?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is Fox News North counting on a sweet deal from the CRTC?

It's good to see real questions being asked about Quebecor's new "straight talk" all-news channel. Forget whether we need another right-wing voice or not. Forget whether it's appropriate that the former communications director to Stephen Harper is the guy in charge.

People are rightly asking whether Pierre-Karl Peladeau is banking on a special deal from the CRTC that would allow him to convert his unsuccessful over-the-air channel in Toronto to a lucrative three-year "category one" specialty channel license.

That's the license that would force cable operators to carry the channel. And that "must carry" designation is big bucks. Automatic carriage fees can range between 15 cents and 65 cents per month per subscriber. That's steady income, steady enough that selling ads isn't so important.

There's no precedent for such a request at the CRTC, and the Commission says that to be ruled a "must carry" a service has to demonstrate "exceptional importance" to Canadians.

Surprise. Surprise. It looks like Quebecor is counting on being ruled "exceptional", judging by the excellent interview CBC's Kathleen Petty did with Kory Tenycke, Quebecor Media's VP for development. Love the way she doesn't back down . And how it exposes Tenycke's lack of a back-up plan and his disdain for Canadians and their ability to understand CRTC regulatory lingo.

I can tell you this: Canadians may not know the difference between a cat 1 and a cat 2 license digital TV license, but they know when there's one set of rules for us, and another set for people who used to work for the prime minister and whose boss happens to be a close friend of a former prime minister. And they know when something stinks.

Quite apart from the discussion about whether this network is "Fox News North" or not, what we should really be watching for is whether the CRTC degrades itself and defies its own directive to give yet another sweet deal to powerful friends.

If you care about this, check out the media reform group, It's all about making sure independent media and solid information survive in this age of punditry and spin.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Quebecor dilemma

After two years of layoffs in this industry, word that Quebecor’s Pierre-Karl Peladeau is investing in news with a third all-news channel should be seen as a good thing. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. We all need them.

There’s no question the journalism will be from a conservative right point of view, but my main concern is that the channel will probably serve a much narrower interest: what’s good for Quebecor and Pierre-Karl Peladeau. There’s no other media owner in this country who injects their own business interests into “journalism” as much as Peladeau does.

Talk to anyone who works at le Journal de Montreal, also Quebecor-owned. Reporters there filed a complaint with the Quebec Press Council because they felt pressure to give prominence to Quebecor’s mega-hit “Star Academie” on TVA. Quebecor-owned papers (Journal de Montreal, Journal de Quebec, the Sun chain) are frequently filled with rabid reporting about the CBC/Radio-Canada, Peladeau’s only real competition in Quebec, because he owns almost all of the rest of the media in the province.

And what’s good for Quebecor and Pierre-Karl Peladeau is rarely good for the rest of us. He’s cut the guts out of the Sun newspaper chain since he bought it, he’s cut beyond the bone to newspapers across Ontario, leaving the people of Kingston, Sudbury, North Bay and other smaller cities with less real information about their communities.

At the same time, there’s no question we need the diversity of opinion that comes with a "Fox News North", whether or not we like that opinion. I just hope it means the other “mainstream media” will be freed up from kowtowing to the right in this country. I’m happy to see the right-wing audience served by Quebecor, as long as everyone else concentrates on the mainstream issues they’ve been ignoring in their quest for the same audience.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The robot reporter: false hope or cautionary tale

[Guest post by karenatcmg.]

Could a robot do your job? A lab on the Northwestern University campus near Chicago already has a prototype artificial intelligence program that can report on baseball games and will soon develop programs to cover football and basketball.

“It’s the dream of every managing editor: a reporter who is cheap, works fast and isn’t moody,” writes Le Monde correspondent Yves Eudes, who recently visited the lab.

The “Stats Monkey,” as it is known, will also soon turn its digital brain to reporting on financial markets.

The inventors of "The Machine," which is the byline on the prototype reports, gush that the product reads the same as AP wire copy. But without typos! (The machines – no kidding – are able to reproduce the same pat sentences that every reporter rushed for time uses to express the same range of outcomes). The benevolent inventors say they are not out to replace humans with machines and put them out of work. Of course not. They say their program could relieve journalists of the boring, repetitive work to allow them time for the noble part of the calling: field reports, investigations and analysis. Besides, they add, the purpose of the program is to report on minor league and varsity games and the stock market performance of smaller companies, which don’t currently get coverage in the mainstream media.

By the way, down the hall from the Stats Monkey is “News at Seven,” an AI project that puts together an online newscast, complete with animated male and female co-anchors (Zoe and George!), based on the preferences of the viewer. It gathers and summarizes relevant reports from a series of news sites and then “voices” them.

Frankly, the AI machines seem a day late and a dollar short. What can they do that we don’t already do, compiling and relaying data within seconds on a wire desk or producing newscasts according to a formula, primarily using secondary sources?

Besides, if news organizations aren’t devoting resources to high-school leagues and small business stock performance today, why would they invest in machines to do it tomorrow?

And who is to say that, once they had them, our employers would rehumanize our work? After all, if they wanted the fulsome product of human brains – if that’s where they saw the quick buck – they could have it already,couldn’t they?

Obviously the machines will solve nothing. It’s not even clear that they will be more productive (ie. produce more at less cost) or that they will create fewer headaches than regular human journalists. I mean who has NOT worked with temperamental IT systems?

But news of them alone is perhaps enough to scare us into working that much faster, with that much more accuracy, to avoid being replaced by a reserve army of computer chips.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Community TV should be supported - now more than ever

I love the headline of the piece in support of community TV in -- titled "Community TV blamed for cable cash crunch". The story is a great read -- the story of Big Cable maximizing profits at the expense of their own stations, and of course, dodging any kind of criticism along the way.

Today's the deadline for submission of comments for an important set of CRTC hearings on community TV.

The hearings aren't getting alot of attention, but people in the industry know what's at stake. Once a place of dynamic innovation and divergent points of view, community TV stations are not what they should be. They could and should be a place for real local news. They could and should be a more effective training ground, especially if the stations were linked in some way, with any of the provincial public broadcasters or the CBC.

A group named CACTUS, which stands for the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations, is trying to improve regulations, funding and bandwidth for these stations. We at the Canadian Media Guild are supporting their efforts. The hearings begin April 26 in Gatineau.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some commitment to local news!

Citytv, the station that's synonymous with local news, is slashing its news operations across the country.

The reports vary but they all point to today's announcement by Rogers Media, which owns the stations. One report says there will be no newscasts tonight on Citytv stations in Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton. Another from the Toronto Star says BT (Breakfast Television), CityNews at Six and CityNews at Night will continue to be produced in all five Citytv markets, but notes the Rogers statement makes no mention of the noon newscast.

About 60 jobs will be lost in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.

Ironically, the move comes a day after a group of three people announced they were heading a bid to buy three of the Canwest newspapers up for sale because they believe in ... you guessed it...local news.

This layoff makes no sense. It comes at a time the economy is rebounding, when people are putting their money into local news, and when stations such as CHCH and CHEK are trying to make it on their own with a reliance on local news.

Once again, it proves two things: 1. Local news is always expendible when big media companies get bigger and people in all the affected cities should be complaining loudly. 2. That cable and satellite campaign over the summer and fall about their commitment to local news was just what we all thought -- misleading words aimed at making sure someone else pays for it, if it has to exist at all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

New buyers who actually want to talk about content!

For the first time in a long time, some good news about the fate of Canwest. The Toronto Star and others are reporting that a group of investors led by former Senator Jerry Grafstein is preparing to make an offer for three of the Canwest newspapers -- the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post.

What's so encouraging about this news is that not only does the group have background in the business (Grafstein was a founder of Citytv in Toronto, Ray Heard used to be an editor at the Montreal Star then he was an executive at Global TV and Beryl Wajsman is editor of a weekly newspaper in Quebec), they are actually talking about content!

The three are not talking about "synergies", not making this about bottom-line cost-effective delivery of news on all sorts of platforms. That's the kind of talk that led to Canwest's troubles.

Instead this group is talking about how newspapers would benefit from local involvement that would produce timely, informative, well-written stories and grassroots journalism reflecting the priorities of Canada's diverse communities.

Wow! No matter what happens with Canwest up for sale, the injection of this kind of interest -- interest for all the right reasons -- can only be good news for the news business.