Books, writers, words, and competencies

Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

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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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Politically correct pronoun madness

gender neutral pronounsZe, zim, zer, zher, zis, mer, hus, shkle, hum, herm, hann, ey, hu, je, xe, per, thon, yo, ghaH, co, e. Know what these words are? They are artificial constructs: neologisms cobbled together for abstruse political correctness to replace traditional pronouns that expose or define a gender in the subject or object of a sentence: the traditional he, him, she, her and so on.

They’re sometimes called Spivak pronouns after an American mathematician who coined some of them, but there are many more than he coined. Gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) are today’s newspeak. Wiktionary has a long list of them. A long list.

Gender-specific pronouns are, apparently, verboten in some circles but not  our educational system – where these strange, ugly new GNP words are de rigeur for some. Gawds forbid anyone’s assumed gender should not be recognized because it could lead to confusion and bruised egos.

And in order to avoid that, we all need to memorize a list of words that makes Latin verb conjugation look simple. I’m accustomed to use gender-neutral terms like “they” instead of the binary him or her/he or she, because those pronouns have a long history of usage and, despite incongruity with verb/subject agreement, have been accepted by recent style guides as a solution to the thorny issue of identity. But until the Chicago Manual of Style or Fowler’s or the CP Styleguide approve it, I can’t get into ze or zer.

Until recently, you didn’t hear these words much outside academia because, I suppose, in the real world these made-up words just seem pretentious and silly. 

Not to Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for not kowtowing to the speech police. His story has become an international one, spun along the polarized lines of debate that social media encourages. As the Sun noted:

Peterson has gone on to say that he will not address his students by the pronoun of their choice, sparking a backlash from social activists and the transgendered community.
His comments have sparked a rebuke from his employer, petitions in favour and against, two tense rallies, feverish online debate and media interest in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The university has said that while Peterson is free to express his views, students have complained they don’t feel safe, and faculty is expected to foster a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment.

A privileged few who can afford to attend university in Canada don’t feel safe in a classroom environment because a professor refuses to call them by a word not found in any English dictionary? Scary places, our universities. Forget guns, drugs, rape, or violence: here the knife-sharp edge of a misused pronoun can cut a student to the quick.

How far should this go? What if a student might feel offended and discriminated against if the professor refuses to call him/her/zhim/zong/(pick your word) a heffalump? And another wants to be called Lucky Ducky? What if one demands to be addressed using Klingon?* One wants ze, another pe, another xem – should the professor use them all, rhyming them off in a lengthy list in order to be fully inclusive and make sure no one is excluded? Can’t have anyone’s fragile self esteem tattered.

Every student should have to fill in a form at the start of every year to list the various words by which they must be addressed, and all the acceptable singular and plural pronouns by which they will permit others to be addressed or referred to. Good luck keeping them all straight (in the linear sense of the word). New York City, apparently, recognizes 31 genders. (list here). ** In The Sun, Antonella Artuso asks, “Are we supposed to have a pronoun for each of those genders? So, how the hell are we going to keep track of that? How is that going to work?”

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Muddle-headed editorial palaver

There’s a muddle-headed editorial in this weekend’s Collingwood Connection titled “Citizens, not rich developers should drive political ship” (sic*) that shows (again) how little the chain’s editorial writers understand municipal politics and the laws that govern it. It opens:

Money talks and, in the case of municipal elections, one could argue that all of those cheques, banknotes and e-transfers going toward funding the war chests of various candidates have the potential to speak very loudly.

The writer clearly has never read the Ontario Municipal Elections Act which says in Section 71:

A contributor shall not make contributions exceeding a total of $750 to any one candidate in an election.

No one, whether they are the oh-so-scary “rich developer,” corporation, union or simply your retired neighbour, can contribute more than $750. That’s LESS than the cost of an iPhone. It’s less than the cost of winter tires. It’s much less than the cost of a good ukulele. And it’s a lot less than even the slimiest candidate would sell his or her soul for.

And in my experience through five campaigns, most of the donations are under that limit, be they from private citizens or developers.

Put it another way: to send a campaign flyer through unaddressed ad mail to every household in Collingwood costs about $3,500. Add in the cost to print 10,000+ colour flyers and you easily double that. Then add in taxes. A single $750 contribution covers about one tenth the cost of that single effort.

Sure money talks, but $750 just mumbles a bit under its breath.

Not that candidates don’t appreciate the support, but the law already doesn’t allow anyone to contribute a significant amount to a municipal campaign. Developers have no advantage over anyone else.

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Sloppy Reporting and Secret Agendas

Bad journalismOne really doesn’t actually expect sterling journalism, good, investigative reporting or excellent editing from a community newspaper, but we do expect factual accuracy. And we expect reporters and editors to do at least the basics of their jobs.

Some parallel stories in the local papers show just how inaccurate – and sloppy – local reporting and editing can be. And how this is letting council get away with its secret agendas unreported.

The first story, in the Connection, is headlined, Collingwood calling on Collus Powerstream to divulge salaries of executives, employees. It opens:

Salaries paid to executives and employees of Collus Powerstream may soon be divulged, after Collingwood council passed a motion, Wednesday, asking for the information.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so – Collus is a private corporation and it may require costly legal action to divulge more than just salary ranges. But, as you’ll read below, they won’t be “divulged” to the public, just to council. And you’re okay spending tax dollars on an essentially pointless quest that will (allegedly) be kept secret?

But why should employees earning under $100K be forced to divulge their salaries? The province’s ‘sunshine’ law doesn’t require it (only municipal salary ranges below that are ever released). Why do some people think they are above provincial law?

Collingwood Council passed a shareholders’ directive on Wednesday, requesting a host of information from Collus Powerstream as part of the development of a new shared services agreement.

Okay, first it’s a shareholder’s directive, singular, since the town has only one share and it belongs to the community as a whole, not to multiple shareholders. It’s only plural when both shareholders pass it.

Why didn’t the reporter ask the simple question: what have salaries to do with shared services? In fact, they are irrelevant to the shared service agreement. It’s supposed to be about services, after all. But don’t let facts get in the way.

Why didn’t the reporter ask why none of this was ever raised in public before, or what public interest was being protected by all this secrecy? Why didn’t the reporter ask if it’s proper procedure to demand such information outside a formal shareholders’ meeting (yes, plural because there are two)? Or ask whether it’s wise to engage in a pissing match with your partner through the media?

(Does such a ‘directive’ requires both parties to agree, if so, the reporter might have asked, what happens if the other refuses?)

Why didn’t an editor send the reporter back out to finish the job? Asking why is a key part of any story. There are five Ws that must be answered to complete every good story: who, what, where, when and why. Just because council said so, or the CAO demanded it, isn’t the answer to why. Good reporters dig deeper. Good editors make sure they do.

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Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A]
Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**
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