Monthly Archives: December 2012

It’s hard for journalists to turn down free gifts

No free gifts.

It’s a simple rule, really. It seems so easy to understand, so hard to get wrong. In the past few months, as we’ve heard stories about Quebec politicians and civil servants getting free things from construction companies, we’ve become collectively outraged. How could people not realize how obviously unethical this all is? How could people be so stupid?

The assumption, of course, is that they’re not stupid or naive, but evil. They’ve done wrong because they want to be corrupt, they want to profit from their positions and screw the taxpayer for personal gain.

Frii böoz

Last week, as the Charbonneau Commission was getting yet more scandalous detail of the too-cozy relationship between government officials and the companies they hire, a story came out of Winnipeg that raised a few eyebrows among the journalistic community. Ikea, the Swedish retailer, opened a store in the Manitoba capital, and invited media and bloggers to a party the night before, where they were given free alcohol, gift bags and a 15% discount (CBC’s video shows the crowd cheering as the latter is announced, though it’s unclear how many of the cheering fans were journalists and how many were bloggers, marketers and other invited guests).

CBC Winnipeg apparently didn’t like this whole thing, and focused a story on the ethical problem. (The story doesn’t make it clear who brought up the ethical issue in the first place, leaving me with the impression that it was the CBC itself – and that it hid this with the use of the passive tense in its headline and lead paragraph. Marc Weisblott also points out that CBC itself regularly gives out freebies during its media events.)

The CBC story got picked up by a media ethics blog, which took aim at a couple of bloggers bragging about the swag they got.

It’s not that an Ikea opening in a city like Winnipeg isn’t news. But a lot of the news surrounding it has been of the fluffy variety (quizzes, anyone?). A Winnipeg Free Press story, which reads almost like an advertisement, has three bylines. The Free Press also provided this bit of “investigative journalism” (in their defence, used with tongue in cheek) about how long the walk is in the store. Dozens of stories have been written on this store by the FP alone, most of them in a positive light.

At the Winnipeg Sun, the event was important enough to send a handful of journalists, who livetweeted the event, taking pictures of themselves with the merchandise and even bragging about the free wine they were getting.

Imagine, for a moment, government officials bragging on social media about all the free stuff they were getting from construction companies.

Now, I’m not saying that all these journalists are on the take, or that the free stuff they got prompted them to be more positive about Ikea when writing their stories. But I wonder if this opening would have gotten this much media attention if Ikea hadn’t been so … welcoming … to journalists.

Tough decisions

As I’ve become more known in this industry, I’ve been invited to more of these kinds of events. There was The Beat’s exclusive first anniversary party, and a party (mainly for advertising clients) at Astral’s new radio studios, both of which I went to more as a way to chat with the people I cover than because of the music or free food and booze. It’s always kind of awkward when I have to come up with an excuse for why I’m not drinking away their promotion budget like everyone else.

It’s hard to say no when things are offered to you. Much of journalism requires getting access to people and places that normal people aren’t allowed or have to pay a price to reach. Journalists – particularly those in entertainment – get free swag sent to them all the time, usually in the form of cheap branded stuff, stuff they don’t really have much use for.

I myself haven’t been perfect. I let a certain radio DJ entice me into stocking up on candy. I’ve let a couple of sources pay for a (modest) meal we’ve shared, mainly to avoid the awkwardness of getting into an argument on principles. In these borderline cases I’ve relieved my guilt by making an equivalent donation to the Gazette Christmas Fund at the end of the year, but I should probably be more firm about these kinds of things.

It’s hard to set a clear line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. You can be fundamental like the New York Times and say no gifts whatsoever. You can be practical like other companies and say no gifts over, say, $20, to distinguish the silly swag junk from the stuff that people really crave.

What’s important, I think, is that journalists understand why they’re being given free stuff. Companies aren’t stupid. They know that giving free stuff to people in media works, if not to ensure positive coverage then at least to ensure some attention (which means free advertising).

And not to get too far into Media Ethics 101, but rewarding this activity discriminates against those without the big budgets. Those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have a social media strategy or an event planner who can ensure journalists get nice gift bags. Hell, many of them don’t even have the time or money to send out a press release to all the mainstream media in town. Think about that too when you’re getting all this attention from the people with lots of money.

Journalists are always going to be a special class. They’ll have free access to events they’re covering when everyone else has to pay. They’ll get to meet celebrities that everyone else can only dream of getting an autograph from. They’ll get their requests for information quickly upgraded to a higher priority. And often they’ll get special treatment just because.

These are great privileges, in some cases necessary to do their jobs properly. But it’s up to journalists to ensure that these privileges aren’t abused.

What happened in Winnipeg is an example of such abuse. A minor one. I’m not calling for anyone’s head. I just ask that these journalists think a bit more next time and look their gift horses a bit more squarely in the mouth, and not to be excited at the prospect of shiny things being put in front of your faces. Not to let your sources get you drunk. And certainly not to brag about that to your less privileged audience.

Unfortunately for us, it’s the stuff that we want the most that is the most unethical to take.

And if Quebec politics has taught us anything, it’s that “c’était Céline Dion, quand même” isn’t an excuse people will accept for something that looks so much like quid pro quo.

STM to test new payment system for 747 bus

At its meeting Wednesday night, the STM’s board of directors approved something I found a bit odd: a new fare designed specifically for the westbound 747 bus.

The 747 already has a special fare. Now they’re going to have different fares for different directions?

Not exactly. Carl Desrosiers, the STM’s general manager, explained after the meeting that the transit agency is about to install a series of new machines along the 747’s westbound route, that will allow people to get tickets for the bus using their credit cards.

The machines will be installed at every westbound downtown stop along the 747’s route some time in the coming months, and we could see more of them on the STM’s network if the pilot project goes well.

The fare for the 747 is $8, and goes up to $9 in January (even with the reduced fare hikes announced earlier that day). Not only do the buses not accept credit or debit cards, but they don’t accept paper money either, which means people have to pay this fare with at least five coins.

So these machines will be a way for tourists and others heading for the airport to be able to pay for a fare without having to find a metro station or get lots of change from someone.

Desrosiers says the new type of fare will cost the same as the usual 747 fare.

But why only for westbound buses? Desrosiers explains that those coming from the airport can use a special vending machine just inside the terminal next to the bus stop, so there’s no need for a similar device.

Information counter and fare machine at Trudeau Airport next to the 747 stop.

The Beat’s $1-million gamble

Three days into December and we haven’t had a 45 cm snowfall yet. If we had, there’d be a very happy radio listener, a very happy radio station and a very unhappy insurance company.

But it’s highly unlikely we’re going to be seeing a $1-million payout.

As one of the many crazy ideas that have come out of its promotions department, The Beat is running a contest that asks listeners to guess a date in December in which a 45 cm snowfall hits Montreal. It was originally based on a report that predicted higher-than-average snowfall for December, but the prediction is actually lower-than-average snowfall for December.

The listener who guesses the correct date (or a random draw if multiple listeners guess it) gets $1 million. Or, more accurately, they get $25,000 a year for their lifetime or 40 years, whichever is shorter.

Here’s the catch: Montreal has never seen 45 cm of snow in a single day in December. Now it has. See below.

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Global Montreal hires Rob Ostiguy, Jim Connell to run morning show

Jim Connell has been hired as studio director for Global Montreal’s morning show

Global Montreal announced their first hires for their new morning show, which is expected to start … soonish? (They’re not yet ready to announce a launch date.)

Robert Ostiguy, a former promotions producer at CBC in the 1990s and freelance since then, has been named Senior Producer. Ostiguy has already been posting photos of his new workplace on his Facebook page, and is clearly enjoying having a new job.

Jim Connell, best known for his work throughout the lifetime of 940 News (but whose career also includes some time at CJAD and CKO) has been hired as the studio director. After 940 News disappeared, Connell resurfaced as part of the Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy radio station bid. It’s not clear how this new job will affect his involvement in that project (I’ll update this when I hear from him).

The more high-profile on-air positions haven’t been announced, but should be “in the coming month,” Global’s senior publicist Nick Poirier tells me.

Parc Avenue Tonight: Why isn’t this on TV?

Are Montreal anglos well served by local television? There are three stations with daily local newscasts, and a fourth could be coming within months. By this time next year Montreal could have two English-language TV morning shows. But what about the rest? What about the entertainment shows, the talk shows, the music shows, the cooking shows and everything else that we used to get on local television?

We get some of these things as part of the news (or, in the case of Global’s Focus Montreal, a weekly program set in the news studio). But their very nature limits them in terms of length and format.

It was this lack of non-news programming that led to Mitch Melnick starting up an online video talk show in 2009, which didn’t last long.

Now, someone’s trying something like this again. His name is Dimitrios Koussioulas, and the show is called Parc Avenue Tonight. It’s a very-low-budget (like, $2,000 a season) weekly talk show about Mile End, with videos so far between 10 and 17 minutes long.

The Gazette’s Bill Brownstein has details about the show, and Cult MTL also has a brief writeup.

The show looks promising from the three episodes posted so far. It has a nice intro theme, and seems to be well edited. Koussioulas is an engaging host. About the only thing that I don’t like about it is all the smoking, which seems almost as if it was put in there to seem cool, like this was the opposite of an after-school special.

But could this make it on regular television? The answer depends not only on whether the advertising it could generate would offset its costs, but whether the profit it generated would be higher than whatever programming CTV or Global would put on the air instead of it.

Canada has tried commercial entertainment talk shows in the past. Remember Mike Bullard? But nowadays all that’s left in Canada is fluffy daytime programs like Cityline and Marilyn Denis, and stuff imported from the U.S. Primetime talk shows are limited to the one subsidized by the CBC and the one subsidized by its host. And none of this is local.

Sadly, with most local television owned by big national vertically-integrated companies, there’s little incentive to change. Even putting a show like this in a low-rated spot like Friday nights at midnight would be asking too much of local commercial television stations.

Which is a shame, because given modest means, something like Parc Avenue Tonight could turn into quality programming that attracts a small but loyal audience.

Thankfully there’s the Internet, where anyone can do something like this on their own, and if it’s good enough it will attract enough eyeballs to make it financially viable.

We’ll see if Parc Avenue Tonight is good enough to make it past one season.

You can watch Parc Avenue Tonight with Dimitrios Koussioulas at

Broadcaster Kathy Coulombe dies

Kathy Coulombe, a long-time broadcaster with CKO, CJAD, CHOM and Radio Canada International, died this weekend of lymphoma lung cancer.

The first news came from another veteran broadcaster, Jim Connell, in an email to the Radio in Montreal group. Those who worked with her quickly offered condolences via social media.

Obituaries have been posted by The Gazette, CJAD, CBC, RCI and Presse Canadienne, and already one blog post has gone up from Howie Silbiger with an anecdote about how they met.

I never met Coulombe, so I’ll just let other people’s memories speak for themselves:

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Ratings prove benefits of talk format

In June, Cogeco Diffusion announced that it would take three stations outside Montreal using the CKOI brand and turn them into talk stations similar to CHMP 98.5. Three months after the changes took effect, we have our first publicly-available ratings data for two of these stations.

On Thursday, BBM Canada released top-line radio ratings for diary markets (PDF). Diary markets are those that measure ratings through the use of diary surveys of listeners, asking them to fill out forms saying what they listened to. They exclude the five largest markets (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary), which have switched to the Portable People Meter, an electronic device that logs what people actually listen to. PPMs are more expensive, but more accurate.

The BBM diary survey data gives us snapshots of markets including Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Ottawa/Gatineau, the latter in both French and English. Cogeco has a talk station in each of these metro areas.

In Sherbrooke (CKOY-FM 107.7) and Gatineau (CKOF-FM 104.7), the stations both saw ratings boosts compared to this spring and a year ago.

Sherbrooke’s CKOY has an 8% market share, which is actually last-place among metered commercial stations in the market now that CJTS-FM has been shut down. But that number is up from 6.6% a year ago, 4.9% in fall 2010 and 5.2% in fall 2009.

Gatineau’s CKOF has a 7.6% market share, its highest since the spring of 2009, and up from 4.3% in fall 2011.

The third former CKOI station, Trois-Rivières’s CKOB-FM 106.9, is not part of the publicly-available data, so we don’t know how it did as far as ratings didn’t do as well, according to Astral’s BBM analysis. It lost ground overall, and particularly among young adults and women. But among adults 25-54 (the key demo), it’s about where it was a year ago – in last place.

In Quebec City, where Cogeco already had a talk station and the CKOI-branded station there was sold to an independent company when Cogeco bought Corus, the numbers also look good for talk radio. Controversial talk radio station CHOI-FM, which had been as far down as fifth and sixth place in the market in 2009, is now the top-rated station in the market with a 15.9% market share. Cogeco’s Quebec City talk/rock station CJMF-FM (FM93) is in third place, and its 14.7% market share is its best since at least 2009.

The Journal de Québec has some details of the Quebec City market.

Combined with data showing that CHMP in Montreal keeps getting higher ratings, it’s clear that there’s a pattern here, and the switch from music to talk has had some (at least modest) success in terms of ratings.

Radio-Canada was also crowing about these numbers. In Ottawa/Gatineau, Radio-Canada’s Première Chaîne had a reach exceeding 100,000 listeners for the first time ever. (Reach is defined as the number of people tuning into a station at least once a week.) It also breaks down some numbers for each of its shows.

Spin cycle

Lots of broadcasters issued their own statements on their ratings numbers, including for many small markets that BBM doesn’t give numbers for directly. Here’s a few I’ve found for Quebec’s diaried markets:

  • Astral gives an overall picture and rundown by market (with only the good news highlighted). Astral’s ratings analysis folks also have details in terms of age, gender and time of day for the Quebec, Sherbrooke, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay markets.
  • Cogeco Quebec: FM 93 might be losing to CHOI, but it does better in the city of Quebec itself, and FM 93 and sister station 102.9 are stronger as a pair than the pair of stations owned by RNC and Astral. (Wow, that’s some heavy spin)
  • NRJ Abitibi: A brief pointing out that they’re No. 1 in Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or
  • Radio-Canada Saguenay: Third place, but some interesting gains
  • Planète Dolbeau-Mistassini: We’re No. 1! Share this news on Facebook!
  • Planète Alma: More women are listening to us! Share this news on Facebook!

Other less biased analysis by market: