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 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




  1. The only power we have as citizens is voting. Yet this isn’t working. Have we any reference in history where we solved this particular issue? Your articles cut directly to the subject and I find them fast paced and very easy to read. Thank you!

  2. History + editor/publisher = “That’s inside baseball.” Um, you just told me to write all my stories as if everyone who reads it is 14. *confusion*

    1. That is may be because many of the readers out there still only read at about a Grade 6 or 7 level… big words make for obfuscation, I am sure you get what I mean by that. But if you want to write with the purpose to encourage people to broaden their vocabulary by keeping a dictionary at hand; that is, of course, your prerogative.

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