Quick update on the new site, plus: lawsuit over Nova Centre

Construction of Nova Centre continues in downtown Halifax. A provincially granted exemption allowing the developer to bypass city planning rules is the subject of a  lawsuit filed Thursday.

Construction of Nova Centre continues in downtown Halifax. A provincially granted exemption allowing the developer to bypass city planning rules is the subject of a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Things are taking longer than expected, but we are making great progress. The site itself is working as it should, with all the glitches fixed. I’ll be spending the next few days playing around with it, learning how to use it, getting comfortable with it. The plan is to launch the site with a video announcement, and we’ll be shooting that next week. It’s a bit difficult getting everyone on the same schedule, but it’s coming together. I now expect to launch in the first week of June.

In the meanwhile, some news. Yesterday the Thiel family, which owns the TD Centre, the Bank of Montreal building, and the Royal Bank tower, filed suit against the province. The Thiels say that by granting the Nova Centre an exemption from the usual planning rules of the city, the province gave unfair competitive advantage to Argyle Developments, Joe Ramia’s company that is building the Nova Centre, which includes the convention centre, a hotel, and a commercial office building.

The Thiels, for their part, own about 10 percent of the commercial office space downtown, and have an approval to construct a new development called 22nd Commerce Square, which includes 200,000 square feet of Class A office space and “a small conference centre.”

Here’s the suit (thanks to Evan d’Entremont for combining the PDF):

thiellawsuit

Investigative reporting: why anonymous sources are so important

all-the-presidents-men

This is my penultimate blog post before launching the new site—I’ll have one more next week, explaining exactly how the subscription model will work and asking for pre-subscriptions and founding contributions. Then I’ll take about a week to dive into reporting so I’ll have material for the new site. But today, just a short note about how I go about investigative reporting.

An investigative reporter has to be skeptical and curious. Things rarely are as they are portrayed. There’s always more to the story, and very often that “more” is something the powers that be don’t want aired in public. It’s my job to reveal that “more.”

I don’t know that I can teach or explain what I do. Is curiosity teachable? Basically, my job consists of thinking, “what’s going on here?” and trying to flip over stones. I go through a lot of government documents, court files, and file a lot of freedom of information requests—so many FOI requests that I’ve built a database to keep track of them all.

Sometimes nosing around leads to a discovery that results in a big story, but mostly the digging-through-records part comes after I’ve already been alerted to something. I talk to a lot of people, on the phone in formal interviews, but also via email, in hallways outside meetings, in coffeeshops and in bars. Often, people don’t know the importance of what they’re telling me. It’s just another data point in a collection of data points that, once connected, tell a bigger story. Person A will mention something, and Person B something else, and then I start wondering if those things suggest something else, so I start digging through records to find out.

But most of my big investigative stories have started with a tip. Government employees or just people out in the world who know about something. For example, a full year before the concert scandal exploded, I reported that attendance at the Paul McCartney concert was not the 50,000+ that had been publicized, but rather just 26,000, and that the province put up McCartney’s $3.5 million upfront fee and paid $600,000 for the show. All this information came from a source; all I had to do was document it.

Using sources is a crucial part of my job—I couldn’t do it nearly as well without them. And while some people are perfectly willing to go on the record and have me use their names, others have legitimate reasons for seeking anonymity.

It’s important to understand the proper and improper uses of anonymous sources. Back in 2010, Parker Donham commented about the improper use of anonymous sources on his blog, which prompted me to send him my thoughts.

Tim Bousquet’s rules for using anonymous sources:

1.The information gained through granting anonymity is not otherwise available. Or, put another way, granting anonymity is not a shortcut to doing the hard work of gathering solid information and good reporting.

2.The anonymous source must have something to lose, should anonymity not be given: loss of a job, etc.

3.Using an anonymous source must result in some positive public good. “Spinning” someone’s view is not a positive public good.

Bousquet adds:

When I was a reporter at a daily in the states, I had a publisher who wouldn’t allow me to use anonymous sources at all. At the time, I felt that policy unduly constrained me, but I soon discovered it made me a better reporter: I couldn’t just put any old shit out there, I had to document everything, peg every assertion to a named source or document, etc. Mostly, as anonymity is used today by much of the press, it’s an excuse for lazy reporting.

I also have rules about granting anonymity to a source. Anonymity must be agreed to upfront, before information is exchanged. And once I have agreed to give a source anonymity, I can never break that agreement unless the source agrees to it. This is an iron-clad rule: I do not reveal sources.

To use another example, my investigative report into the then-Mayor Peter Kelly’s mishandling of the Mary Thibeault estate relied on bank records I obtained from a source I gave anonymity to. This person had, and still has, a lot to lose, should their name come forward. But when we went to press with the article, our lawyer warned that the police might show up at my door with a search warrant, demanding the notes and documents I used for the story. So, I split my notes and documents into two piles: one set of information that I would turn over with a court order, and one set that I would refuse to turn over, and then I placed the documents, and even the hard drive of my computer, in a secure place away from my home and office. The second set, the stuff I would refuse to turn over, was everything that would reveal the identity of my source. I would directly disobey a court order and go to jail for contempt, rather than reveal my source. (It turns out the police had no interest in my notes at all, but that’s another story.)

I tell that story now because I want people to understand how strongly I feel about the importance of not naming a source. Firstly, it’s just immoral to tell someone you will protect their identity, and then name them. But I also have selfish reasons for not naming a source: It would destroy my career. Were I ever to out a source, never again would anyone be able to trust me. I would never again get the information, the tips and documents that are so important to my job.

All of this is to say, I’m looking for people to give me information. Whistleblowers, frustrated employees, people in the know, people who see something wrong going on and want something done about it. I know there are lots of these people out there, and I want to hear from you. Please send your tips to me at timbousquet@yahoo.com.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

Real journalism is adversarial journalism

It’s academic: engaging the university community

Context is everything: History as journalism

 

Context is everything: History as journalism

Then-Premier John Buchanan cutting the ribbon for the World Trade and Convention Centre in 1982.

Then-Premier John Buchanan cutting the ribbon for Halifax’s brand new World Trade and Convention Centre, in 1985.

I’ve been avoiding writing about current events in these blog posts. This is a blog explaining my journalistic philosophy and hopes for the new website, which will be launched in a week or two. The new site will be full of the news and analysis that people have come to expect from me; this blog is just a bit of space for reflection.

So I’m not particularly interested in diving into a full exposition on last night’s council meeting, where council voted 14-1 in favour of exempting the Nova Centre from the HRM By Design bylaws and planning policies. I do, however, think the issue helps illustrate what I wanted to write about today anyway, which the importance of history.

It would’ve been one thing had the convention centre discussion happened in a vacuum. If there had never before anywhere or any time on Earth been a proposal to build a convention centre in a city, with promises of bountiful economic benefit, then Haligonians might be forgiven for uncritically accepting the logic of the proposal.

But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Lots of cities have built convention centres. Some have been big successes but most, especially lately, have failed to attain the promised benefits, and some have become cement shoes, pulling their host cities under a sea of financial liability from which they can never escape. It only makes sense to tease that out, to examine the situation and figure out what has worked in the past, what didn’t, and why, and to understand if there are or are not fundamental changes in the industry that should concern us. While reasonable people might come to different conclusions, there’s no arguing that an informed opinion will be a nuanced opinion. It’s not a simple as “build it and they will come.”

Beyond what’s happened around the world stage, Halifax has its own history with the existing convention centre, which opened in 1985 after the city struggled with many of the same debates we’ve heard recently. A couple of years ago, reporter Hilary Beaumont reminded us that:

Today, as the HRM pushes forward with its plan to build a more physically impressive trade centre, parallels in the two story lines have appeared. Planning this time and last time started with a push from the government, not the public. Opinions that failed to cheer on the trade centre were chided by politicians and businesspeople. And last time, cheerleaders of the WTCC promised it would not operate at a deficit, but later changed their tune.

Beaumont’s article is detailed, and worth a read in its entirety. The point is, here we have an example, a case study right here in this town, of how our own political, business and governmental classes promised one thing, and how we got another thing. We have a specific example of how certain people, in some cases the exact same people who are operating now, vilified skepticism, apparently for their own ends. Shouldn’t we pay attention to that? Shouldn’t it inform the current discussion?

Beyond that, we have a larger local historic context, in which for a variety of reasons Nova Scotians have been repeatedly hoodwinked by the promise of the “mega-project,” the single silver bullet that will solve our problems, bring economic prosperity, and put us “on the map.” I discussed the history of failed mega-projects in detail last year in my piece “Two decades of world-class delusion,” (which is a finalist in the commentary category for the Atlantic Journalism Awards next Saturday), concluding that:

All these mega-projects had one thing in common: Nova Scotia was going to get rich thanks to rich people from away bringing their money here. For that, ironically, we paid dearly, losing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Sure, it’s possible that this time we’re getting the mega-project right. Maybe all the social, business, and governmental dynamics that led to the repeated failed mega-projects of the past have been addressed, and now we have a clear-headed approach to the convention centre mega-project. I guess anything’s possible. But shouldn’t the proponents spell it out for us?: Here’s why things failed in the past, here’s how those institutional failures have been addressed, here’s what we’re doing to make sure they don’t happen again, and here’s why things truly are different this time.

Ha! Let’s not kid ourselves. Our mucky mucks are incapable of such self-reflection. For one, it would require admitting mistakes. More to the point, it would require making changes to a system that has long benefited them.

In reality, the long history of failed mega-projects and the specific failure of Trade Centre Limited to meet its promised targets is simply ignored. It’s not open for discussion. Anyone who brings up that history is “negative,” a “naysayer,” a civic malcontent bent on killing any hope for prosperity.

Since our mucky mucks won’t talk about it, it’s the role of our journalists to give context, including historic context. Unfortunately, we rarely get such context from the news media. Instead, reporting is typically one-shot he-said, she-said “balancing” of equally plausible world views, with no attempt at analyzing the veracity of those views or to give context.

History matters. It can tell us something about ourselves, our society, how our institutions behave, the social dynamic. We’d be wiser people for better knowing our history. That’s why the coming news site will have a big focus on history. When possible, while reporting on important issues like the convention centre, I’ll give historic context.

Of course not everything historic has to directly inform a current day issue. History is fun and interesting, in and of itself. So the site will also have stand-alone articles on historic issues, some written by me, some co-written, and (hopefully) a great many contributed by other people already writing about history.

I already have a few things in the works, but if you are interested in contributing, I’d love to hear from you.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

Real journalism is adversarial journalism

It’s academic: engaging the university community

 

It’s academic: engaging the university community

Dalhousie

A few people have confused this blog with my soon-to-be-launched news website. But they are two different things. This blog is a platform for discussing some issues in journalism, for introducing myself to a wider audience, and for keeping myself writing while I do the behind-the-scenes work necessary to launch the new site, which will be a completely different website, with its own name, URL, and design. Most of my time right now is spent tinkering with the back end of the new site, firming up the business end of things, talking with lawyers and so forth.

I’m not yet revealing the name of the new site (suspense!), but it won’t look like this blog at all, and more important, it will have an entirely different focus. While from time to time I’ll write opinion pieces, I won’t much talk about myself, and the main focus of the site will be on news and analysis, with periodic in-depth investigative pieces.

Something else I want to address is the failure of local media, myself included, in providing depth to their coverage of what’s happening on the university campuses in Halifax. The six universities have about 30,000 students, several thousand full-time faculty and an uncountable (by me anyway) number of part-timers, along with all the non-academic support staff. Collectively, the universities are without question the largest institution in Halifax, and so are of enormous importance. Yet, media coverage is mostly limited to covering the occasional labour dispute and re-writing a few campus PR machine press releases. Some of the best reporting on campus issues, it should be noted, comes from the student newspapers, but that work is rarely picked up by off-campus media outlets.

I want to better engage with the universities. That will mean stepped-up coverage of internal campus issues, and also simply reporting what academics are up to. We have all these thousands of academics working on a broad range of issues, and yet hardly anyone in the community knows what they’re up to. The new site will regularly report on them.

But it should be a two-way street. Academics are public employees, and have some responsibility to serve the general public. Moreover, the political atmosphere is in danger of tipping into an American style anti-intellectualism, so I think it would serve academics’ own interests to be more engaged, to explain why their work is relevant and important. That’s why I’m looking for academics to write for my new site. 

If you are an academic doing work you’d like to present to a lay audience, please contact me at timbousquet@yahoo.com, and we can discuss the details privately.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

Real journalism is adversarial journalism

Real journalism is adversarial journalism

Journalsim

I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia in the heyday of journalism. The Virginian Pilot arrived on our doorstep before I woke up, and my dad, a US Marine, would read the paper at the breakfast table, while also listening to an all-news station on a transistor radio he carried from room to room with him. After I came home from school, the afternoon Ledger-Star would be dropped on the porch, and we kids would divide it up to be read and put back together in time for dad to come home. Then, while mom cooked dinner, Walter Cronkite was delivering the TV news.

I was just a kid, so the Vietnam War and Watergate were beyond my comprehension levels, but I understood that the news was talking about serious stuff. In the atmosphere of the time, journalism mattered. It delivered truths that couldn’t be found in the other institutions around me, my parochial school, the church, the military.

In the late 70s, I was just another mopey teenager, but I was between generations. The anti-establishment music of the 60s was behind me, and the Smiths hadn’t been invented yet. Warmed-over synthesizers and disco were the only options. All the good drugs seemed to have dried up, and the bad drugs wouldn’t arrive in force until the 80s. Jimmy Carter was president, but it was the Jimmy Carter no one talks about anymore, the guy who looked the other way while the East Timorese were slaughtered and who started the military build-up that Reagan would continue. There was no inspiration to be found in politics.

So my mopey years were spent reading. I started delivering the Pilot when I was 13, waking up at five o’clock every morning, dragging myself out of bed and getting lost in my own headspace while the city slept. I’d read the paper from front to back, every article and, papers delivered by seven, go home and start reading other stuff. I kept the paper route until I was 16, when I was hired as a bar back in a disco. That’s another story entirely, but while the lifestyle of debauchery I saw under the disco ball piqued my curiosity, even then I saw it was vapid. It was just a job, bringing in beer money. Mostly I just barricaded myself in my room and read. Truth be told, I was pretty much a useless kid.

And stayed that way. The next decade was my lost years, and the less said about that the better. But somehow I ended up in northern California in the late 1980s. I lived in Chico, a college town of about 100,000 people, which sits in the middle of the agricultural land of the Sacramento Valley. To the east were the Sierra, Mount Lassen and the desert. To the west, the Coast ranges and then the ocean. Beautiful wide-open country.

That far-flung countryside is where I re-discovered journalism. Across northern California there were these old guys who peddled their own newspapers. They were all over the map politically. Bruce Anderson, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, was some sort of communist, a Trotskyite, I think. In Glenn County, the Sacramento Valley Mirror was published by Tim Crews, a cranky right-wing Libertarian. There was some guy up in the mountains, I forget his name, who delivered his paper via airplane, circling over people’s houses and dropping a rubber-banded paper down to their driveways; I met him once, and I would describe his politics as “Insanism.” Down in San Francisco, three hours away, was the great alt weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, published by Bruce Brugmann, a sort of lefty, but who had his own issues with organized labour.

I greatly admired these men, but not just because they were publishing papers. Rather it was their attitude. It was something I hadn’t seen before, or if I had seen it, it was lost in history. Their papers were full of what I now know to call adversarial journalism. They took on the powers that be.

I could give lots of examples from those papers, but the one that best illustrates the journalistic atmosphere was when Tim Crews was thrown in jail for contempt of court.

Crews had learned that a gun used in the commission of a crime had six years before been stolen by a cop. Law enforcement knew about the theft, but had done nothing until the new crime forced their hand. It’s a complicated story, but the short of it was that Crews was ordered to reveal his source for the story, and he refused, and so was thrown in jail for five days. “It’s fine that the judge found me in contempt because the feeling is absolutely mutual,” he later told a reporter.

Crews’ Sacramento Valley Mirror had a circulation of 2,600. Tiny operations like that can not easily operate when the publisher, editor, and primary writer is sitting in a jail cell. But when Bruce Brugmann, the urban lefty down in San Francisco, heard that Tim Crews, the rural right-winger in Glenn County, was sitting in jail for maintaining his journalistic integrity, Brugmann sent two of his reporters up to the valley to help run the paper in Crews’ absence.  The devotion to good, adversarial journalism came before whatever political differences the men had.

Watching lots of incidents like this unfold, I decided I wanted to be a journalist of that style, and so I started a new career. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but here we are, 25 years later, and for better and worse it’s been my life. Moving forward, I’m committing myself to continuing the tradition of adversarial journalism.

There’s nothing new about adversarial journalism. In fact, it’s what Joe Howe was practicing when, on January 1, 1835, he detailed in pages of his newspaper, the Novascotian, the corruption of government officials in Halifax. Wrote Howe:

I will venture to affirm, without the possibility of being contradicted by proof, that during the lapse of the last 30 years, the Magistracy and Police have, by one stratagem or other, taken from the pockets of the people, in over exactions, fines, &c.&c. a sum that would exceed in the gross amount £30,000 ; and I am prepared to prove my assertions whenever they are manly enough to come forward and justify their conduct to the people. – Can it not be proved, and is it not notorious, that one of the present active Magistrates has contrived for years, to filch from one establishment, and that dedicated to the comfort of the poor and destitute, at least £ 300 per annum?  Can it not be proved, that the fines exacted in the name and on the behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King, have annually for the last 30 years exceeded £200 ; and of this sum His most Gracious Majesty has received about as much as would go into the Royal coffers, if the long dormant claim of the Quit Rents was revived imprudently.  Is it not known to every reflecting and observant man, whose business or curiosity has led him to take a view of the municipal bustle of our Court of Sessions, that from the pockets of the poor and distressed at least £1000 is drawn annually, and pocketed by men whose services the Country might well spare.

This was dangerous stuff. Howe was charged with seditious libel“seditiously contriving, devising, and intending to stir up and incite discontent and sedition among His Majesty’s subjects.” As John Ralston Saul points out, the subsequent trial and Howe’s acquittal gave birth to the free press in Canada. This is important: The very birth of a free press in Canada was a result of adversarial journalism. That’s precisely what journalism is for—to hold the powerful to account.

Seven years ago, long before he became a household name due to the Edward Snowden leaks, Glenn Greenwald explained:

An adversarial press does not mean that the media automatically and reflexively contradicts what the Government says or does. That is called being a mindless “contrarian,” not “adversarial.”

An adversarial process is designed to uncover deceit and falsehood by ensuring that claims and arguments are subjected to meaningful scrutiny by some opposing force. An adversarial press means that it views its function as a watchdog over the Government, as a check on its power. It fulfills that function by viewing Government statements and actions skeptically and with the intent to scrutinize them and determine their truth, rather than mindlessly convey what the Government asserts. It means that there is a difference between a free press and Pravda.

The media abdicates its function, and becomes a propaganda arm of the government, when it simply repeats verifiably false Government claims without pointing out…that the statements are false and objectively contradicted by clear evidence. And our media does that all the time.

Greenwald is now bringing adversarial journalism to the world stage, addressing issues of the surveillance state and torture. That’s important work. But local journalism can also be adversarial, I believe.

You can see much of my past work through the lens of adversarial journalism, and I will continue in that vein. It is the heart of my new venture, its purpose for existence. That’s not to say there won’t be much more on the site, which I’ll explain in coming days, but the new enterprise won’t be a success unless it is primarily a check on power, holding the powerful accountable. Anything less is failure.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

 

Why comment sections are the cesspool of the internet, and what I’m going to do about it

Gangs-of-West-Side-Story

Many of the problems of the news media—an oligopolistic, centralized corporate ownership, a “business” orientation that reflects the world view of the managerial and ownership classes while ignoring the concerns of working people, overpaid celebrity reporters with “insider” status, reporting that uses false equivalency to present “balance,” and so much more—were well in place by the 1990s, and so the arrival of the internet was an godsend for democracy. Suddenly, anyone and everyone could present their views, unfiltered.

The explosion of blogging after the September 11 attacks was mostly an echo chamber of crazed right-wing American “war bloggers” circle-jerking for the Iraq War, but within a few years the left had found its footing as well, and now the internet is a thriving marketplace in ideas around society, politics, arts, sex, culture, you name it. Yeah, democracy.

Our world is better because so many people make use of their time and knowledge to blog. But bloggers by and large aren’t reporters. Reporting requires another set of skills and—and this is important—is a full-time job that requires pay, and costs money. Alas, the internet presented challenges for the traditional news outlets that hire reporters. Placing the content of the newspaper online for free is great for informing the public, but how does it support a newsroom of 100 reporters?

The solution was web advertising, which ultimately meant chasing hits. There are lots of strategies for chasing hits, all of them annoying: dumbing down content, as I discussed yesterday, but also (as Dave mentions in the comments), using multiple pages for a single article, bombarding readers with “related content,” and more.

The most insidious way to chase hits, however, was the creation of open-ended comment sections. Newspapers used to vet letters to the editors, but the vetting was ditched in pursuit of ever more hits. The idea was that people would comment on a news article, then come back again and again to respond to other comments, to re-iterate the original comment and so forth. One active commenter could be responsible for dozens of “hits” on a single news article.

In theory, open comments can create community, encourage a free exchange of ideas, and lead to a better informed readership.

Ha. Theory is one thing, reality a different. We all know that comment sections are the cesspool of the internet. Rather than creating community, they are the petri dishes for hatred, racism, sexism, stalking and ugly personal attacks. Rather than the respectful exchange of ideas, they are the domain of anonymous bullies shouting down others and paid trolling. Rather than getting better information, we get discredited psuedoscience, climate change denialism, fake facts, false dichotomies, and worse.

What’s happened is that instead of addressing the old set of problems—oligopolistic ownership and the rest—news media simply grafted themselves onto the internet, chasing web hits via the comment sections as a business model, while using the empty promise of democratizing as cover. We’re all the worse for it.

So what do we do? Well, for the news site I’m developing, there will be a different commenting policy: commenting will be limited to subscribers, who must use their real names, and all comments will be pre-moderated. (The moderation is a requirement of the libel insurance I’m using, but I think it’s a good idea nonetheless.)

Likely, this will mean far fewer comments than would otherwise show up. So be it. This is another upside of a subscription-based business model: I don’t have to chase web hits and therefore don’t need to host yet another web-based platform for unbridled hatred and stupidity. I hope that a community develops among the moderated comments from named people, but I’d rather have no comments at all than a cesspool.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Chasing web hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

Chasing hits: media rope-a-dope leads to dumbed-down content

ali-on-the-ropes

Wednesday and Thursday I discussed my unease with news media relying on advertising as the primary revenue generator. I argued that business model builds disincentives to cover stories or investigate issues that may adversely affect advertisers. Today and over the weekend I want to talk about how advertising dumbs down content and makes our news reading generally a rotten experience.

On the internet, news outlets seem to be stuck in permanent 1995 mode, with the emphasis on getting lots of “hits” so those big numbers can be sold to advertisers. The demographics behind those hits don’t matter, and the quality of the hits don’t matter, all that’s important is the big number—a million hits a month, or whatever, pushing up ad rates and revenues.

I understand a handful of smarter advertisers are catching onto the game, and are beginning to realize that having a bazillion 14-year-olds seeing an ad doesn’t necessarily result in higher sales, but by and large, the industry is still all about the hits, period. And so we chase hits.

But quality reporting brings readers, right? Well, maybe. Give me a couple of weeks to investigate something, with no other duties, and I might end up with an interesting story that will engage people. Or, the investigation might lead to a dead end, and I’ll have nothing. Meanwhile, an intern writing, say, anything to do with food will receive more hits on any given day than even my most successful investigative work will get.

Food writing. Of all the articles I wrote for The Coast, the most hits went not to the investigation into Mayor Peter Kelly, nor the look at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Holly Bartlett, nor the revelations behind the concert scandal, all of which took many months to research and write. Rather, the most hits went to a one-off piece I wrote in a half hour about Ray’s Lebanese Food being kicked out of the Scotia Square mall. Sure, there are important issues involved in that article, but the relative “hits” numbers gives you an indication of where the greatest potential readership is.

And so we get articles about food. There are excellent food writers, but you don’t need to hire a good food writer to get the hits. In fact, a good food writer will likely get fewer hits than someone who can make a quiz out of it, or a list. And so we get quizzes. And lists. Who cares about quality content, when all that matters is hits?

Look, there’s a place for frivolity, humour, and meaningless distractions on the internet. It’s all part of life. I can be as frivolous as the next person. I’ve clicked on my share of Buzzfeed lists. I’ve taken the “which beat generation writer are you?” quiz (Neal Cassady). I’ve written extended jokes.

And there’s an argument that the revenue generated by frivolity is what pays for the more serious stuff. That was somewhat true, actually, when media outlets were flush. In tight times, however, the serious stuff gets ditched, and media double down on the frivolity.

Now we’ve tipped over the hit edge, and are cascading into a chasm of meaninglessness. Eventually, the single-minded pursuit of hits will turn the entire internet into cat videos, porn, and Buzzfeed lists. It’s hits-hits-hits, a permanent state of rope-a-dope, but unlike Foreman, the internet will never tire of the game, and we’ll never come out on top. We’ll all just end up stupid.

So let’s not. Let’s carve out a few spaces here and there where it’s not just about hits. Let’s value content for content’s sake, and put a real, monetary value on it. For the last 20 years the internet has trained us to follow click bait, to be good hit generators. The only currency for news sites has been hits, and that has necessarily led to a dumbed-down content. But, maybe, if we help build a different revenue model, if our currency is, well, currency,  we can in a small way reverse the trend.

This is why my news site will be subscription-based. Subscriptions won’t be hugely expensive—the cost of two trips to the coffeeshop a month—but the plan is that even that low price will be enough to free us from the hit monster. Will it work? I have no idea. We’ll see.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

Why we need a subscription-based news outlet

DailyPlanet

Yesterday I discussed my problems with advertorial, and explained that it was one reason why I left The Coast. The news site I’ll be launching in May will have no advertising, which addresses the problems that come along with with advertorial.

But running an advertising-free news site won’t make me a completely virtuous, bias-free reporter floating on an ethical plane above the rest of the media encased in crass commercialism. That’s not how the world works.

A newspaper, or a news website, is a business. It either has to be profitable, or it has to have underwriting, in order to stay afloat and do the important work of journalism. And so business concerns affect every media outlet.

I came to understand just how important the business side of the industry is when I worked for the Daily Citizen, in Searcy, Arkansas. As I wrote yesterday, I could do pretty much what I wanted to do, and only once had interference from above.

Harding University, the Church of Christ affiliated, fundamentalist college in town, was rolling out a five-year fundraising plan, and so had a luncheon to christen it. By any reckoning, Harding is an important institution in Searcy, so this was important news. I went to the luncheon.

As I watched speaker after speaker at the luncheon commit not just to raising a certain amount of money, but also to personally tithing 10 percent of their income to the school, I realized there was tremendous social pressure on all college employees to do the same. After the luncheon, I started asking questions and nosing around, and I learned that it was an unwritten rule: all employees had to tithe to the college. Those who didn’t would be looked at unfavourably, and not tithing would affect their career path.

Many of the people who worked at the college made minimum wage, so an all-but-required tithing expectation meant they were effectively getting paid less than minimum wage, which raises issues with employment law. I also started looking into the high salaries paid to administrators and, yep, the coach of the football team. Some very brave people who had absolutely everything to lose were feeding me information and suggesting where to look.

Through the years, I had researched many non-profits in the United States. One basic tool is to pull the organization’s tax returns, which provide information about salaries above a certain threshold (I think it was $60,000 annually at the time), where money came from and where it was spent, administrative overhead, project budgets and the like. A lot can be learned through a close reading of the tax return. And because these organizations are collecting donated dollars—charity—the IRS has rightly made these tax returns public so people contributing money can have some assurance that their money is well-spent. The Ford Foundation took the additional step of funding GuideStar, an organization that publishes all non-profits’ tax returns on the internet.

But when I went to GuideStar to pull Harding’s tax return, it wasn’t there. Upon investigation, I discovered that the year before congress had quietly passed a bill that exempted just three non-profits from the public disclosure law. All three were fundamentalist Christian colleges, and one was Harding. A news search found that no one in the country had ever reported on the exemption.

I wasn’t sure where the story was going, but I envisioned a piece calling into question the finances of the college, the disparate pay rates, the all-but-required tithing, and the lack of transparency and accountability to donors. It would be an explosive story, one that challenged an important large institution in the small town I was working in, and which touched on the culture wars plaguing the United States. I starting calling Harding administrators to get comment.

In the midst of this research, I showed up for work one day and was called into the publisher’s office. He was giant affable Irish guy named Mike Murphy. I liked Mike a lot, and not just because he was the only person in town who would invite me over for barbecue and beer. Mike was from Michigan, and had moved to Searcy a few years before because, well, I don’t know why. I suspect he had lost a job up north, but he said he thought Searcy was a good place to raise his kids. Maybe. A Catholic dropped in the midst of the fundamentalist Bible Belt, Mike had a wry and detached sense of humour, like when he told me about a black priest showing up to take over duties at the Catholic church. “They blinked,” he said of the congregation, showing his enormous grin. “And then they had a church picnic to welcome him. All one big happy family. You won’t see the Baptists doing that.”

The morning Mike called me into his office, he seemed embarrassed. He told me he had gotten “some calls” about my questions to Harding administrators, and so knew what I was working on. “I’ve never said this before, but you can’t do that story,” he said. “The college is just too big in this town, and we can’t take them on.”

That was the only time in my career a boss directly told me to drop an investigation. I found out some years later that the Chronicle of Higher Education did some reporting around the issue, but I’m sure that had no effect whatsoever in Searcy.

I didn’t like being taken off a story, of course, but I think Mike was right: the economy of it didn’t work. Had I written the piece, the Citizen would have been viewed as hostile to the college, and Harding had so much clout in town that it could easily decimate the subscription and advertising rolls of the paper. The Citizen would be out of business in a month.

My point is that every media outlet has financial concerns and entwinements that can play out in what gets covered and what doesn’t get covered. Advertorial content presents one set of problems, but so does operating in a small town dominated by one institution. I think a subscription model will avoid most of the obvious problems, but let’s not kid ourselves: that too has its pitfalls.

The solution? It almost seems trite to say, but the only way around the media’s self-censorship and hesitancy to offend funding sources is to have lots of different media outlets, so that in the mix of different funding sources, the important stories can still be told. And it’s not enough to have a bunch of media outlets, if they’re all relying on the same business model: 10 newspapers all chasing the same pool of advertisers doesn’t much get around the inherent problem of restraining reporting for fear of offending advertisers. That’s why I’m trying a different business model, based on subscriptions, rather than advertising.

I like to think of my reporting as fearless, and that if need be I can piss off subscribers just as easily as I could piss off advertisers. Maybe. I hope so. But even if not, you can rest assured that because my funding sources are different than the funding sources for advertiser-based media operations, my blindsides and shortcomings will be different. I’ll be able to do important reporting that the advertiser-based outlets might shy away from. I’ll be able to tell the stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told.

This is one in a series of blog posts discussing issues in journalism and introducing my online news site. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts, please send an email totimbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

The series so far:

I’m starting an online news site 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

 

Advertorial: an unnecessary evil

your-ad-here

In the early 2000s, I worked as a freelancer for the Daily Tidings, a newspaper in Ashland, Oregon. It was good work, and helped me hone my skills and build a portfolio that would allow me to make a career out of journalism. But Ashland is a small city, and the Daily Tidings a small paper. There wasn’t a lot of work. I wrote four or five news pieces a week, for $50 a pop, and also wrote for the weekend arts supplement the paper published, but I couldn’t make a living off it.

The editor promised to hire me on full-time should one of the two reporting positions become open, but until then, to help supplement my income, I wrote ad copy for the paper—straight up advertorial. I wrote about dog grooming businesses, real estate offices, investment firms. There are a lot of people shilling new age crap in Ashland, and I wrote about them, too: Any woo-woo psychic or channeller or herbal spiritualist willing to buy an eighth-page display ad got the full rapt attention of T. Bousquet, who would write some utter nonsense in an accompanying “article.” I hated it.

Advertorial goes against everything I stand for as a reporter. The editorial side of the news business—that is, the news reporting—should be separate from the advertising side of the paper because readers need to trust that reporters are not influenced by commercial concerns. You should trust that I’m willing to reveal information that may make an advertiser look bad, if that’s what it takes to do my job as a reporter.

Of course, it’s ultimately impossible to completely separate the two (more on that tomorrow), but newspapers used to have a “firewall” between the advertising and editorial departments. The people selling ads didn’t know what the reporters were writing about, and the reporters tried to ignore all the ads that surrounded their news stories.

It gets murky when reporters are also writing ad copy. And like when I was at the Tidings, there are plenty of reporters right now who need whatever income they can find. When you don’t have enough real work and need to pay rent, writing advertorial is a necessary evil.

I never was hired on full-time at the Daily Tidings, but I kept looking for jobs, and in 2004 I was hired sight-unseen as a reporter for the Daily Citizen, in Searcy, Arkansas. I hopped in my pick-up truck and drove 2,000 miles across the American southwest to Arkansas, arriving in Searcy on a Sunday night. I started work Monday morning.

Searcy is a small town, essentially run by the Church of Christ, which operates Harding College, a right-wing fundamentalist school that produced such notables as Kenneth Starr, the prosecutor who chased Bill Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinski.

Searcy-AR

The White County courthouse in Searcy, Arkansas

“Downtown Searcy” consisted of the 19th century county courthouse and about a dozen storefronts, most of them long-ago shuttered because they couldn’t compete with the Walmart out by the highway. I rented an apartment on Main Street, two blocks from the courthouse and one block over from the county jail. Going to work in the morning, I’d pass the jail and exchange pleasantries with the trusties washing police cars out in the street. They wore black and white striped prison uniforms; I wore a tie. I’d stop by the town’s one and only coffee shop to read the Arkansas Gazette. Most of the other patrons read bibles, often in prayer circles.

Like two-thirds of the counties in Arkansas, White County is dry, which presented certain logistical problems. It was 32.5 miles to Cabot, just across the county line, where there were two liquor stores, one country bar, one strip joint, and a church. A little further along Highway 167 was a Red Lobster, where Searcy’s upper crust would go to get a discreet glass of wine with their dinner. I could carry booze back home with me, but the rest of the attractions across the county line held no appeal. The social life for a heathen lefty like me was non-existent.

Which, looking back, was a good thing. I had nothing to do except work.  The Citizen office was in a nondescript one-storey brick building. The sales staff, publisher and editor had offices in the front, carpeted part of the building, while the photographer, the two sports reporters, the layout person and I had desks in a bare tiled room next to the bathrooms. Behind us was the 1950s-era printing press in a concrete warehouse, operated by an oil-stained mechanic who managed to track ink throughout the place.

I was the only news reporter in a county of 70,000 people. I had to produce a minimum of two daily news articles (that lucky day when someone held up the grocery store, I wrote seven), plus an “enterprise” piece for the Sunday paper. It was a lot of work, but I loved it. Nowadays I tell young reporters they should seek out the lonely starter jobs in the middle of nowhere, because it will make them better reporters. It certainly made me a better reporter.

I never had any thought about the ad department at the Citizen. My relationship with the sales people consisted entirely of each of them individually inviting me to join them at church, and me politely declining. There was never any discussion of their clients, and I was never criticized, within earshot anyway, for reporting that upset advertisers.

And because there was a firewall between advertising and editorial, I was—with one exception (again, I’ll elaborate tomorrow)—left to my own devices. I was free to write about whatever I wanted to, and I did.

Some of what I wrote was light-hearted, like the day I accompanied the county judge out to blow up beaver dams, or when I interviewed the WalMart clerk who discovered an image of Jesus in her bottle of hand lotion. But I also did some important investigative work. By using Arkansas’ Freedom of Information law (which is far better than Nova Scotia’s), I revealed that an off-duty sheriff’s deputy had gotten drunk, drove around a housing complex, allegedly firing a gun and yelling racial epithets, and then when stopped by local police, stole an officer’s gun. The incident had been hushed up, but after my report, the deputy was forced to resign; a racist cop was taken off the streets. In another article, I revealed that another deputy was charged with a DUI, while driving the sheriff’s truck, an incident that had likewise been covered up by the sheriff. These articles led up to a lengthy and critical profile of the sheriff, which I think still stands as one of my best pieces.

I’m proud of my work at the Citizen, and I’m glad I took the job. But I wasn’t a good fit in fundamentalist rural Arkansas, and a year was enough. I moved to Halifax, where I was lucky enough to land a job at The Coast, and again, was pretty much left to my own devices. Readers will be familiar with that work.

But these are increasingly tight times for newspapers. And just like all the years ago when I found myself writing advertorial to make ends meet, The Coast has embraced advertorial as a way to stay profitable. I can’t say that I blame them—I don’t know what else will keep the free alt weekly business model afloat.

Still, understanding why they’ve embraced advertorial is one thing, and fully participating in it is another. Once again, for the second time in my career, I found myself writing advertorial copy. Except this time I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to build up my portfolio, and I wasn’t writing advertorial as a stopgap to make ends meet until I got full-time employment. Rather, it felt like a permanent new part of my job. I’d be doing it forever, or at least for as long as I worked at The Coast. And I had options—it was an unnecessary evil. I could start my own online news site. So I quit.

Understand that I wish the best for The Coast. I hope they prosper. We need as many quality media voices as we can get in Halifax, and The Coast is irreplaceable. Thankfully, it’s run by hard-nosed and plucky business people who will do what they need to do in order to keep the paper going, and we’re all better off for that.

Just, the advertorial business model embraced by The Coast doesn’t work for me personally. I’m past the point in my career where I need to write advertorial, and I worry that it would lead to readers questioning my straight news reporting. If one day I’m writing ad copy for, say, a car dealership, how can I the next day write a news article that questions the business practices of that car dealership?

I want readers to trust my reporting, and to know that it won’t be swayed by advertising considerations, so I’m going in the complete opposite direction: the news site I’m developing will have no ads whatsoever. Rather, it will be supported only by subscription revenue. I’ll explore how that will will work in future blog posts.

This is one in a series of blog posts introducing my online news site—see yesterday’s post here. If you’d like to receive an email notification and link to these blog posts. Please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject field.

I’m starting an online news site

Bridge

You couldn’t get rid of me that easily.

Yes, I needed some time for myself. I went to California, spent my days walking on the beach, hiking in the mountains, hanging with my starlet friends in the sun. I haven’t been this relaxed in decades.

But California was a vacation, not a vocation. I’m back in Halifax now, and getting back to work. As a reporter. I’ll be covering City Hall, city council, municipal government, the local business scene and crown corporations. I’ll be doubling down on the investigative reporting. I’ll write opinion pieces. In short, I’ll be doing pretty much what I’ve done the last eight years in Halifax (and more), just not at The Coast.

Instead, I’ll soon be rolling out my own online news website. I have a name for the site, but I’m not going to announce the name until the site goes live in early May.

I can tell you this: the success of the new site will depend on you, the reader. I won’t get rich on this enterprise, but I do need to earn a living. And it costs money to produce good investigative reporting, to hire other reporters, to pay for operations. To cover those costs, the new site will be behind a partial paywall. There will be lots of free material, but many of the news articles and all of the investigative reporting will be available only to subscribers. I’ll announce rates later, but subscriptions will be very affordable.

Before the site goes live, I’m going to write a series of blog posts with my thoughts on various aspects of journalism. I’ll explain why an independent news site is necessary, and why the business model is based on subscriptions instead of advertising. The first of these blog posts will appear here tomorrow.

If you would like to get an email notification of these blog posts, please send an email to timbousquet@yahoo.com with “update me” in the subject line.