Thursday, March 1, 2012
A local journalist is a terrible thing to waste
By Tom Hawthorn
The newspaper’s title is displayed in Old English letters cast from metal set above the entranceway on Douglas Street. Between the venerable names Times and Colonist can be found the impressive crest that appears daily in newsprint, featuring a lion and unicorn, the royal crown, and the words, “Dieu et mon droit,” the monarch’s motto since the 15th-century. A similar crest appears on the nameplate (or, as the industry knows it, the flag) of The Times of London, a distinguished publication. The crest’s presence states that here in Victoria can be found a most serious journal, one that traces its lineage back to the colonial days of 1858.
Dressed in a suit and tie, I was in Victoria for the day for a job interview. On the way up Douglas Street from the bus terminal, I’d been stopped by a panhandler. He got $5 for his troubles. I figured I could use a dash of karma to go with my resumé. Parading smartly beneath the impressive entrance, bounding up the stairs, I strode confidently to the front counter, asking in a clear voice, “On what floor would I find editorial?”
This query earned a bemused smile. Big-city newspapers house reporters and editors on different floors than, say, the brash lot who sell advertising. The Times Colonist was a modest operation where all departments fit on a single floor.
The interview went swell, the job was mine, and, at the end of the school year, the rest of the family moved across the strait from Vancouver. The first parent-teacher meeting at the children’s school was instructive. The teacher, a no-nonsense figure of decided opinions, asked my partner where she worked. Oh, CBC Radio! How the teacher loved it, citing hosts by name as though they were old friends, recalling ancient broadcasts and forgotten personalities. And, you, she said, at last turning her attention to me, where do you work? Why, the Times Colonist was a lousy, no-good tabloid supermarket rag filled with typos and non-sequiturs. I should have lied and said I sold tobacco to children. I would have had a better response.
The city’s antipathy to the paper surprised me then, as it does now. Right-wingers refer to the TC as the Times Communist. Left-wingers complain about a bias, too, yet in my almost four years on staff, I’d found the reporters to be diligent and dedicated. The paper’s problems — yes, there were too many typos and some stories were not reported as fully as they might have been — stemmed not from incompetence on the part of editors and reporters, but from the negligence of the owners. The size of the staff shrank steadily over the years. I began work in a 10-person sports department; it is half that size now. The paper has remained profitable, but that money has funded other projects. (Hello, National Post.) Decades of bloodletting has left the paper looking anemic.
Last fall, Glacier Media Group bought the TC from PostMedia. The paper had been owned previously by Canwest Global, Southam, Thomson, and FP Publications. The sale marks the first time a Victoria daily has been owned by British Columbia interests since 1950.
Previous ownership changes resulted in a whittling of staff to save on costs. As of the new year, the change in ownership has not altered what is delivered on the doorstep. So far, so good.
The TC does much admirable work and it does so with a small staff. Last year, it exposed disgraceful cutbacks, waiting lists and service problems at the government agency responsible for caring for the disabled. Those stories improved the lives of vulnerable people. It is the kind of enterprise reporting the TC has done countless times.
These are tough times for newspapers. Morale is down, as is circulation. No one is even certain whether a daily print product will be produced a decade from now. Three paid newspapers are delivered to my door — the TC, the Globe and Mail, and the Sunday edition of the New York Times. I know I’m an exception. On recycling day, the blue boxes hold fewer newspapers than they once did. I’m hoping the neighbours are at least getting their news online.
However we access news, whether from blipping pixels on a computer screen or from old-fashioned ink on dead trees, we need it. We need people with the skills to ferret information from reluctant authorities and from government agencies. Just ask the families of the disabled how much better there lives are today thanks to the newspaper’s intervention. That’s why I support a local media outlet like the Times Colonist. I’m on the 100-mile news diet.