What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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SVJI costs continue to skyrocket

BureaucracyAs I predicted earlier, the costs for Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) are going to climb through the roof. And of course you, the taxpayer, are going to pay for it.

Last month local media carried stories that the SVJI – scheduled to begin this month (November) – wasn’t going to meet its deadlines. It was delayed and would not start until the “new year” (apparently not until February, 2019). Bayshore Broadcasting notes in its coverage*:

The inquiry team had hoped they would start this fall, but Inquiry Counsel Janet Leiper tells us that won’t be possible and that it will be the new year before the public hearings can start. She says that’s because the rest of some of the necessary documents aren’t expected until the end of November.

Three more months of lawyers being paid $400-$700 an hour, plus travel and accommodations , plus the other staff, computers, phone, office space… That’s going to hurt the town’s budget but hey, it isn’t Saunderson’s money he’s spending. And it helped him win the election, so he doesn’t care what it costs you.

The piece also noted the inquiry had already received about 11,000 documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, some of whom may need to spoken to again. Ka-ching!**

Alectra – the company that came from the merger of PowerStream and other Ontario utilities – has already submitted more than 4,000 documents, sorted out from about 40,000 the company had from the time period in question. But that’s not enough: the SVJI wants more paperwork from more people.

Alectra’s lawyer, Michael Watson, said that could mean sorting through 100,000-200,000 documents from that period.  Big job. So why not do it twice? The Connection noted:

(Judge) Marrocco suggested the company provide the documents and allow inquiry staff to do a search while Alectra does the same.

Okay, let’s do some cost and time estimates on the effort required to search through 100,000 or more documents.
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Imperialism and razors

Weishi razorI’m looking at my recently-acquired, matte black, Weishi adjustable, TTO (Twist To Open, aka butterfly-head) razor. Quite attractive, smart even, and a solid heft in the hand. Chinese-made, Amazon-sold. I am still bemused by my ability to buy products – especially household items, things I use daily – from half a world away with a simple click. Especially when I can’t find any of those items locally (and, yes, I’ve looked…).

Convenient, yes, but also a symbol of the new imperialism: the transnational corporate empires.

Most (all?) of the safety razors I’ve purchased in the past six months since I switched to these devices have also been made in China, despite their companies being located nominally elsewhere (executive offices, anyway). And these razors are all pretty damned good. As good as those made in Europe or Canada (well, okay, once made… as far as I know, no one makes them in Canada, precious few are made in the USA these days, and the Europeans seem to be making most of theirs offshore, too…).

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said that about a lot of Chinese products – I had numerous experiences with poorly built, low-quality control items. That seems to have changed for the better. But it’s hardly surprising.

Look at the history of offshore manufacturing: after WWII, American (and some European) manufacturers opened (or took over) plants in Japan, in part to restart the Japanese economy, in part to develop lines of low-cost consumer items to feed into the growing western economies, and to take advantage of the cheap Japanese labour. The Soviets did this in Eastern Europe, although their results were very different.

These factories were initially designed to build low-end lines of products. And the phrase “made in Japan” signified low quality for many postwar years. But the Japanese steadily improved their production, designs and quality. The Japanese first progressed by copying, then innovated and improved Western designs. They created products that instead said quality, dependability and luxury. Made in Japan became a boast, not a liability.

And as they did so, the Japanese consumer market itself grew. Workers became more skilled, demanded higher wages. Japan’s economy accelerated and the costs of production rose with it. On a side note: Soviet-managed factories in Eastern Europe produced crap from the start to the end of their regime with little to no effort to improve or innovate.
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