Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Investing time in Open Secrets

Red River College journalism students are demonstrating the importance of original work.

For the last three months the students in my second-year Creative Communications journalism major have used Manitoba’s freedom-of-information legislation to dig out untold stories. Open Secrets, the Winnipeg Free Press calls the resulting stories that it is publishing.

Some of the information is striking, such as the fact that Manitoba’s task force on missing women does not officially exist.

Other topics include the scarcity of complaints to the government body that regulates bar bouncers despite a string of serious incidents and even death at Winnipeg bars – and the shocking lack of training required to become a bouncer.

This is the second year I have run this assignment, and again I am impressed by the quality of the students’ work.

They pulled this off while doing a multitude of other assignments for me, including interviewing voters and candidates for, profiling notable people for the official history of Red River College, to be published in the fall of 2011, and spending full days on such assignments as covering trials at the Law Courts.

Oh yes, they were also taking half a dozen other courses that require a ton of time and effort.

I hear that one or two of them are even trying to have private lives.

Their achievements prove that blending a longer-term view of journalism with the minute-to-minute demands of daily news pays off. Their success is a rebuke to those professional news media that live for the moment, never creating anything genuinely new.

Newspaper chains and private broadcasters, are you listening?

If all you offer your audience is routine coverage of public events such as car crashes and press conferences, nobody needs you any more.

Breaking news is becoming a commodity. Anyone can blog, post videos to YouTube, and report on Twitter.

But your salvation could lie in creating unique content, as these students have done.

Thanks to the Free Press, particularly the two journalists who made this project happen.

Mary Agnes Welch helped the students refine their information requests and pursue the stories that resulted. Wendy Sawatzky worked with them to create material that helped tell the stories online.

Watch for more unique work from these students in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

PR: Good; Journalism: We’ll see

The Winnipeg Police Service and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs did a very smart thing today. Most importantly, they did it together.

They appeared on the same stage – the media room at police headquarters – to discuss a difficult case.

Evan Maud, a 20-year-old Aboriginal man, told reporters on Dec. 8 that he was grabbed by two police officers on Dec. 3 and left outside the city without a coat in -20 weather.

News media across Canada jumped on the story of the alleged “starlight tour.”

That term was made famous by some unfortunate actions by police in Saskatchewan. A public inquiry there into the death of Neil Stonechild found the credibility of some police officers was lacking.

But that was Saskatoon 20 years ago. This is Winnipeg today.

Today the chiefs of the Winnipeg police and Manitoba’s Aboriginal people co-operated in the announcement that Maud has been charged with public mischief for making a false report.

Like anyone in Canada who is accused of a crime, Maud is innocent until proven guilty.

The participation of Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans beside Police Chief Keith McCaskill signals a welcome retreat from the knee-jerk cop-bashing that has sometimes accompanied allegations of police misconduct in Manitoba.

Dare we hope for more public co-operation between these two leaders and their constituencies?

Congratulations to these two and to their public-relations advisers.

Now it’s the duty of journalists to give this event as much publicity as they gave the original story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Truth in obituaries

The growth of online obituaries and related material such as Facebook memorials is breathing new life into the hoary tradition of obituary writing.

The traditional newspaper obit is highly formatted: After a brave battle with Disease X, Person Y passed away peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones …

Then come the dates, birth and marriage prominent among them. Those dates are more likely to be true than most of the other stuff.

But now the traditional taboos – suicide, unpopular diseases such as AIDS, even a prickly personality – are themselves dying.

On Dec. 4, 2010 The Globe and Mail published a wonderful example of the new, more honest obit writing about Christopher “Dexter” Bates, who died of cancer at 44.

He was not one to suffer fools ­ and he saw them everywhere ­ but people gravitated to Chris and he made lifelong friends. He could be thin-skinned, but he was hardheaded too, and he never heard a piece of advice he couldn't ignore. Twenty-odd years of addiction took a heavy toll on his health and many of his personal relationships, but his extraordinary intelligence, charm, and dry humour will be greatly missed by those who knew and loved him.

So when you are asked to help compose an obit, as eventually you are almost certain to be, write honestly.

You can help write the obituary of dishonest obituaries.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's over

One of the wonderful things about Hiroshima by John Hersey is its ending. Actually, both its endings.

Hersey's 1946 book about the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 concludes by quoting an essay by 10-year-old Toshio Nakamura, who survived the attack that killed something like 100,000 people.

The next day Toshio and two friends went looking for their mothers.

"But Kikuki's mother was wounded and Murakami's mother, alas, was dead."

Try forgetting that line, or the story that it wraps up.

Forty years later Hersey published a new chapter following up on the lives of the six people he originally interviewed.

It closes by reporting on Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who is over 70.

"He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world's, was getting spotty."

Three words, "like the world's," move the story back into its historical context and into our lives.

The book is over but the story isn't.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not too sick to blog

Is there such a thing as being too sick for social media?

Apparently not.

A couple of weeks ago a student emailed me saying he was sick and would miss my class. Nothing wrong with that; we want sick students to get well as quickly as possible, and we don’t want them to make their classmates sick.

But within a couple of hours this student posted a new blog entry. Several tweets followed in short order.

When I inquired about his health, he said he had decided to blog from home to be productive.

Now, we don’t expect sick people to be productive. We expect them to work on getting better.

That usually means resting, perhaps seeing a doctor and taking medication.

It means refraining from daily activities even if they can be done sitting or lying down, such as blogging and tweeting.

I can only conclude that this student was not sick of anything other than my class.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A disrespectful headline

In all the servile coverage of the British royal family's wedding plans for Prince William and Kate Middleton, I am pleased that nobody has published a headline such as

Royals select latest brood mare
Same old job description: Produce an heir and a spare

That would be disrespectful.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Here’s some honest feedback

Are books dead? I say no.

Are book publishers dead? That’s a tougher question.

Is literacy dead at book publishers? Apparently so.

At least it lies whimpering in the gutter at McGraw-Hill Ryerson, according to an email notice of a survey conducted by the venerable Canadian company in October 2010. The message I received announced:

This customer survey has been designed to help McGraw-Hill Ryerson refine our skills and knowledge in order to offer you the best customer experience possible.
Our shared purpose is to be the leading learning solutions provider source:
- dedicated to excellence
- recognized for our collaborative learning solutions
- enabling instructor’s to provide the best learning experience possible for their students.

We ask for your honest feedback.

OK, here's some.

Please translate into English: "the leading learning solutions provider source."

Please learn to use apostrophes properly: "instructor’s."

Then you can ask me to fill out a survey. Or to buy a book. Preferably one written in proper English.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A mighty voice, barely heard

Almighty Voice and His Wife, a compelling piece of theatre playing in Winnipeg, lacks only one thing: a good-sized audience.

It’s a double retelling of the story of Almighty Voice, an Aboriginal man killed in 1897 by the Northwest Mounted Police in Saskatchewan. His original offence: Killing a cow owned by the government.

The first act tells the story conventionally, ending with the death of Almighty Voice.

The second act imagines Almighty Voice and his wife as characters in a Victorian entertainment, tormenting each other while singing and dancing their hearts out but ultimately unable to escape their original story.

Derek Garza as Almighty Voice and P.J. Prudat as White Girl inhabit the characters brilliantly, particularly when they don whiteface for the second act.

The play, written by Daniel David Moses and directed by Michael Greyeyes, is serious but not depressing. There are liberal doses of the sidesplitting humour and wordplay that characterize much Aboriginal drama. Think of the possible meanings of Chief Magistrate, for example.

Oh yes, there’s sex, too.

What a shame, then, that many of the seats in the Rachel Browne Theatre in downtown Winnipeg were empty at the Sunday matinee that I attended.

Get your tickets from Theatre Projects Manitoba for $20, less for students.

Almighty Voice and His Wife plays in Winnipeg until Nov. 14 and in the J.R.C. Evans Theatre at Brandon University on Nov. 17 and 18.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Untold stories of social media

Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter but also a host of others, are changing the way we live, learn and communicate.

Facebook claims 500 million active users; on any day, half of them log on.

That’s a lot of users for a six-year-old system, a lot of users and a lot of stories.

Odd, then, that nobody has yet told the Facebook story in a really engaging way.

The movie The Social Network focuses tightly on Mark Zuckerberg, the nerdy Harvard student and entrepreneur who started it all and became the world’s youngest billionaire after surviving the usual lawsuits.

But the movie fails to tell even one story about a Facebook user whose life has been changed by the medium.

Catfish is a bit better. A self-indulgent New Yorker goes looking for love on Facebook and finds that all is not as it seems.

But the unbelievable, unsympathetic protagonist and the annoying pixilated transitions suck much of the life out of this one. Bring back star wipes!

Searching for a good story about the effects of new media, I fell for a review by Hal Espen in the New York Times of a book about the Washington Post, the first American newspaper to take online news seriously and invest seriously in it. Espen proclaims:

This excruciating, suspenseful inter­regnum between the dying of print prosperity and the rise of minimally commensurate digital profits is itself a huge story, and the version playing out at The Washington Post has been singularly dramatic.

But Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post; A Great Newspaper Fights For Its Life by Dave Kindred turns out to be a disappointing sentimental tour through an old-fashioned newsroom.

So come on, writers and critics. It’s time to prophesize with your pen.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Powerful journalists, conflicting visions

In the last week Creative Communications students have heard two powerful Canadian journalists argue for opposing visions of the future.

Margo Goodhand, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, told students on Oct. 21 that the iPad will save newspapers, including hers. She has asked for an iPad for Christmas, by which time she hopes her newspaper will be available on it.

But on Oct. 26 Dawna Friesen, television anchor of Global National, pooh-poohed the whole social media thing.

The Free Press is moving somewhat cautiously into the world of online journalism. Readership of its website is growing, particularly for big news stories such as last weekend’s double killing in the city. With circulation of the dead-trees edition slowly sinking, online is the obvious way to go.

Goodhand’s vision involves the withering away of the newspaper into just two departments, news and advertising. No more presses, no more trucks.

Friesen, who described herself as an “old fart” and “dinosaur,” is much cooler on this newfangled stuff, especially Twitter and blogging.

Her bosses want her to tweet, she reported. Hmm … that’s often a strong hint of the proper course of action. But her most recent tweet was almost three weeks old.

"What am I supposed to say?” Nobody would be interested that she just had a coffee, she told us.

After some love-bombing by students, who are required to maintain a Twitter feed and a blog, Friesen acknowledged that maybe she should give social media another chance.

Sure enough, within a couple of hours she tweeted three times, including once about being hungry for a cinnamon bun.

Good on her for trying it again. Let’s follow her Twitter feed to see how she keeps it up.

Goodhand does not tweet but her newspaper is quite active on Twitter. And it is experimenting with online delivery, including a surprisingly addictive live streaming traffic cam at one of Winnipeg’s contentious new traffic circles.

From my online consumption of journalism I would say that many newspapers and magazines are moving online faster than broadcasters, with notable exceptions such as BBC and CBC.

The old farts and dinosaurs need to catch up with the students.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Found poetry?

I found this.
Machine wash in cold water
Separately. Do not mix with
Dark colors. Do not use bleach.
Lay flat to dry. Iron if necessary.

Is it poetry?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You just can't look away

The online coverage of the sentencing of Russell Williams for his reign of depravity has been impossible to ignore.

As The Globe and Mail reported: "Col. Williams was formally convicted Tuesday of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of sexual assault and forcible confinement and 82 fetish burglaries in which he stole women’s underwear and other intimate items."

I found The Globe's blogging, updated every two to five minutes, impossible to stay away from. On Monday my Journalism students and I spent several hours following it.

Several students commented, from strikingly different points of view, on their blogs.

Jessica Cable says some events shouldn't be tweeted about, and provides a couple of startling examples.

Tammy Karatchuk says that just because we can divulge horrifying details instantly, that doesn't mean we should.

Shelley Cook asks whether editors wondered if pictures of Williams wearing women's and girls' underwear would offend the legitimate cross-dressing community.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Putting the K in Klassy

A couple of the campaigns in Winnipeg’s Oct. 27 civic election are beginning to reek of desperation.

At the end of last week Sam Katz, running to be mayor for another four years, made robo-calls to a batch of voters, including me.

He attacked a promise by Judy Wasylycia-Leis, his main opponent, to end the city’s freeze on property taxes.

What caught me was Katz’s conclusion: “People should not lose their homes when there are other avenues to consider first.”

Huh? People lose their homes?

Sounds like the slippery-slope logical fallacy.

Then the Winnipeg Free Press reports that a regular taxpaying resident has received more than 100 messages from people returning Katz’s robo-call to the number that appeared on their caller ID.

So does Katz’s campaign apologize?


Marni Larkin, his campaign manager, blames a phone company. “It has nothing to do with our campaign,” she tells the Free Press.

Then, in leafy River Heights-Fort Garry, those pesky traffic circles have some residents in a tizzy. Especially residents working for Michael Kowalson, who is running to unseat John Orlikow.

On the weekend an anonymous, badly written, nearly hysterical broadside appeared in the mailboxes of the good burghers of the district. Yes, I’m one of those burghers.


It spells Waverley Street two ways. Oh well, one is right.

Orlikow complained to the civic elections office, and he outed the authors as Kowalson supporters, including the wife of the guy Orlikow defeated in the 2008 byelection.

The demonstration that the flyer urged residents to attend on Wednesday morning attracted “dozens” of people, CBC reports.

Hey, boys and girls, there are just two weeks until election day.

Don’t make me call in Mom to referee.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yours truly, Sam Katz

Quotes ripped untimely from their context, a Winnipeg mayoral debate at the Red River College Princess Street campus on Oct. 6, 2010:

“Please be specific.” Creative Communications student Thomas Asselin to opponents Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Sam Katz. They ignored him.

“Let me share some facts with you.” Katz to Wasylycia-Leis.

“We are talking about apples and oranges, my dear Sam Katz.” Wasylycia-Leis.

“It’s only a two-hour show.” CJOB host Richard Cloutier to a rambling Wasylycia-Leis.

“Boom, you got ’em.” Katz describes the miracles of a police helicopter chasing down bad guys.

“Why should we bother re-electing you?” Cloutier to Katz.

“Thanks, Mom.” Katz to Wasylycia-Leis.

“Beware the wrath of a Winnipeg mother.” Wasylycia-Leis to Katz.

“The hokiest fraud.” Katz denounces blind trusts, into which he refuses to place his assets.

“God took seven days.” Asked by Wasylycia-Leis what he has been doing in six years as mayor, Katz inscrutably invokes a deity.

“Yours truly.” Katz repeatedly distances himself from himself.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Farewell, Your Excellency

Michaëlle Jean completes her five-year term as Canada’s Governor-General on Oct. 1, 2010.

The Queen’s representative began her term with a trip to Winnipeg.

A former Radio-Canada journalist, she asked to meet journalism students. So on Oct. 19, 2005 a well-dressed and nervous group of Creative Communications students and I met the Governor-General at Winnipeg city hall.

She smiled gamely and spoke graciously to each of us. As RCMP bodyguards hovered, she asked the students about their studies and encouraged them to use journalism to promote human rights.

Whatever you think of the monarchy – and the Queen’s offspring have frequently revealed themselves as genial idiots – Ms. Jean is different.

Born in Haiti, she represents not so much the weight of British tradition as the current Canada of smart, successful immigrants.

Twice my wife and I had dinner with her (and a hundred other close friends) at Rideau Hall when she presented the annual Michener Awards for public service journalism of which I was a judge.

I can testify that Ms. Jean was much more personable than her three predecessors (although Roméo LeBlanc knew how to have a good time, too).

And keeping Stephen Harper waiting for two hours when he begged her to prorogue Parliament in 2008?


Monday, September 27, 2010

Wham, bam, write you, ma'am

I could have made myself a better person by attending the CBC open house on the weekend, but I read James Ellroy’s latest book instead.

The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women is Ellroy’s 18th book, a hard-boiled memoir by America’s king of the hard-boiled, or noir, or whatever you want to call his time-shifting, in-your-face and violent style.

Perhaps his best known novel is L.A. Confidential, which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.

Geneva (Jean) Hilliker was murdered in Los Angeles in 1958. That crime has never been solved, but it has yielded a literary and financial bonanza for Ellroy, her son. By inventing a curse on himself Ellroy has blessed his bank account and those of a couple of ex-wives.

Erika Schickel, Ellroy’s current squeeze and, he swears, his last, buys into this curse thing. Her Zocalo Public Square interview with him is painful but compelling.

Hilliker’s tawdry life and gory end, played out amid the racism and brutality of the 1950s City of Angels, loom over much of Ellroy’s earlier work. He conflates his mother with Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia of unsolved-murder fame.

“It’s been a fever dream,” Ellroy acknowledges in this book. He reprises his life as a burglar, drug addict and peeper that he has described in an earlier memoir, My Dark Places.

The Hilliker Curse chronicles Ellroy’s caveman-style romantic successes and failures, with plenty of names, places and dates.

Reading it makes me feel unclean. But I will keep reading everything this guy publishes. It’s more vigorous than almost any other current literature.

Ellroy’s declared motivation for invoking this curse and writing this book?

“So women will love me.”

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Books, cheap like borscht

One of the highlights of my year (OK, I live a sheltered life) is the Children’s Hospital Book Market in Winnipeg.

Two of the highlights, actually.

Twice a year at the St. Vital Centre, a large shopping mall, book lovers can wade through thousands of used volumes and discover our new best friends.

Since 1961 Winnipeggers have donated books year round, and volunteers have sorted, displayed and sold them. Proceeds go to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba.

This year’s fall sale, featuring paperbacks, runs from Sept. 23 to 25.

At the sale last spring, leafing through a $1 copy of The Detective, a 1966 novel by Roderick Thorp, I spotted a U. S. $1 bill.

Good deal, eh? Get my money back right away. And, like a true Western Canadian, I had bought my tickets to spend spring break in the States.

Another peek revealed the corner of a U.S. $50. I slammed the book shut and tucked it under my arm with a couple of other cheap goodies.

The gent who took my loonies did not leaf through the book; why would he?

In my car I opened The Detective and found $62 U.S. Someone else’s holiday stash? Who knows? No name in the book.

So I spent it all at The Poisoned Pen, a mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Reuse and recycle, I say.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dead right

Former National Hockey League coach Pat Burns has joined the long list of people whose obituaries have been published prematurely.
"They're trying to kill me before I'm dead," The Canadian Press quotes Burns as telling TSN columnist Bob McKenzie.
Yes, Burns is ill. But he's not dead yet.
Other victims of premature obituaries include Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope.
Many news media have prepared obituaries of important people for use when the time comes. And to hockey fans, Pat Burns is an important guy.
Today, with retweeting and other methods of instantly circulating information whether it is right or wrong, it is more important than ever to obey Rule No. 1 in journalism.
Get it first, but first get it right.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I want to vote! Where am I?

Politicians and pundits frequently complain about low voter turnout in Canadian elections.

So how about making it easier on the poor voter?

All Manitoba communities are holding civic elections on Oct. 27. In 2006, the last Winnipeg civic general election, just over one-third of eligible voters went to the polls: a measly 38 per cent.

Winnipeg, home to about two-thirds of Manitobans, is divided into 15 wards. Every eligible citizen can vote for a city councillor in one ward, and all citizens can vote for mayor.

That’s where it gets complicated. What ward are you in?

The City of Winnipeg website invites you to find your ward and your poll location by entering your address. That’s fine. But what if you want to learn more about the ward, for example its boundaries?

The short answer is that there is no good place to do that.

The city offers several ward maps, but they lack the street names that would be familiar to most residents.

Some incumbent councillors provide maps of their wards, for example Jenny Gerbasi's of Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry. Their quality varies.

Complicating this search are the names of the wards. Many wards cover several neighbourhoods, so they sport hyphenated names such as River Heights-Fort Garry.

But wait! There’s more!

River Heights-Fort Garry includes the neighbourhood of Linden Woods (or Lindenwoods; there does not appear to be an official spelling).

Michael Kowalson, who is running against incumbent John Orlikow, has created his own name for the ward: River Heights-Fort Garry-Lindenwoods.

In an email exchange on Sept. 12, Kowalson told me,

I have chosen to include Linden Woods in my campaign material as many residents of Linden Woods are not aware they are part of the River Heights Ward. Most residents of Linden Woods do not think of themselves as living in River Heights or Fort Garry in the conventional sense.

I believe that Linden Woods is a very distinct and important neighborhood within the city and should be recognized as such. There are many important issues facing the Linden Woods area (as is the case with all neighborhoods in the City) and I hope all residents will come out to vote on October 27th.

Kowalson’s triple-barrelled ward name may be more accurate than the official one, but it’s confusing. It looks as if he and Orlikow are running in different wards.

No wonder lots of citizens can’t be bothered to vote.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Gimme my Timmies, the frozen stuff

I admit it. I’ve dropped a few bucks at Tim Hortons (yes, we have no apostrophes today, although of course we should).

It doesn’t hurt that my employer has seen fit to install a Timmies outlet in my workplace. As the only purveyor of double-doubles in Winnipeg’s bustling Exchange, this one ought to change its slogan from “Always Fresh” to “Always Busy.”

My sons accuse me of having visited every Tims outlet in Canada. They are wrong, of course. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

But, after extensive research and coffee rental I can report that the cleanest Tims I have ever visited is in Cochrane, Ontario. Best-laid-out parking lot, too.

At the other end of the spectrum on both counts is the one in Vanderhoof, B.C.

Blind River, Ontario is no screamin’ hell, either.

But what really gets me worked up (especially after a couple of cups of joe) is that Always Fresh business. It is, to put the matter politely, at variance with the facts.

The doughnuts, bagels, Timbits – highly nutritious all, no doubt – are not fresh. They are frozen.

This is no urban legend. Why, it says so right in Maclean’s magazine, whose apostrophe is a rakish maple leaf. At least they have one.

The Sept. 13, 2010 Maclean’s reports on a proposed $1.95-billion class action lawsuit that is splitting the chain’s management and the franchisees who rake in the dough. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Once a journalist, always a cheap-shot artist.)

The article recalls the scandal in 2003 when Ron Joyce, co-founder of the chain, revealed that its food was not fresh but, in the magazine’s words, heated up from “frozen globs of dough trucked in from a factory.”

The current battle features the assertion that the “Always Fresh” system of reheating frozen food has cut into the franchisees’ profits.

Check out the Maclean’s story. It’s on the long side, but if you start reading it when you line up at my local Tims, you stand a good chance of finishing before you taste your Always Frozen food.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What is journalism?

Check out the blog list on the right side of this page. You will find 16 posts by second-year Journalism major students in my Creative Communications class on the topic What is Journalism?

Their opinions and examples will give you a perspective on the huge range of journalism today -- all sorts of journalism in all sorts of media.

Yes, some media are declining. Think of print-only newspapers or traditional hour-long television newscasts. But even those "old" media are sprouting vibrant new online growth.

In short, it's a great business today for smart, curious, energetic young people, people such as these bloggers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Judges are people, too. So let's see them

A recent conflict in a Winnipeg courtroom demonstrates again why cameras should be allowed in the courts.

In a murder trial on Aug. 30, sheriff’s officers alerted the judge that family members of the accused had complained someone was using a cell phone to record images of their relative.

The Winnipeg Free Press reports what Justice Glenn Joyal, associate chief justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench, general division, said next:

"If anyone takes a picture in this courtroom ... you'll be out of here so fast your head will spin," said Joyal. "So think twice. I won't have a lot of patience or tolerance for this type of thing."

Why are photos forbidden in the courtroom? Well, because judges say they are. Courtrooms were around before cameras.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns, for example identifying witnesses or accused people who are under 18 or whose identities need to be protected for other reasons. No reasonable person would argue about that. Restricting pictures of such people would be quite simple.

But this is a visual age. People, including the taxpayers who pay for the justice system, should be able to see what goes on in the courts.

News media have repeatedly offered to work with justice officials on demonstration projects that would open up the courts to television and still cameras, with restrictions to maintain decorum.

Such coverage would demystify the legal process and reduce the incentive for citizens to try to take their own unauthorized shots.

Judges, who are forbidden to answer criticism publicly, would benefit from such openness. It would reduce the amount of unfair criticism by ignorant columnists, bloggers and other commentators (not that such stuff ever meets your eyes, dear reader).

Jeffrey Oliphant, a former top Manitoba judge, has supported the idea of such projects. In fact, Oliphant’s public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair was televised live, with no ill effects on anyone.

But we deserve to see criminal trials, too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Shaw oddity

Have you seen the Major Tom commercial on Shaw promoting the company's high-speed internet with wi-fi?

Yes, that Major Tom. The star of David Bowie’s 1969 tune (and powerful ear worm) Space Oddity.

Shaw’s Major Tom blasts off, floats in space and grins. Looks as if he’s having a peak experience.

But Shaw misses the point of the song.

This is not a space frolic.

Listen to the whole lyric. Something is going horribly wrong.

In the part that Shaw doesn’t play, Ground Control tells Major Tom, “Your circuit’s dead; there’s something wrong.”

Major Tom’s last words: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

Perhaps this message of catastrophic technological failure and impending death is not what Shaw wants to associate with the services it is selling.

Major Tom ain’t coming back. Neither should this commercial.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Low and behold

Don’cha just hate it when somebody says or writes would of instead of would have or should of instead of should have?

You do? Good. Me, too.

Spurred by the writing of people who should know better, I am compiling a list of phonetic spellings and related oddities.

Here are some of my favourites, supplemented by suggestions from my colleagues Kenton Larsen and Chris Petty, avid readers and writers both.

Case and point (instead of case in point)

Doggy dog (dog eat dog)

Low and behold (lo and behold)

Run the gambit (run the gamut)

Pour over (pore over)

Two reasons to be aware of such mistakes and to fix them: They jar the reader, and they reveal the writer’s ignorance.

A couple of suggestions to prevent such mistakes: Read more. And when you write something, read it aloud before publishing it.

You could also trying looking up words. That’s why God made

Got other examples? That’s why God made the Comment feature.

Merry malaprop-ing!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Extra! A newspaper is born!

Check out the homage to Rolling Stone in the logo of this baby newspaper. Photo by John Pura, Red River College

Big-city newspapers may be dying, but some small-town papers are booming.

Selkirk, Manitoba (population 10,000) has sprouted two papers to compete with the weekly Selkirk Journal. All are free distribution, which means that advertising pays the freight.

The recently arrived Selkirk Enterprise contains mostly press releases and "submitted" (free) articles.

Much more interesting is the Selkirk Record, a real weekly paper packed with real community news. Sample headline from Volume 1 Edition 1: "Knife fight behind the Merch".

Publisher Lana Meier and editor Donna Maxwell are refugees from the Journal, which is owned by Sun Media, a Quebecor company. Meier, Maxwell and their band of sisters and brothers plan to start papers in Stonewall (pop. 4,500) and other Manitoba towns.

Good for them.

In addition to new sources of news and advertising in these communities, these new businesses provide jobs and freelancing opportunities for journalists and students.

Most of the news in the Selkirk Record and the Selkirk Journal is written and edited by graduates of the Red River College Creative Communications program. Community papers such as the Journal and its fellow Sun papers have also been reliable sources of work internships.

Perhaps the most interesting area of future competition in Selkirk and Stonewall is online. The new Record has no website yet, preferring to concentrate first on building up its print product -- at least until high-speed Internet service is available in the area.

The Selkirk Journal, though, has begun posting stories to its website several times a day.

Ain't competition great?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

CreComm grad is new Global National anchor

Dawna Friesen (left) talks journalism with student Emily Baron Cadloff at Red River College Nov. 20, 2009. Photo by John Pura, RRC

Dawna Friesen, a 1984 Creative Communications graduate, is the new anchor of Global National TV news.

In November 2009 Red River College honoured Friesen as a Distinguished Alum.

Speaking to journalism students that day, Friesen reminded them that journalists are privileged observers to historical events.

Friesen took the classic CreComm route to journalistic prominence: get the diploma, work in a small town, work in a bigger town, work in a bigger job.

That's why instructors tell students not to turn up their noses at Portage la Prairie, or at Brandon, Saskatoon or Thunder Bay. Friesen worked in all those spots.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Print Plus

My colleague Kenton Larsen, who trolls the universe seeking jobs for Creative Communications graduates, says he has hardly ever seen as many opportunities.

That's great.

Yet it's surprising how many job descriptions are very traditional-- those in the journalism field, at least.

Jeff Gaulin's useful website, for example, still lists Print as a major category for journalistic jobs. Why not Print Plus? Dead trees and online, too.

And Interlake Publishing, a long-time source of good starting jobs at Manitoba community newspapers, is looking for a couple of reporters and managing editor. These are fine jobs, certainly worth applying for.

But isn't there an opportunity to expand them?

Interlake could dramatically build its website, emphasizing the community involvement that has traditionally been the strength of community newspapers: not only the important coverage of cops, courts and town council, but also

Your pictures of your kids! Grandma's 99th birthday blog! Little Ernestine's championship soccer season!

CreComm grads have all the journalistic and technical skills to make this happen.

Publishers should consider spending a bit of money on creating compelling local websites before someone else does, and puts their dead-trees newspapers out of business.

No money?

Hey Sun Media, how about diverting the salary of one preacher from your new right-wing TV channel and giving it to your subsidiary Interlake to create some real community journalism?

Little Ernestine's family would love you.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I'm OK, you're cute

John Waters has taught me the essential difference between my students and me.

In a Q&A in the June 28, 2010 Globe and Mail the tasteful filmmaker and author of Role Models confesses that he was angry when he made Pink Flamingos. But he ain't angry any more.

"No, no. An angry 60-year-old is an asshole. An angry 20-year-old is cute."

Thanks, John. I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm stuck in a Starbucks lineup.

Or try to decipher the latest traffic signs at the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport.

Or remember the name of the airport.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

CreComm at the World Cup

Creative Communications student Steven Dreger is at the World Cup in South Africa, working on his Independent Professional Project. It's a video about soccer, naturally.

Also naturally, Steve is writing a blog about his experiences.

Check it out. See how he became a soccer fan --and a follower of the German team -- over bratwurst and potato salad at the age of five.

Monday, June 14, 2010

No breasts please, we're Apple

I love the iPad. From a distance, though, and not nearly as fervently as my colleague Kenton Larsen, who has been blogging about his new baby.

Yes, I have run my fingers over Kenton's baby. It's a beautiful device that displays information and connects its users with all sorts of people and things. No doubt the next iterations will be even more beautiful.

But there is a somewhat sinister side to the iPad, as the New York Times reports on June 14, 2010.

According to the NYT, Apple has refused to approve a new comic version of James Joyce's Ulysses as an iPad app until the authors remove a panel that shows a woman with exposed breasts.

That's 77 years after a U.S. judge ruled that Joyce's book is not obscene, opening the door to its wide distribution.

OK, breasts begone, say the authors, although they say they argued with Apple for a while.

What's sinister about that? Just that these authors see the iPad as so appealing and Apple so powerful that they are willing to make their material conform to the company's inscrutable standards of taste.

I hope nobody -- oh, let's say R. Crumb -- tries to create an app for a comic version of the Book of Genesis. I hear Eve is naked in that one.

Monday, June 7, 2010

80 fact checkers, one magazine

In my Editing Print and Online Media class I challenge students to Spot the Screwup. They find lots of errors online, in dead-tree newspapers and magazines, even printed on the walls of buildings.

Presumably all that material went through an editing process of some kind. Readers don't know what errors were fixed before publication, but we can see the ones that weren't.

Fixing mistakes -- and doing all the other useful things that editors do, such as checking context and tone -- is time-consuming and expensive.

For example, the German magazine Der Spiegel (The Mirror) employs 80 fact-checkers, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

But some facts are more equal than others, or at least they used to be.

A long comment attached to the CJR article by sociologist and journalist Hersch Fischler highlights the historic role of Der Spiegel fact checkers in digging up dirt on the magazine's political enemies.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bloggers = journalists = PR and ad people

An article in the June 1, 2010 issue of The Uniter, Winnipeg's Weekly Urban Journal, allows a mainstream journalist to perpetuate a misconception about bloggers.

The article quotes Geoff Kirbyson, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter, criticizing bloggers as inferior to writers of his ilk.

“Journalists went to school and studied the craft. Bloggers are not trained,” he said. “They don’t do the work or attend events. They just comment on what they’ve read. If they started showing up at things and doing the work, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. A lot of blogging is second-hand reporting.”

But bloggers actually are trained.

All Creative Communications students at Red River College are required to blog weekly. Instructors guide their efforts and grade them. Instructors blog, too.

CreComm instructors and students understand that being able to blog and to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter effectively are essential skills for our graduates, whether they specialize in advertising, journalism, media production or public relations. A recent survey of employers in our fields endorses this view.

And it's not just college instructors who are promoting blogging. Policy Frog on June 1, 2010 comments on Kirbyson's statement and argues persuasively for the validity of blogging as a journalistic tool.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Babaluk and bug spray: The blog

Creative Communications students don't do all their work in the classroom.

Neil Babaluk's Independent Professional Project, for example, takes him to Manitoba's 77 road-accessible provincial parks.

Check out Babaluk's blog on the Winnipeg Free Press website. More installments all summer long.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

OMG! English is taking over the world!

Inspired by the blogs of the students in my Intersession course (links at right of this screen), I am providing a list of resources for anyone interested in editing for print or online media.

How online media are helping the English language conquer the world: an excerpt from Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum, and a New York Times review of the book.

Numbers are our friends! Especially percentages and percentage points.

Here are two explanations.

Purdue University’s OWL provides many useful resources dealing with writing and editing.

Check out the section on logic.

These points on logic are particularly useful when editing advertising and public relations material -- and, of course, journalism.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good news about the news

With lively news and thoughtful commentary from south of the 49th parallel, The Atlantic is always worth a stop on a curious Canadian's online odyssey.

My current favourite Atlantic item is How to Save the News by James Fallows, also in the June 2010 edition of The Atlantic magazine.

His thesis: Google knows that people will use its search engine only if it brings them interesting or useful information. Since the source of much of this stuff -- "the news" -- is traditional news media, it is in Google's interest to support and develop those media.

Google's goal, Fallows writes, is "a reinvented business model to sustain professional newsgathering." Well, lots of people are trying to create one.

But here's a change.

Rather than ignoring or trying to destroy traditional news media, Google's model would incorporate old-fashioned, high-cost news gathering such as (in Canada, which Fallows ignores, since being American means never having to say you're sorry) knowledgeable, long-term coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada.

It would also include, on the same site, immediate, exciting, unedited amateur-created video from hot spots such as Bangkok during the Thai military attacks on Red Shirt protesters.

Who would pay for this? Subscribers in some cases, advertisers in others, or some shifting blend of the two. Let a thousand business models bloom.

Today's media-rich but often wisdom-depleted online world faces a central problem. In Fallows's words, "The internet is a great way to get news but often a poor way to read it."

There's a device for that, of course: a Google device (coming soon ... really) that would re-create the serendipity of leafing through a magazine, discovering the beautiful colour ads and surrendering to the other content that you did not know you would be interested in.

Sounds like Google propaganda? Maybe. You need to keep your bullshit detector cranked up.

But what I love about this piece is its unusual and optimistic view of the news business -- a business, after all, that has adapted to every new technology since smoke-blackened sticks on cave walls.

Spoiler! How to Save the News contains more than 140 characters. You'll have to spend a bit of time reading it.

But your investment of time and thinking will pay off. You can tweet about it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

And the winner is ...

To find the screwup in the For Better or For Worse comic strip in my previous blog, check out the last panel.

The sound of a door whose hinges need oiling is not usually spelled the same way as "a tributary of a river; a stream or brook" (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, second edition, 2004).

Congratulations to commenter Wade (CreComm '09) and to several students in my editing class.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Spot the Screwup

Here's an example of an assignment in my Editing Print and Online Media class.

Can you spot a screwup in the For Better or For Worse comic strip of May 17, 2010?

Come back for the answer after class on May 18.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Regret the Error

Until late June I plan to post short items relevant to my Intersession course Editing Print and Online Media.

To start, here is Regret the Error, a wonderful site that could be called Edit Fail.

It displays some of my favourite content from newspapers and other publications: corrections.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

It's Intersession time!

On May 11 a small but select group of students will begin taking my Intersession course Editing Print and Online Media.

In the newsroom at the Princess Street campus of Red River College in Winnipeg we will work on improving our skills at organizing and editing material for ... yes, print and online media.

You can register for the course until the day it begins. There are no prerequisites other than a good understanding of English, so you do not need to be a Creative Communications student to join us.

The students who have registered so far have completed the first year of CreComm. As part of that curriculum they have created the blogs that are listed on the right side of this page.

One of their assignments will be to blog at least weekly on a topic related to the course, so you will be able to follow the public part of our learning.

Another assignment is Spot the Screwup. Students look for mistakes online, on billboards, on bus boards, in all kinds of print media. Then they fix them.

It's a dishearteningly easy assignment. Guess that means there will always be jobs for editors.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Thinking like the government

Drivers in Manitoba renew our licences annually and get a new picture taken every four years.

The annual renewal date arrives four months after the driver’s birthday. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s better than everyone renewing licences and government-run insurance on Feb. 28, Soviet-style, as we had to do until a few years ago.

So six weeks ago I trotted down to my friendly neighbourhood insurance office, for that is where you go to renew licence and insurance in Manitoba.

Signed the papers, confirmed the payments.

Asked whether I had to take a new picture. No, they said. You’ll get your new licence within a month. Great.

Three weeks later I received voice mail from another insurance agency, whose door I had not darkened for at least three years and which is unconnected with the one I have been dealing with. You need a new picture for your driver’s licence.

Bombarded with solicitations from around the world, I did what any rational Canadian would do. I deleted the message and forgot about it.

OK, maybe I uttered an epithet about call centres.

Six weeks after my application, no new licence. The temporary one is expiring.

Head down to friendly neighbourhood insurance office. Explain problem. Get two workers puzzling over computer.

You need to take a picture. The other agency left you a message.

Why would they leave me a message? Why didn’t you? That I would have paid attention to.


Take off glasses. Remove smile. Assume neutral expression. Take picture. Sign in three places. Receive another temporary licence.

Wait three weeks, they promise.

At least the government isn’t charging me more money.

Just my time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A 46-point plan

Help! I'm drowning in red tape!

Or I would be, if I were a student applying for a summer job with Canada's federal government.

First, there's the acronym FSWEP.

That's the Federal Student Work Experience Program. Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

Then there's the helpful guide for university student applicants published by Parks Canada. The opportunities in this department sound exciting, and I'm sure they will be well paid.

But a 46-point guide?

My favourite point is 45: "YOU'RE FINISHED!"

That's a snare and a delusion. There is indeed a Number 46. It refers you back to the beginning of the process.

Check it out.

Parks Canada
Riding Mountain National Park of Canada

Guide for university student applicants.
Applying for employment at Riding Mountain National Park through the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP).

1. Go online to
2. Click on “English”.
3. Click on “Students” on the left hand side.
4. Click on “Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP)”, the second bullet point.
5. Click on “Apply on-line”, the fifth bullet point.
6. Click on “FSWEP Campaign 2009-2010”
7. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Apply Online”.
8. You are now on a page called “Login to your File”. Since you haven’t got one, click on “Create Account”.
9. Fill in the personal information requested. (The PRI is for internal usage; you can leave it blank.)
10. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Continue”.
11. Fill in your home address information. To be screened in for Riding Mountain National Park indicate that your Area of Residence is in “Central & Northern Manitoba”.
12. At the bottom of the page, click on “Continue”.
13. Fill in your work address or other address information. If you don’t have a secondary address, leave everything blank.
14. At the bottom of the page, click on “Continue”.
15. Select a password and a security question and click on “Continue”.
16. Write down your Applicant Number and password (it will allow you to access your file again at a later date) then click on “Continue”.
17. Select “I confirm” and click on “Continue”.
18. Click on “View My Jobs File”.
19. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see your My Jobs file. You’ll have to complete all sections marked by a red X before submitting.
20. To do that, start by clicking on “FSWEP Criteria”.
21. Answer the questions on that page and click on “Save”. Complete both dates, when you will be available for full time work and when available for part time work.Note that many of our jobs will have a “part time” component to them either at the beginning of the term or at the end. We strongly encourage you to select a date for which you will be available for part time work or your application will be screened out of our job searches which have a part time component to them.
22. Click on “Résumé”.
23. Copy your résumé and paste it into the box provided. (Don’t worry too much about the formatting; the content is what we need to see.)
24. Click on “Save”.
25. Click on “Work Location”.
26. Select “Manitoba” and click on “Continue”.
27. Select the areas of work in Manitoba that you’d be interested in. Riding Mountain National Park is listed as such
28. Click on “Save and Continue”.
29. Click on “Back”. This will bring you back to your My Jobs file.
30. Click on “Education”.
31. Select your highest level of education, whether you’ve completed it or not. (Ex. If you are currently finishing your first year of university, click on “University”.)
32. Click on “Add”.
33. Fill in the information requested. Under “Academic Level”, select “University Credits” if you are in university but do not yet have a degree.
34. At the bottom of the page, click on “Continue”.
35. Select your Specialization Groups and click on “Continue”.
36. You are now on a long page of specialisations. Don’t be intimidated! Just pick (at most) four specializations that match your strengths. If you pick more than four, the system will ask you to get rid of some until you have only four. Please note that we do not screen by Specialization when selecting candidates.
37. Click on “Save”.
38. Click on “Back”. This will bring you back to your My Jobs file.
39. Click on “Languages”.
40. Fill in the requested information about your language proficiency. Click on “Save”.
41. Your file is now complete! IF YOU CHOOSE, you can complete the final three sections, “Employment Equity”, “Skills” and “Departmental Programs”.
42. If you do not want to complete these extra sections (or, after you are done with them), click on “Submit Application”. This is very important! Nobody will ever see your application unless you click on “Submit Application”!
43. Click on “I Agree”.
44. Click on “Continue”.
45. YOU’RE FINISHED! If you would like to review your file, you can click on “View”.
46. You can always access your file and make changes by using your username and password, selected at the beginning of the process.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Crawl out from under your rock

I usually don't agree with judges who order news media to reveal their sources.

But I do support a ruling that Internet anonymity is not absolute, made by a judge of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on April 14, 2010.

The judge ordered Google and The Coast, a weekly newspaper, to reveal to Halifax firefighters the identities and IP addresses of seven people who allegedly defamed them in anonymous comments on The Coast's website.

Whether or not a court finds that any comment in this case was defamatory, the ruling highlights the unfairness of anonymous comments.

Why should I be able to publish online any opinion of you that I feel like, and then hide under my rock of anonymity?

In a broadcast or print format I would have to identify myself, and rightly so.

And no, I still don't think news media should be forced to reveal their anonymous sources.

There is a clear distinction. Battles over anonymous sources involve facts that the sources provide, which are then checked by journalists before broadcast or publication.

Most anonymous web comments are notably fact-free. They are opinions, often breathtakingly ignorant ones.

Unlike mine, of course.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Why I don't read Yann Martel

Yes, I know I would be a better person if I read Yann Martel: Life of Pi, What is Stephen Harper Reading? and now Beatrice & Virgil.

And I'm not exactly sure why I don't.

Something about the topics, maybe? Animals on a raft ... sarcasm about a surly leader ... a writer trying to publish his latest book.

Nothing wrong with a little postmodernism. (Can you be a little postmodern? Or is it like being a little pregnant?) Anyway, what could be more fascinating for an author than writing about his writing?

I wish you all the success in the world, Yann. May you increase in wealth and fame. Not that you're doing badly in the fame department already.

It's just that I often go for stuff over which the news media fawn a little less. Stuff I can decide on for myself.

In the last couple of weeks, for example, I have read and enjoyed Kaspoit!, a crazed piece of fiction that consists almost entirely of dialogue, with few descriptions and almost no verbs. Oh yeah, it's about a serial killer on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

Want postmodern? Look closely at the signs in the cover picture.

Then there was Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen, a hilarious tale of a few months the author spent working at a Winnipeg funeral home -- incidentally, the place that arranged my parents' funerals.

And A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr, who has received his share of adulation, and rightly so. This is Kerr's fifth novel featuring Bernie Gunther, an anti-Nazi German policeman and member of the SS who somehow survives the Second World War and flees to Argentina.

Gorgeous description and dialogue in all five. I expect to revel in more of the same when I read the sixth, If the Dead Rise Not.

I also zipped through 88 Men and 2 Women, an anti-capital-punishment memoir by a former warden of San Quentin prison.

Then, for a break from crime and death, I read a couple of Dashiell Hammett stories.

So Yann, as the human resources departments say when you don't get the job, it's not personal.

I'm just going in a different direction.

P.S. Not all reviewers worship Beatrice and Virgil. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times of April 13, 2010, for example, scorns it as "misconceived and offensive" and as "this disappointing and often perverse novel."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maintiens le droit

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have apologized to the mother of Robert Dziekanski, who died after Mounties attacked him with a Taser at Vancouver airport in 2007.

It's about time. Dziekanski's unjustified death has damaged the reputation of the RCMP and our country.

Let's applaud Paul Pritchard, whose video of Dziekanski's death kept the issue in the public eye and prevented a coverup.

It's funny to recall the debate over the video two years ago. CBC invited me on air to discuss the burning question: Should broadcasters air the video? It wasn't shot by a journalist!

The answer then and now is: Of course they should. It's news.

Get used to it, journalists.

Upholding the law.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

You have arrived at your destination

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's not-so-love letter to America, contains a couple of creaky plot devices and extended product placement.

But look past those, and the usual goofs, to the movie's use of the GPS system in the Luxury European Automobile driven by Our Hero, the ghost. The GPS, apparently living in the past, re-creates a recent trip.

The ghost tries to make his own way but eventually submits to the route advocated by the nagging, unflagging monotone. And discovers ... OK, no spoilers.

How long before the talkative GPS becomes a movie cliche?

Perhaps it will outlast the technology. After all, some movies still feature pre-digital, pre-call-display telephone answering machines that play messages while they are being recorded.

Come to think of it, that device is too handy to abandon just because it's obsolete.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cameras in inquests: Eventually, or maybe never

No cameras in Manitoba inquests, the judge says.

Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Tim Preston announced on March 19, 2010 that he will not allow broadcast or online streaming of the inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair.

Why not? Because he doesn't have to, for one thing. "The broadcast of an inquest is not something that is reasonably necessary to accomplish my mandate as a judge sitting at an inquest" (paragraph 61).

And besides, judges from the three levels of Manitoba courts will "eventually make decisions in this regard" (paragraph 33).

So until "eventually," people who cannot afford to take time off work or school to travel to downtown Winnipeg and compete for the limited number of seats in the courtroom will have to wait for the coverage in the traditional news media -- TV with no pictures from the courtroom, radio, newspapers.

Maybe they still will, even after "eventually."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cameras in inquests: A no-brainer

A judge in the Western Canadian province of Manitoba will announce on March 19, 2010 whether he will allow televised coverage of an important inquest.

This should be a no-brainer. Cameras belong in inquests and courts, just as Canada allows them in public inquiries.

Local media outlets are seeking permission to broadcast and live stream coverage of the inquest in the case of Brian Sinclair, whose death after 34 hours in the emergency ward of a large hospital has raised all sorts of issues.

Cameras aren't allowed in inquests and other court proceedings basically because the rules were created before television was invented. But hey, TVs have been in almost everyone's home for more than half a century, long enough to be made almost obsolete by online live streaming and recorded coverage.

Journalists are already covering judicial proceedings on Twitter.

The nurses' union says it fears that disclosing identifying information would endanger some nurses.

Simple solution: if the union can persuade a judge that this is true in any case, the judge can simply ban the disclosure of that information -- just as the courts routinely protect the identities of undercover police and victims of sexual assault.

Judges should leap at this chance to get on camera, and not only because it would allow wide public access to judicial proceedings.

Televising judges at work would shatter myths, perpetuated by tabloid columnists, open-mouth radio hosts and their yappy acolytes, that judges are arrogant high-paid fatcats isolated from reality.

Canadian judges are serious to the point of being boring in court. They are very concerned about fairness and proper procedure.

Oh, and they really don't like people wearing hats in court.

Television coverage of this inquest and trials in general would demolish a couple of other misconceptions created by television dramas, many of them American:

Canadian judges never bang their gavels. They don't have gavels.

And perhaps more important, many Canadian judges are women.

Sit in a a Canadian trial court and you will witness the increasingly female face of justice. Not just the judge, but many of the lawyers and the court clerks and other officials are women.

We have lots to learn and nothing to fear from allowing cameras into this inquest, and into courts in general.

We can even wear hats while watching.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Also sprach Xerox Workcentre 5655

They may not have the "rattle and moan" of "Hank Williams talking to Nina Simone," in the words of Tom Russell, but the messages of the copying machine in my office have a crude poetry of their own.

Please wait, exiting sleep mode.

The screen will reset shortly.

Please wait, machine self-test in progress.

Accounting/ Authentication logout.

Xerographic Module Cleaning.

Ready to scan your job.

Select the Active Messages button.

Print system configuration report.

Faults/ All faults

Display usage counters.

Clear all Confirmation.

Reset user programming in all pathways.

Touch a button if you require more time.

Selections are about to be reset.

You have been logged out of your session.

Who am I to doubt these mysteries?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Flash! People read newspapers!

Sometimes complaints are good. They assure you that you are still alive.

Example: On Feb. 25, 2010 the Winnipeg Free Press annoyed a host of readers by printing a large front-page picture of the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team winning a quarter-final victory over the Russians.

What about the Canuck women who won four medals the same day, including local fave Clara Hughes?

Small pictures on the front. Turn inside the paper to see and read more.

"Readers were furious, and rightly so," Margo Goodhand, the paper's editor, acknowledged in a column the next morning.

"I am not a male chauvinist, and neither is the rest of the Free Press news team."

The paper's editors assumed that readers would be more interested in men's hockey than in actual medals. Wrong, Goodhand admits.

(Even more wrong now that our hockey women have kicked Yankee butt and won the gold medal.)

Bottom line for newspapers: the dead-trees edition may be losing audience, but big stories still attract readers. The Free Press needs to keep killing trees even as some of its reporters make forays into news coverage on social media such as Twitter.

As Melanie Lee Lockhart, my instructor colleague at Red River College, has commented, mainstream media ain't dead yet.

Take that, Twitter.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just say no

I took this picture at a Mesa Public Schools building in Arizona on Feb. 18, 2010.

Sorta covers everything, doesn't it?

Another recent prohibition that gave me pause: "Do not reproduce or circulate without permission."

No, it wasn't posted on a conjugal-visit trailer in a jail.

It was at the bottom of an email I received from a journalist.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This is what a newspaper reporter looks like

There are no more print reporters, John White, deputy editor online of the Winnipeg Free Press, told Creative Communications students at Red River College on Feb. 11, 2010.

The Free Press wants to hire a triple-threat journalist who can file breaking news stories by Twitter and write blog entries; deliver live and recorded video hits, and write for the print version of the paper.

This sounds great. It's the kind of stuff our students are learning to do, and it certainly shows where news media need to go.

Too bad it's just for a three-month term. Let's hope the term will be extended -- indefinitely.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Chinese joke? Should I laugh?

On Jan. 27 Manitoba's Lieutenant-Governor Philip Lee attended a Red River College convocation for the first time.

His Honour addressed the graduates briefly while an aide-de-camp, resplendent in a uniform, stood behind him.

The L-G mentioned that in August 2009 he became the first Chinese-Canadian person to be named the province's vice-regal representative.

Then he recounted a tale of a Grade 3 student who informed his parents that the Lieutenant-Governor has visited his classroom.

Parents: What was the Lieutenant-Governor like?

Child: He was tall and wore a military uniform. But a Chinese guy did all the talking.

Some of the grads and their families laughed. I did, too. But I felt uncomfortable about finding a joke about ethnicity funny, especially at a serious public event. And, as the announcer for the presentation of parchments, I was on stage.

The point of the story, I guess, is that the child (and perhaps, by extension, other Canadians) did not expect a Chinese-Canadian to represent the Queen.

If that is true, such Canadians have not been paying much attention to public affairs. Norman Kwong has been Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta since 2005.

Perhaps Manitoba's L-G could have eased any discomfort in his audience by making the point more explicitly that an accomplished Canadian of any ethnic background can become a Lieutenant-Governor.

Or am I being too sensitive?

Friday, January 22, 2010

In the Chamber, out of the target audience

The Creative Communications Class of 2011 has been blogging about the Manitoba Theatre Projects performance of In the Chamber that they attended Jan. 14, 15 or 16.

The two one-hour performances, essentially monologues, nominally dealt with human factor analysis, a concept that does not guarantee a sparkling evening of theatre.

But IMHO actors Gordon Tanner and Steven Ratzlaff delivered gripping performances of men losing their minds while alienating their implied onstage audiences.

Many of the 70-plus students found the plays challenging; I did, too.

What surprises me about the students' reactions, though, is their frequently expressed resignation: I did not understand this because I am too young. I'm not in the target audience.

Yvonne Raymond, for example, writes:

"But then again, what do I know about these plays? I’m just one of those 20 something-year-olds who doesn’t get ‘grown-up talk’.

And I’m certain I didn’t get the ‘grown-up talk’ because the rest of the non-CreComm-35+ audience was laughing hysterically."

This is not a criticism of Yvonne. She expresses a widespread reaction clearly, even plaintively.

But people who are smart enough to get into CreComm are smart enough to understand just about anything. All they need to do is ask.

So, students; ask those 35+ers what was so funny. Ask about the unfamiliar music and the German-accented voice-over (Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Friedrich Nietzsche).

Don't let the notion of target audiences intimidate you. Come out of hiding and make yourself a target.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The wages of sin

Marianne Faithfull? Isn't she dead? Drugs, maybe?

Not quite, reports pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones.

In 200 or so wicked words in the Jan. 18, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, he notes that Faithfull, a '60s British Invasion icon, still "appears." Not "sings."

Frere-Jones recaps her career and concludes, "Her voice is the sound of sin, finally collecting its wages."

It's enough drive a reader to Romans 6:23 in the King James Version of the Bible.

Easily infuenced by a well turned phrase, I bought Faithfull's latest CD Easy Come Easy Go (Behold, I am RetroMan).

He's right.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Free information -- for a little work

Freedom-of-information legislation can unlock government files but not all bureaucrats know how to use it, Red River College Journalism students have discovered.

Sometimes you need to ask a librarian.

At the start of the Creative Communications term in the fall of 2009, I assigned the second-year Journalism majors to see what secrets they could dig out from the Manitoba government and the City of Winnipeg.

Now the Winnipeg Free Press has published the intriguing results. Wendy Sawatzky, the paper's online content manager, worked with the students to prepare their stories for publication.

Guided by Mary Agnes Welch, the newspaper's public policy reporter, the students paired up to create 11 requests for information ranging from wait times on the city's controversial 311 telephone information system to the workings of its cash-grabbing red-light cameras.

At the outset, the system generally worked well. In most cases the freedom-of-information co-ordinators in government responded to the requests within 30 days as the law requires.

But after that, it was as organized as the Wild West.

Some civil servants helpfully provided the information at no charge. Some said it would cost hundreds of dollars. Some said it was already available free and pointed the students to the source.

The students persisted. Some revised their requests so that the information could be found within the two free hours of searching that the legislation provides.

Then there was the bureaucrat who insisted that the requested information about the ages of people convicted of impaired driving did not exist, and that creating the software to find it would cost thousands of dollars.

That didn't sound right to students Joel Marcoux and Heather McGowan. They dug deeper, and they found an information hero in Leesa Girouard, a librarian at the Manitoba Legislative Library.

She found their answers and charged them 30 cents for photocopying. Oh, and they had to drop 50 cents into a parking meter while they visited the Leg.

Props to the helpful librarian who knows more about how to access information than one of the official guardians.