A very sad day for newspapers in Canada

Toronto Star - Jan. 11, 2014
Toronto Star - Jan. 11, 2014

On Saturday, January 11, two seemingly disconnected things happened in far apart places.  Both involved newspapers.  Both got me thinking about how newspapers serve our communities, about how goodness is not always rewarded, and about what we should expect from our media.

On Saturday, The Kamloops Daily News – a newspaper that has served my hometown of Kamloops BC for 80 years – published its very last edition. The newspaper went out of business – unable to cover rising costs with declining advertising revenues.

Kamloops is a bustling town of about 90,000 in the interior of British Columbia.  The News was the city’s only daily paper.  It was an integral part of the community it served. Its editors and writers were part of the city, and the pages they produced reflected the daily aspirations, the pride, the sadness and the outrages of the people of Kamloops as news and events unfolded on their streets and in their homes.  The paper will be sorely missed.

I will personally miss The Kamloops Daily News for many reasons. My very first job was as a newspaper carrier for the News.  Back then, it published three days a week and I had about 150 customers on my route which took about an hour and half to complete.  My customers were mostly downtown businesses, and it was an afternoon paper, so I had to get the paper to the stores after school before they closed which was about 5 o’clock on weekdays then.  Rain or shine.  Hot or cold.  I learned a lot about responsibility on that job and it helped shape who I am today.

It was the paper of record in my hometown.  So, when friends got married, children graduated, businesses opened or relatives died – it was a Daily News clipping that, no matter where in the world I happened to be, would arrive in my mailbox marking the occasion as having happened.  For the record.

Meanwhile… Three time zones away, here in Toronto, something else happened on the same day involving another newspaper.

On Saturday, The Toronto Star – Canada’s largest and, perhaps, most powerful daily newspaper – published a story – another story – about Mayor Rob Ford.

This story followed a December editorial by Star Publisher John Honderich in which he bemoaned the fact society’s elite was standing silent – unwilling to condemn Ford in loud enough terms to suit his taste.

So, the Star decided to do something about it.  They sent a letter to 70 of “Toronto’s elites.”  That’s the actual term they used: “Toronto’s elites.”

Here, in part, is what the letter said:

The Star is reaching out to 70 of Toronto’s civic leaders for comment.  You are receiving this letter because you are one of them.

“This is your chance to speak out and on the record about the mayor and his behaviour.  You are a moral leader and this is for the historical record.”

Sounds very important.  Here’s where I think the letter gets a little dicey:

“We will be publishing the names and responses of all we contact.  If you do not wish to respond, we appreciate if you would tell us why.  If we receive no response, we will publish that too.”

What do you think?  Is that a threat?  Some of those who received the letter clearly thought so.  Some refused to respond at all.  Others explained they thought the Star could have handled the request in a more productive way.

Peter Kent, the MP for Thornhill – and himself an accomplished former journalist – called it a “veiled threat” and “an unfortunate example of the decline of a craft I once proudly practiced.”

I am certainly not one of the city’s top 70 elites, so I didn’t get this letter.

But, I’ve received letters like it from the Star before.  Letters that threaten to publish something unless I speak with them – and suggest that, if I don’t talk to them, well then – they’ll just have to assume my silence proves they’re right.  It doesn’t.

I never respond.  Because, I don’t have to.  The Star can talk with whomever it wants, about whatever it wants.  But, no one should be bullied into talking to them.

I want to be very careful about what I say next, because I don’t want you to think I’m being critical of the Star in order to defend Rob Ford.  Not so.  But, I don’t think the Star should get an ethical “pass” just because it’s Ford they’re after.

I think the Star is on slippery ground.  I think their aggressive pursuit of Rob Ford has prompted them to cut corners and take steps they might not otherwise have taken.  They will defend their tactics in the pursuit of Rob Ford by pointing out they’ve been proven right on many counts.

But, that’s the same argument a dirty cop makes when he argues it’s necessary to break a few laws in order to convict a criminal.  Society doesn’t accept poor behaviour by police officers – even if the accused is guilty.  The Toronto Star, for sure, wouldn’t cut a dirty cop any slack.  Should we accept anything less from them?

Saturday was a very sad day for newspapers – a day when a good paper that was deeply connected with its community closed its doors – and a day when our biggest paper was so disconnected from the community it serves, that it had to bully citizens into talking to it.

 

Towhey’s Take is a regular 5 minute editorial segment at the end of my Sunday radio program on CFRB Newstalk1010 in Toronto.  It normally airs at 2:46 pm.  This editorial was originally broadcast on Jan. 12, 2014.