Lessons from the paper

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Another fine messThere’s a story on page B2 of the January 1 Enterprise Bulletin (not online yet*) that offers us three lessons. Two lessons on how the local media fails us, one on cringe-worthy political ineptitude. Those lessons are:

  1. How far the credibility of the paper has fallen;
  2. How little respect there is for real reporting and investigative journalism in the local media;
  3. How pusillanimous and dysfunctional council has become.

Let’s start with number one. The article on page B2 is headlined “Business centre strategic board takes flight.” Now you might think you were reading a light piece about the development of the Clearview Aviation Business Centre (CABC). Good news, right? After all, the news about the airport has been pretty much all bad until now.

What you’re actually reading is two distinct media releases from very different sources cobbled together into one incoherent and contradictory mess. You have to read a full ten inches of copy before you get the first reference to any of it being copied verbatim from a media release. It isn’t news at all.

And even then it states the release came from “Collingwood council” when that is not true: it was released by two members of council alone (see below).

That is deceptive. The piece should start by clearly stating that the content comes from two separate media releases authored not by the paper but by the proponents. It should also clearly identify which is which and the sources of the content.

Because of their very different nature, the two items really should have separate headlines, and not doing so suggests editorial laziness. This is simply bad cut-and-paste stuff.

It’s acceptable for a paper to reprint media releases, as long as they are properly identified. We used to call this stuff “advertorials” when I was editor. But to publish it on a page labelled “Local News” in 144-point type as if it were reported by an independent, trustworthy source is disingenuous and underhanded. It discredits the rest of the material in the paper.

It’s also an editorial mess. Or rather a mess that apparently had no editor.

Look closely. You get the initialism CABP 20 words before the name is spelled out (Clearview Aviation Business Park) and even then they are not clearly linked. The CP Stylebook (as well as all other style and usage guides) says that:

On first reference to the organization, give the full name followed by the acronym in brackets. In the rest of the copy the organization can be referred to by the acronym.

Every editor worth his salt has a copy of the Stylebook at the ready, but this is so basic that it shouldn’t need to be looked up. CABP is referred to alone, but in other references as “the CAPB.” Nor is there any explanation of what the difference between CABC and CABP is, where they are located, who the members are, what their interests or goals are, the relationships with the airport or its board, and so on.

There is no verbal or visual distinction between the end of the first advertorial and the start of the second. The first just runs on into the other jarringly, since they are of different natures and content.

The first part of this article is by two different groups (CABC and CABP) advocating for growth and development at the airport, for the $300 million development with its potential to create 1,400-1,700 jobs. The second half is from two members of Collingwood council – our very own Laurel and Hardy – defending their opposition by pretending they’re really in favour of it despite their several votes against it. They just haven’t received the proper paperwork to make a decision.

The punctuation is slovenly: “Tim Murphy, is a senior partner…” doesn’t need the comma but one is also required after “Vista Air Cargo” and the items in that sentence should be separated by semicolons, not commas.

“The Clearview Aviation Business Centre (CABC) has added… in their efforts for their expansion…” CABC is singular and requires “its efforts” and “its expansion,” not the plural “their.”

Similarly it says the second release “tried to clarify the town’s position on their relationship…” which should clearly be its relationship, since town is singular.

The first part inexplicably uses honorifics (Mr.), the only such use in the whole paper. But they are not uniformly applied (Niceforo does not get one, which makes me wonder if content from a third piece was inserted).

There’s a brutal, 61-word run-on sentence that starts “Council recently supported…” that by the time you get to the end, you’ve entirely lost the reason you started reading it. “In the release…” starts a 45-word run-on sentence. “The release goes on to say…” starts a 35-word run-on sentence. A real editor would break this treacle into digestible pieces.

“The forecasted build out for the development…” paragraph is bureaucratese. An editor would have rewritten it into something readable in the active, not passive voice. Besides, what build out is being referenced? CABC’s? CABP’s? It’s unclear.

And finally, the headline, “Business centre strategic board takes flight” is meaningless. The business centre hasn’t left the ground, even metaphorically. The first half of the piece is about forming a committee, which is a positive move, but it hasn’t actually accomplished anything aside from being formed.

The second half is the opposite: it defends Collingwood council not moving ahead and accomplishing things. How is that taking flight? And what is its relationship to the business park council resists?

The lack of proper editorial oversight to ensure that even cut-and-paste content meets proper style and usage just underscores the continued credibility failure of the EB.

That leads to lesson number two. Any reporter or editor worthy of the name would have taken these pieces and asked the elementary questions every report should ask: “who, what, when, where, why and how.” Why are they being sent out now? What’s the story behind them? What is driving the proponents to release this material? Who  is behind it and who benefits from its publication? How does it affect the readers, the communities and the proponents?

A few simple phone calls would have helped clarify that for the readers. To simply reprint without asking questions makes this piece no better than advertising. That was just lazy.

Further, the second piece is clearly political propaganda: claptrap. Where is the traditional media cynicism and skepticism when such pieces arrive?

It was signed by Deputy Mayor Saunderson and Councillor Edwards, not by the mayor, who, by our own laws, policies and codes, speaks for the community. Not by all of council. Not by the CAO, or any department head (staff clearly don’t want to be associated with this unbecoming codswallop).

Two members of council do NOT speak for council or the community. Just for themselves. So why are two members sending out their own media release as if it were an official town position? And why didn’t the rest of council see the release before it was sent out? A real reporter would be asking questions like this.

A real reporter would also look carefully at the claims made in the statement and do some background investigation to be sure they were valid. They’re not, by the way, but the reader can’t tell from the article because they are presented as news rather than what they are: opinion.

A real reporter would have also asked why the mayor and the rest of council weren’t involved, and if in doing this the two authors violated the town’s Code of Conduct and Procedural Bylaw.

Readers expect that reporting in an item labelled “news” – even in the egregiously biased Postmedia world – has some amount of objectivity, some verification has been done, some facts were confirmed. They weren’t. The content was simply cut and pasted.

“There has been much speculation by media and interested parties…” starts the second half; the propaganda piece from the two members of council. A reporter would ask “where has this speculation occurred in the media?” If the media are speculating, then such speculation will appear in editorials (not news items), yet not one local editorial has addressed council’s inexplicable failure to support local jobs and business at the airport.

Who, too, are the “interested parties” who are allegedly speculating and where have they speculated? Making blanket, unsupported statements like this should get any real reporter’s dander up and start asking questions. But no, the EB just published them.

“In the release, the town reports…” No, it doesn’t. The town doesn’t report anything (ever hear bricks and mortar speak?). Town officials might report, politicians might also report. But towns don’t. And in this case, it was just two individuals, not the collective council, let alone the whole town.

Had there been even a modicum of reporting spirit left in anyone at the EB, that person would have done the job expected of a reporter and investigated this stuff. Not doing so fails the readers. It’s a disservice to us and the community.

Laurel and HardyAnd finally, lesson number three. The second half of the piece meanders on in a weepy, obsequious sort of way that is clearly an attempt by its two authors to cover their collective asses and defend their pusillanimous behaviour against the mounting criticism.

It didn’t work. Everyone in the stadium saw you fumble the ball. Trying to tell us you dropped it on purpose is hogwash.

Saying “it’s not my fault” after you’ve voted something down numerous times is disingenuous. Saying “we didn’t get the proper paperwork” a year after numerous requests and presentations is spineless, too. You can’t whitewash your behaviour.

Collingwood Council has come under severe criticism lately for its recalcitrant position on the airport and its pigheaded refusal not to grant a simple, non-binding letter of intent to the developer. That’s not speculation as the propaganda says: the news items were in The Connection (which apparently still has enough of a spine to print these stories).

The vocal critics have included the Mayor and Deputy mayor of Clearview (our municipal partner on the airport board), the development’s representatives, one member of Collingwood Council itself, and other business owners at the airport.

The only person openly speculating here has been me. But I’m not an “interested party” – just a former politician and former reporter who can read between the lines on agendas and sniff the bullshit when it’s being spread. And, boy, it’s thick here.

The claptrap in the release about what proposals should include is a canard. The developers have made three detailed presentations to the Airport Services Board, and one to Collingwood Council. Several requests have been made for the letter of intent in the past year. No one on council or staff publicly mentioned any missing paperwork at any of these.

In fact, from the outside it looks like the presentations and requests weren’t different from what Collingwood had previously supported for similar access requests by others. So why has the spectre of improper procedure come back like Marley’s ghost to haunt us now? The only real difference between these recent requests and previous requests is the personal ideologies of our council members.

Aside from being extremely poorly written (clearly it wasn’t vetted by anyone with editorial or communications skills), and reading like one of Uriah Heep’s hand-wringing apologies, the release doesn’t give direction. Does this mean council will consider a new proposal? Does it mean if they dot the i’s and cross the t’s in some new proposal, that everything will now be hunky dory?

Is this a mealy-mouthed way of asking the developers to come back to the table?

Or is it just trying to avoid blame by saying “it’s not my fault, it was broken when I picked it up”?

Missing in this dismal, self-flagellating piece is the role of the town’s administrative staff in what has become the worst public relations disaster for the town since cryptosporidium in the mid-1990s. Somewhere in the muddle, administrative staff has played a role leading our witless councillors into the quicksand. But staff are nowhere mentioned in the release. Staff didn’t sign it, clearly didn’t want to take responsibility for the morass council finds itself in.**

It seems these inept councillors were thrown under the metaphorical bus to defend themselves without the support of staff.

And they made another fine mess in doing so.

Sorry Laurel and Hardy, but you two bear the brunt of shame for this piece of pusillanimous propaganda. It will only muddy the waters, discredit council, and rain more criticism on the town. It clearly highlights how dysfunctional council has become when two of its own can run amok like this.

And finally, the last paragraph states, “…the Township of Clearview and the Town of Wasaga Beach, continue to support the annual budget of the regional airport, including any operational deficits.” That’s just wrong. Wasaga Beach and Clearview contribute a grant ($5,000 and $25,000, respectively, I believe) to the airport. The deficit falls entirely on Collingwood. It always has. But don’t let facts get in the way when self-serving propaganda is in the forefront.

~~~~~

* Like several others, I don’t get the EB delivered at home, because I refuse to have some of its less reputable content come across my transom. However, I was informed about the article by a reader, and I managed to find a copy in a nearby ditch that had only been run over a couple of times and wasn’t too soggy.

** The mayor stepped away from these discussions because the new code of conduct now includes siblings, in defiance of provincial legislation. The deputy mayor has taken the chair in these discussions. The results of which are evident in the subsequent debacle this issue has become.

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4 Replies to “Lessons from the paper”

  1. A question was asked of me by a reader: “Did those two members of council direct staff to do any of this? If so, wouldn’t that be a violation of the town’s code of conduct?”

    To which I answered:

    Yes, but we may never know the real story. Council fired the Integrity Commissioner in late 2015 purposefully to avoid being investigated for such breaches of conduct and ethics. Council didn’t want their activities to be under public scrutiny. Those who brayed most loudly about openness and accountability in the election campaign have proven the least open and accountable of all elected politicians in the past 25 years.

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