Category Archives: Opinion

Loopholes in the written journalism bailout panel report

It’s called the Journalism and Written Media Independent Panel of Experts. Eight people proposed by organizations (two of them unions) hand-picked by the federal government, who were supposed to set the criteria for how to determine what are “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” that would be eligible for a tax credit on labour and another one on news subscriptions, part of a $595-million bailout package over five years.

This week, the panel submitted its report to the government. It sets some criteria for how to judge whether an organization is doing real journalism (or real enough to deserve a tax credit), but it also leaves me with a lot of questions. The headline to the report is that the panel thinks the funding is insufficient and is calling on a lot more to be added to the budget (this is not something it was asked to look at in its mandate). It also demands the government greatly increase its ad spend on newspapers and newspapers’ websites, and change the Copyright Act to force digital giants (presumably Google) to compensate news organizations, more things it was not asked to comment on.

As someone who enjoys finding loopholes in rules, I’d like to go through the report and point out some of them.

Preamble: Journalists aren’t accredited

It might surprise a lot of non-journalists to hear this, but there is no central authority that decides who is and is not a journalist. There are organizations, like the Parliamentary Press Gallery or the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec that set criteria and will authenticate journalists in some way, but there are many professional journalists that are part of neither, whose only credentials are given by their employer and have no legal powers attached to them.

This is by design. In Canada, anyone can be a journalist. The profession is not regulated, and allowing the government to decide who can and cannot practice it would be a Very Bad Idea.

So when we talk about giving money to journalism, we have to define what that is. Hence the panel, set up for the sole purpose of laying down some criteria, which would be applied by others. It’s not an easy job, and any rules you set only lead to more problems, as we’ll see below.

Let the CRA decide, or maybe journalism professors

In the interests of moving quickly, we have recommended that the tax credits be implemented and administered directly by the Canada Revenue Agency. We have recommended that the Government appoint an advisory body, with members drawn from the faculty of post-secondary journalism schools across Canada, to assist the Minister of National Revenue with this program.

The panel proposes that rather than a new government bureaucracy, the Canada Revenue Agency itself make calls on whether an organization should qualify for a tax credit. This is a good idea. The CRA is independent of partisan interests, and staffed by accountants who can be trusted, at least more than a politically-appointed body, to apply the criteria objectively.

But then, if the CRA is unsure (and I would be pretty unsure about a lot of organizations here), it can turn to an “advisory body” made up exclusively of journalism professors. The panel makes the assumption that such professors would be similarly objective (perhaps even more so). I’m not sure why. University professors have a reputation of being more left-wing, and that might not sit well with more conservative media outlets.

“It has published at least 10 editions in the last 12 months”

This makes sense for print media, and for edition-based outlets like La Presse+. But what does “edition” mean in terms of a website? How many “editions” has this blog put out? Or CBC.ca? Or the National Observer? Or iPolitics? These organizations wouldn’t be eligible anyway for other reasons, but this line alone seems to betray the fact that this isn’t about saving journalism as a whole or written journalism, it’s about saving newspapers and former newspapers.

“…in the case of web sites that offers video and audio files, at least 60% of the content is written.”

This makes sense until you ask yourself the obvious question: How do you quantify audiovisual content in a way that can compare to written content? Is it by file size? That’s unfair because video is so much larger. Is it by time spent consuming it? Then you’d have to establish some average reading speed. Or maybe one story = one video or podcast, regardless of length of either?

Even if we could establish some proper criteria for this, it encourages a gaming of the system, by finding a cheap source of written content and/or artificially restricting the amount of multimedia content.

“Journalistic processes”

To determine what qualifies as “original written news content,” a phrase used in the legislation for both the labour tax credit and the digital subscription tax credit,  the committee provides these “processes and principles”:

Journalistic processes and principles include:

  • a commitment to researching and verifying information before publication;
  • a consistent practice of providing rebuttal opportunity for those being criticized and presenting alternate perspectives, interpretations and analyses;
  • an honest representation of sources;
  • a practice or correcting errors.

These sound great (well, except for that unfortunate typo in the sentence about correcting errors). And most serious news organizations follow these principles. Most of the time. But how do you enforce this? Leave it to the CRA to determine whether enough errors were corrected by a publication, or whether enough research and verification was done on enough stories? There is no central body regulating written media, and even if you made membership in an organization like the National Newsmedia Council a condition for getting the tax credit (and it’s not), such bodies act only on complaints and have no real power.

Content mix

Content not considered as editorial content: advertisements, listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes. Advertisements include promotional content, sponsored content, branded content (any content where a third party, advertising client or business partner, participates in the development of the concept or directs or gives final approval to a large portion of the content) as well as stories produced primarily for industrial, corporate or institutional purposes.

This is interesting, and at first glance it would seem to mean that publications that have large amounts of listings, ads or cartoons wouldn’t qualify. But the point of this paragraph is actually to exclude all this content from the calculation of how much editorial content is original to the publication, and seems specifically designed to tilt the scale in favour of newspapers and other publications that have a lot of advertisements and other non-news content.

The original news content (or original editorial content) is the content for which research, writing, editing and formatting are conducted by and for the organization. This original content should represent more than 50% of the publication’s editorial content, over the course of the year. The rewriting, translation, reproduction or aggregation of news from external sources (including articles from news agencies or any other publication) is not considered original news content. The publication of this type of content must not represent the principal activity of the journalistic organization, in order for it to be eligible.

There’s a lot to unpack here:

  • What is “the organization”? A lot of newspapers are part of chains. Does the organization mean the individual newspaper or the chain?
  • Does “editing and formatting” mean that newspapers that outsource things like page layout would be ineligible?
  • If a publication is more than 50% wire content, it would not be eligible. But how is this counted? By number of stories? By number of words published? How do you calculate that for a website that might have automated feeds of wire stories?
  • The paragraph makes “rewriting” and “aggregation” of news not count towards the quota. But how strict are these definitions? If a newspaper matches a story from a competitor with one of its own, or a column summarizes something reported elsewhere, does this not count as original content?

Democratic institutions

To be considered as an eligible QCJO, the publication must regularly cover democratic institutions and processes.

Democratic institutions include legislatives bodies, municipal councils, courts of justice, school boards, etc.

Democratic processes has a broader scope, and includes all issues of public interest that may come before government or any other public decision body.

Another clause that nudges us toward traditional newspapers and away from specialized media, this one requires eligible organizations to “regularly cover” (another undefined term) legislatures, courts or school boards (or other unspecified “etc.”). This might seem obvious, but we live in a world where many legislatures aren’t covered by journalists full-time. There are lots of journalists at Parliament Hill or Queen’s Park or the National Assembly, but in smaller provinces like Saskatchewan, New Brunswick or PEI, you can fit their full-time press galleries in the back of a van. It’s not a given that all traditional media would meet this criterion, and the vague way it’s described would mean more work for the CRA.

General interest

Furthermore, the publication must be focused on matters of general interest. It means that:

  • it is aimed at a general audience (lay persons) rather than specialists of a specific field,
  • it offers a diversity of content, including at least 3 among the following 9 areas: local news; national news; international news; social issues (such as health, education, faith and ethics); business and economy; sports; culture; science and technology; environment.

This brings up an important question: Why is this aid only for general interest newspapers? Is it just assumed that more specialized media are bankrolled indirectly by the industries they cover? One consequence of this is that it artificially tips the scale toward general interest media, and will discourage such media from becoming more specialized, even if that might be in their economic, readers’ and even society’s best interest. (This is a problem with the legislation, mind you, not the panel’s work.)

No freelancers

The expression “regularly employs” refers to the employment of journalists at regular intervals, either fulltime or part-time, even if their position is temporarily unoccupied.

This sentence, which gives context to an element of the legislation requiring at least two journalists, makes it clear that freelancers don’t count. That would exclude many media who rely mainly on freelancers. Not necessarily a bad thing, but worth noting.

Who is a journalist?

The term “journalists” should be understood in the broad sense given to it by media companies and professional associations of journalists, which includes all newsroom employees who exercise journalistic judgement in selecting, planning, assigning and producing news content, including research and collection of facts, data analysis, writing and copy editing, fact-checking, illustration, photography and videography, graphic presentation and adaptation of news content to digital formats.

This is a broad definition of journalist, but not overly so. It includes editors, managers, assignment editors, researchers, photojournalists and illustrators. But it doesn’t include people in administrative tasks or who work in non-editorial departments. It’s not clear how people who have multiple tasks will be counted. Do journalistic activities have to represent the majority of work for them to qualify as journalists? (The labour tax credit says it should be 75%, but it’s unclear if this same quota would apply to an organization that wants a digital news subscription tax credit.)

Ineligible organizations

publications whose editorial content is primarily reproduced or repeated from current or previous issues of the same or other publications;

This clause would seem to exclude publications that primarily reproduce content from other publications. That could cause a problem for organizations like Postmedia (my employer) and Quebecor, whose newspapers share a lot of content. Postmedia broadsheets, the Sun tabloids and the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec share not only content, but entire pages between them for non-local news and features. Would they have to limit shared content to under 50%? It depends how this is interpreted.

publications with editorial content that is more than 50% of the following, singly or in combination: listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes;

Wait, hold on. Above, they said “listings, catalogues, directories, guides, financial reports, schedules, calendars, timetables, comic books, cartoons, puzzles, games and horoscopes” are “not considered editorial content.” If they’re not editorial content, how can they possibly make up more than 50% of editorial content?

If we use this definition that apparently includes these things as editorial content, then this might cause trouble. A newspaper with a cartoon page, a puzzles page, a movie listings page, a TV listings page would have that all count against their editorial content (counted how exactly?) and on a slow news day might push it over the top.

Also note how the word “advertisements” is missing from this list, which is otherwise identical to the definition of “not considered editorial content” earlier in the report. That makes sense, but it also underscores the fact that nothing in this set of criteria sets any limit on the amount of advertising in a publication.

pamphlets and other publications whose editorial content consists mainly of opinion texts;

This might cause problems for publications that rely heavily on columnists.

Publication used for the diffusion of hate content;

This sounds good. It also sounds like something lots of activists will pounce on to argue publications they don’t like should have their tax credits revoked. But why are “hate content” publications allowed in the first place?

loose-leaf publications.

I don’t know why this is here. I can’t think of a publication that might otherwise be eligible that requires this clarification, or a reason why a publication that would otherwise be eligible should be disqualified because it’s distributed in loose-leaf form.

Experts must agree with us

The qualifications for panel members should include that they:

support the package of tax credits to help written news outlets covering general interest news

I mean, I guess it would be odd if a panel member opposed the thing they’re here to judge, but it feels weird to require an independent expert to support a political policy. If they express criticism of a tax credit, do they get booted off the panel?

Actually, maybe freelancers

Later, in its list of additional recommendations, the panel says:

Allowing small publications, which have served established audiences for more than 10 years but do not have two regular employees for the last 12 months, to be able to count freelancers and independent contractors among journalists who regularly contribute to the creation of original content in order to allow them to be considered Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations. This would include individuals who work as reporters, editors, page designers, photographers and columnists on a regular basis.

It’s unclear why freelancers shouldn’t count in general but should be allowed to count for small publications with fewer than two employed journalists. Allowing this exception essentially eliminates the entire point for setting that two-employed-journalist minimum in the first place.

Make Google pay

Reform the taxation system so that media companies that benefit from the use of Canadian content contribute to its creation. This includes social media, search platforms and internet providers. This can be done by creating a dedicated fund and redirecting levies paid by these entities to support Canadian news outlets.

I won’t go into all the out-of-mandate recommendations from the panel, which mostly translate into “more $$ plz”, but this one is pretty significant, requiring search engines and even internet providers to pay taxes to support Canadian news outlets. News organizations have repeatedly said Google and Facebook need to help them financially because they’re taking their content. Meanwhile those same organizations devote lots of time and resources to get their content as prominent as possible on Google and Facebook.

Amend the Copyright Act so that originating news outlets are properly compensated for the creation of copyrighted news material that is duplicated across digital platforms.

This isn’t explained, and it’s unclear what it means. Is it referring to when Google excerpts the content of pages in search results, or is it talking about the wholesale copying and pasting of entire stories on sketchy websites?

Transparency

A list of companies that have successfully filed for status as Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations be publicly available.

Good. Taxpayer money should be doled out transparently. Though it’s unclear if the CRA itself would publish this list or some other organization. And it’s unclear why companies that unsuccessfully apply shouldn’t also be publicly available.

Executive compensation

Given that the initiatives outlined in the budget legislation aim to support the creation of news content and coverage of democratic institutions, and that certain companies have eliminated jobs in their newsrooms at the same time as giving executive officers excessive compensation, this Panel strongly urges the Government to require qualifying organizations to recognize that they have an obligation to use publicly funded benefits for the intended purpose of investing in news operations by not awarding excessive compensation to executives at the same time as they receive assistance from the program.

Certain news organizations have been accused of spending too much on executive compensation while seeking a bailout. So some people have suggested this paragraph is aimed at a particular person or type of people.

Let Le Devoir in

The panel specifically recommends that the legislation that allows non-profit news organizations to get charitable status be amended so that organizations that support non-profit news organizations can also be charities. Le Devoir is supported by such an organization, and under the current law (which was drafted more to support La Presse) it wouldn’t be able to issue charitable tax receipts. This seems like a no-brainer, provided the assistance organization otherwise meets the definition of a charity and the news organization itself would otherwise be eligible.

Le Devoir reacted to the report with outrage, as if the report itself was the problem, rather than simply confirming what’s in the legislation and seeking changes on Le Devoir’s behalf. Quebecor, meanwhile, says the report shows the Liberals are in bed with La Presse, but doesn’t point to any specific part of the report or the law that unduly favours its competitor.

An improvised report with big consequences

This panel had only a month to come up with its recommendations, and had to work under the rules set by legislation they did not draft, so I don’t want to criticize them too much. But this report underscores the fact that defining what is and is not journalism is very hard, and not at all easy. Even though we know which kinds of media will likely get the most help (daily newspapers, news magazines plus La Presse), there’s a lot of play around the margins.

What’s more important, though, is that once the government sets some official standard for what constitutes a journalist or journalistic organization, that standard can be referenced or copied elsewhere, creating a slippery slope. Certain privileges meant for any journalist could be restricted to those who meet these criteria and are deemed eligible for the tax credit. Other privileges could be created that give officially accredited journalists more rights than the rest of us. And we need to think hard about the consequences of that.

Tax credits for journalism might be a good idea. But these tax credits support a very specific type of journalism to the detriment of others, and the criteria proposed here just add to the problems.

See also: Andrew Coyne has similar thoughts, expressed more sarcastically.

Some context to consider about those TVA Facebook comments

You may have seen the story: TVA Nouvelles deleted a Facebook post pointing to a story about a house fire in Halifax that killed seven children (who happened to be from a Syrian family) because it received several unacceptable comments that appeared to make light of or even celebrate their deaths. Media personality Alexandre Champagne compiled some of those comments in a widely shared screenshot.

TVA Nouvelles posted another post and apologized, saying it would try to police its social media better next time.

I posted a link to the apology on Twitter and it got retweeted a bit, prompting a lot of discussion. I was interviewed for a CityNews story about it, during which I tried to say that a few comments on a Facebook page provides a skewed impression of the views of the audience — and larger population — as a whole.

Through the various discussions, I’ve seen a lot of statements that I feel are missing key context, so I’d like to try to add some of that here.

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MusiquePlus is dead — but music on TV is far from it

There are quite a few eulogies to MusiquePlus this week in various media, after news came out that owner V will be replacing it this summer with a women’s movie channel. (Many news stories talked about it going “off the air” or being “shut down forever”, when neither is true. The only thing really changing that has any connection to its former life is the name.)

Brendan KellyRafaël Ouellet and various former MP personalities shared memories of the music channel, how it influenced a generation and how much fun it was to work there.

The eulogies tend to fall along the same lines, remembering the personalities the channel built up, the live music performances, the interviews with big stars, the excitement of debuting a new song or video. Then they go on to acknowledge that most people can get their music videos on YouTube these days and have no need for a channel that runs them on an endless loop.

There’s a few problems with this logic, though. For one thing, there is demand for such a channel. As I’m writing this my TV is on Stingray’s PalmarèsADISQ music video channel, which is an automated channel that runs nothing but francophone music videos. It doesn’t have live music or video jockeys, though.

And that’s what we really miss about MusiquePlus. It’s not the music videos, it’s everything else related to music.

But live music is expensive to produce. So while it may have worked as a weekly special occasion on a cable channel 20 years ago, it doesn’t make sense any more on Quebec television.

Which would make sense if you didn’t watch Quebec television, and conveniently ignored that the most popular francophone program on Quebec TV right now, with more than 2 million viewers a week, is a singing competition show.

I looked through the TV schedule for next week, and here are shows I found that are directly music-related:

  • La Voix (TVA, Sunday 7pm)
  • Virtuose (ARTV, Monday 10:30pm)
  • The Launch (VRAK, Wednesday 8pm)
  • En direct de l’univers (Radio-Canada, Saturday 7pm)
  • Pour l’amour du country (ARTV, Saturday 7pm)
  • La vie secrète des chansons (TV5, Saturday 8:15pm)
  • Belle et Bum (Télé-Québec, Saturday 9pm)

That doesn’t include general talent competition shows, cultural current affairs shows, dance shows, community television, talk shows featuring musicians as guests or one-off documentaries.

Music is still very present on television. What’s changed is more subtle than that, and has various factors. Music videos aren’t the money-maker they once were. TV channels have to work harder to gain audiences. Automation in TV production, and the job cuts that followed, have made it easier to just run content produced elsewhere than create original live studio programming. Corporate consolidation has led to more caution and a focus more on big-money highly-promoted “event” programming and less on the daily grind that will be mostly forgettable and not reusable, even if it can occasionally create unexpected gems.

I honestly don’t know if someone really committed to bringing back the essence of MusiquePlus (or MuchMusic on the English side, for that matter) could make it financially viable. MP didn’t make money when it was sold in the Bell-Astral merger, and V paid very little for it. If anyone felt they could step in and make it work, they had ample opportunity. And nothing it stopping anyone from creating a TV or online channel that does all of what MP used to do. They might even convince V to sell them the brand, since they won’t be using it anymore.

It’s sad that we’re losing MP’s history (they’re apparently in talks to preserve archives), but from music videos to live performances to interviews and critiques, the programming we found on it still exists.

It just no longer exists all in one place. And we don’t have Véronique Cloutier, Rebecca Makonnen and Geneviève Borne tying it all together.

CityNews Montreal review: Taking content recycling to a new level

CityNews didn’t hide the fact that its local newscasts would be repetitive. In fact, they spun it as a design feature: few people will watch a full one-hour newscast, so it makes sense to make sure the top local stories are repeated so people get them whether they tune in at 6pm or 6:30pm.

Fair enough.

But it also means the news can be done on the cheap. With only two full-time reporters to start, plus a part-time reporter, BT’s news reporter and a guest contributor, they just don’t have enough staff to fill 14 one-hour newscasts a week.

To get an idea of what that means quantitatively, I recorded the first 14 episodes of CityNews Montreal’s newscast, the week of Sept. 3-9, at 6pm and 11pm, and timed its segments (705 segments total, with 13 attributes of each marked down). Here’s what stuck out to me:

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Review: A mostly flawless election night for 2/4 English TV networks

Election nights are always fun. All hands on deck, at night on the tightest of deadlines, working together to report on the story of the year.

Each medium has its own challenges, but TV has the highest stakes. Everyone’s watching — including the politicians — and seconds count. Make an early call that turns out to be right, and you get supreme bragging rights. Get it wrong, and you’re a laughingstock. And you have to fill hours of programming, usually without even the benefit of a commercial break.

Four TV networks broadcast live election specials during primetime on Monday night on their local TV stations and all-news networks — Radio-Canada, TVA, CBC and CTV. Two others had live wrap-ups at 11pm: Citytv and Global.

I checked in with all of them on election night (though I was busy with helping put out a newspaper), and reviewed recordings of the four English networks after the fact. (I’ll leave it to my francophone colleagues to review how RadCan and TVA did.) Here’s how they did:

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CRTC report has fundamental but very vague suggestions to change our broadcasting system

One day before the deadline set by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, the CRTC on Thursday released a report into the broadcasting system that proposes major, fundamental changes to how broadcasting is regulated in this country. (The condensed backgrounder is here.)

Unfortunately, that report is also quite vague, even on the parts that should be specific.

It’s not the CRTC’s fault, really, because that’s not really its purpose. The original order issued back in September by Joly is just as vague, seeking a report on “the distribution model or models of programming that are likely to exist in the future; how and through whom Canadians will access that programming; the extent to which these models will ensure a vibrant domestic market that is capable of supporting the continued creation, production and distribution of Canadian programming, in both official languages, including original entertainment and information programming.”

In terms of assessing programming distribution models, the report is pretty clear, but is also repeating a lot of stuff we already know: conventional television and radio are mature industries and have no way to go but down, online audio and video streaming services are catching on with the population, and Internet delivery of content means more Canadians are getting that content directly from foreign sources who don’t have to contribute to Canadian content or answer to the CRTC.

What’s new is what the commission proposes to do about it, but that’s where the data and charts go out the window and we’re left with vague, obvious suggestions and what often sounds like one unnamed person’s opinion.

But let’s go through them and look at the issues in a bit more detail:

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Canada’s emergency alerting system needs some improvement

UPDATED with results of the test below (spoiler alert: a massive failure).

On Monday at 9:55am, people in Quebec will get their first taste of wireless public alerting as their phones blurt out the most annoying sound bureaucrats could conceive and display a test message. (Ontario’s test is at 1:55pm and the rest of the country will get the alert on May 9 at 1:55pm local time.)

At the same time, television and radio stations will interrupt their regular programming to send out similar alerts, and TV set-top boxes will display them or automatically tune to a special channel.

It’s a good step toward building a system that can save lives in the event of an emergency. And though people might complain that it’s taken too long to get to this point, that the CRTC or the government or broadcasters are dragging their feet, the truth is that this is the kind of thing you really want to make sure to get right. The last thing you want is people trying to figure out how they can disable these alarms because there are too many false ones.

Unfortunately, even before the alert goes out, I’ve noticed some problems with the system that authorities should really look into fixing.

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The bus and the cyclist

Wednesday, April 11, Sherbrooke St., heading east from Atwater Ave. A cyclist, riding in the right lane, is minding his business when suddenly an STM bus passes within inches of him in a dangerous pass. The cyclist catches up to the driver twice to argue with him, all caught on video. He posts it to YouTube and a day later some prominent local personalities (Dominic Arpin, Patrick Lagacé) share the video on social media.

The response from their followers is overwhelming: the cyclist is at fault. He should have been further to the side. He shouldn’t have been zigzagging around cars. He should have used the bicycle path on nearby de Maisonneuve Blvd. He shouldn’t have engaged the driver.

It’s disappointing that anti-cyclist mentality has reached this point. As an occasional cyclist myself, I’m well aware that there are some really dangerous cyclists out there. But nothing this cyclist did was dangerous, and yet he gains little sympathy from people.

Let’s analyze their arguments.

He shouldn’t have been in the middle of the lane

The bus makes its dangerous pass, inches from the parking lane.

The wide angle of the camera distorts it a bit, but I estimate about a metre, maybe a metre and a half, between the bus and the lane of parked cars as it passes the cyclist. That’s far less than there should be for any semblance of safety.

According to Quebec’s Highway Safety Code, Article 487: “Every person on a bicycle must ride on the extreme right-hand side of the roadway in the same direction as traffic, except when about to make a left turn, when travel against the traffic is authorized or in cases of necessity.” What “extreme right-hand side” means isn’t clarified here, and this article has been criticized as being written assuming country roads with wide lanes, not city streets with street parking. In my mind there’s little doubt that the cyclist is as far right as he can be safely. Remember as he passes those cars he has to worry about being doored.

In any case, Article 341 is quite clear: “No driver of a road vehicle may pass a bicycle within the same traffic lane unless the driver may do so safely, after reducing the vehicle’s speed and ensuring that a reasonable distance can be kept between the vehicle and the bicycle during the manoeuvre. A reasonable distance is 1.5 m on a road where the maximum authorized speed limit is more than 50 km/h or 1 m on a road where the maximum authorized speed limit is 50 km/h or less.”

The driver of the bus clearly did not respect the code.

But let’s put that aside and assume the cyclist *was* in the middle of the lane. Is that legal? It’s hard to say. Is it safer? Absolutely. Because drivers do this kind of stuff all the time. They don’t care about what’s a safe distance. They don’t even care if they hit the cyclist, because they’re protected by their car. So if they can squeeze by in the same lane, they’ll give it a shot, no matter how dangerous it is for the cyclist. The only way a cyclist can protect himself is to stay in the centre of the lane.

I’ve been there many times. And believe me, if the lane was wide enough for both, I’d be more than happy to move over to the side. The last thing a cyclist wants is an angry and unpredictable driver right behind them.

The cyclist should have used the bicycle path

From where the video starts at the corner of Atwater Ave., de Maisonneuve Blvd. is about 200 metres away. That’s not far. But past Fort St., that distance starts to increase. By Berri St. it’s 500 metres. But more importantly, there’s a much larger difference in altitude between the two. So much so that at Hôtel-de-Ville Ave., the sidewalk is actually stairs.

Without knowing the cyclist’s origin or destination, it’s hard to say for sure whether it would have made more sense to use the path. But as someone who has cycled on Sherbrooke a lot, the height difference is the main reason why. I’d prefer to take side streets, but there aren’t many options for that downtown above Sherbrooke.

In any case, there’s no law that prevents a cyclist from using a street if another street nearby has a bicycle path.

Why was the cyclist filming this?

Because this kind of stuff happens all the time. Just like Russians have gotten into the habit of installing dashboard cameras in their cars, some cyclists have put cameras on their helmets and set them to record automatically, knowing it won’t be long before they catch some driver doing something dangerous.

Cyclists are all awful

There are a lot of dangerous cyclists out there. Those who run red lights, zig-zag dangerously through stopped (and sometimes not-so-stopped) traffic, go the wrong way on one-way streets, ride on sidewalks, and talk on their phones. We should definitely have more enforcement of safety laws. But that doesn’t mean we should endanger the life of a cyclist who has broken none of these laws.

Anyway, the STM says the driver is going to be spoken to, and the actions were unacceptable. (They should also talk to him about driving with headphones on, which is also against the safety code.) Hopefully he learns his lesson before a decision to risk someone else’s life leads to a mistake with more lasting consequences.

UPDATE (April 24): La Presse reports the bus driver has been suspended five days.

Humboldt the untouchable: L’affaire Nora Loreto and the uselessness of hate

It is, unquestionably, a catastrophe, and the worst nightmare for dozens of families. A bus carrying a men’s junior hockey team, travelling to a game in small-town Saskatchewan, collides with a large truck carrying cargo, and the resulting crash leads to 14 people suddenly dying. Of the 15 survivors, two will later die from their injuries, and most of the others are still in serious condition — some have permanent paralysis, some are so injured as to be unrecognizable, to the point where one survivor and one deceased were mistaken for one another.

The response to the Humboldt Broncos bus crash has been overwhelming and heartwarming: coast to coast media coverage, statements of support from public figures in Canada and abroad, even a campaign by regular people to leave hockey sticks on their porches overnight as a show of moral and spiritual support. And a fundraising campaign that has raised more than $9 million to help the victims and families affected.

It’s a nice reminder, in the face of such horror, that we are one big family.

But $9 million is a lot of money. It works out to more than $300,000 for each person on that bus. When the campaign passed the $7 million mark, it prompted a question in me: is that enough?

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Yet another “Ways to fix the Canadian Screen Awards” post

I watched Sunday’s Canadian Screen Awards. Not because I was really excited by it, but because I felt some sort of civic (and professional) duty to do so.

I’ve seen several of these, so I know what to expect. Hosts trying their best with not very good comedic material. Nominees and winners that most of the audience is unfamiliar with. Quebec movie stars feeling like fish out of water in this very English Canada environment. And overall a gala and broadcast that tries to be like the Oscars or the Emmys or even the Screen Actors Guild Awards but with much fewer resources.

The budget issue won’t change unless the CSAs become as big a spectacle as the American awards shows, and we’re pretty far from that.

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CIBL has saviours, but it needs a business plan

Montreal community radio station CIBL-FM 101.5 is in a financial crisis. On Jan. 5, it laid off all 13 of its employees and cancelled all programming, replacing all its shows with an automated music playlist.

Its board of directors has launched a committee to try to figure out how to get the station back on track. Its now-former employees, meanwhile, are mobilizing to save the station. Their efforts can be seen on the Facebook page they’ve started. More than 200 people have signed up for memberships, and other groups have raised money or attention for their cause.

But while there’s plenty of nostalgia and compiling lists of famous people who got their start there (RBO, Marie-France Bazzo, Jean-René Dufort), and lots of talk about the importance of the station and community radio in general, there aren’t a lot of concrete proposals for how to get CIBL out of its financial mess, one that is in large part its own making.

Fortunately, CIBL still has a lot of good will, and people with the power to do something are stepping up and offering to help, like entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer (who is on the board of directors of the Société de developpement Angus, which owns the building housing CIBL) and Cogeco Media president Richard Lachance.

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Review: CTV’s The Launch is an interesting concept with some implementation issues

Contestant Logan Staats with mentor Shania Twain (photo: Bell Media)

If you haven’t heard about this new music competition series on CTV called The Launch, then there are some heartbroken people at Bell Media, because they’ve been pulling out all the stops promoting it.

The six-episode series (with a special seventh episode added to revisit the artists) tries something new with the singing competition format that has been tried and toyed with a dozen times. Rather than just having singers compete against each other for a record contract at the end of the series, each episode ends with a contestant’s career being launched with a new single (that’s available for download or streaming, and gets generous airtime on Bell-owned radio stations).

Based on the first episode, which aired on Wednesday, the show is divided into three roughly equal parts: the auditions, in which five artists compete to be among the two selected to record a song; the recording, in which the two finalists record a sure-to-be-a-hit pop song provided to them by a guest writer/producer; and the performance, in which both finalists perform the song live in front of an audience, and one is selected to launch with that song.

Julia Tomlinson’s audition was cut from the first episode of The Launch. (photo: Bell Media)

Those who paid attention during the first episode might be asking themselves why I said “five” above, since they only saw three auditions. Two artists, Julia Tomlinson and Alex Zaichkowski (aka Havelin), had their entire auditions cut from the episode (presumably for time), which really really sucks for them. They’re on the website, listed among the artists, and the post-episode press release even says they were in the episode, but all you saw of them was a 10-second voiceover during which it’s explained that they didn’t make it through. Their auditions are posted online at the links above if you want to see them.

In these kinds of shows, at least you can say the artists that don’t make it got some national television exposure. These two didn’t even get that.

UPDATE: I asked Bell Media about the cuts, and whether we should expect the same for future episodes. The answer, unfortunately, is yes:

THE LAUNCH is an entirely new format that has been evolving since it was greenlit. During the editing process which began after the show was shot in August, September, and October, it became obvious to our original production team that there was so much amazing footage we knew it would not fit into a conventional hour-long TV show. But we still wanted to showcase and promote all of the talent who were chosen for the series. So we made the decision to make the show a full 360 experience with audition footage of each episode’s five artists featured on ctv.ca and on YouTube and in the extended cut on CraveTV.

Alex Zaichkowski, who performs under the name Havelin (Photo: Bell Media)

Laura Heath Potter, Director of Communications for CTV, said the affected artists were advised prior to broadcast. She also noted that all the artists got to promote themselves as they promoted the series:

Bell Media has supported all 30 artists that participated in the series through interviews on national, local and radio outlets, as well as in our on air promotion campaign and digital extras on ctv.ca and paid digital promo over the past few months. We are building a new format and are grateful to have 30 Canadian artists act as ambassadors to the series and what it is attempting to accomplish — creating new original singles by Canadian artists that resonate with music fans and viewers.

Episodes are still being edited and finalized, but for all the upcoming episodes that have been through a final cut, each of the artists that have auditions being offered exclusively as part of the extended directors’ cut and separately on ctv.ca and YouTube have been informed already.

The song

One of the strengths of this series is that you see how the sausage is made. Not all pop stars write and compose their own songs. Many of them have the music and lyrics handed to them and just add their voice for a producer to mix together. That’s the case here — the song is written and ready before the panel even meets the contestant at the audition. The discussion afterward is about whether the producer can make the song work with that artist. And they have 48 hours to do so.

The song for the first episode is called The Lucky Ones, and you hear it throughout the episode so it gets stuck in your head by the end. It’s a pop song, with uninspiring lyrics like “close your eyes and hold me close tonight” (to say nothing about the misogynistic objectifying parts like “I never want to see your heart happy with another”), and a melody that doesn’t really set it apart from anything else you’ll hear on Virgin Radio. It has six writers and four producers listed for it, and … well, it sounds like a song created by committee.

As much as I’m critical of the song, it might have been good if the episode spent some more time actually introducing us to it. All we got was 15 seconds of producer busbee saying it’s about how much he loves his wife as we listened to a production demo performed by an unnamed artist.

The experts

The series has lined up a long list of music industry professionals to help the artists through the process, and each episode has its own mentor (Fergie, Alessia Cara and Boy George are among the others) and producer (most of which are Grammy … nominated). The constant presence is Scott Borchetta, one of the executive producers of the show, whose claim to fame is having discovered Taylor Swift. Having real experts gives the series some authenticity. Unfortunately Borchetta is a bit stiff on camera.

Though there’s no Simon-Cowell-type bad guy, the feedback from the panel is interesting and productive. Particularly in the middle segment in the studio, you get to see a real producer working with real artists, making sure they have the tempo right, that they’re on the right note, that they make sure to pronounce the lyrics well. It’s played up a bit for drama, but it’s interesting to watch.

The narration

Hopefully it’s just a first-episode-introduction thing, but the hour was overly narrated by a voice we’re not introduced to. (If she sounds familiar, that’s because it’s former Virgin Radio 96 announcer Andrea Collins.) There’s a lot of stating-the-obvious and repetition here that could be considerably cut down, and the narration is done in an announcer’s tone that works for a 10-second TV promo but less so for a full hour.

The format

The Launch doesn’t have gimmicks. There are no swivelling chairs, no coloured lights to indicate success or failure, there isn’t even an audience vote component. The experts choose who gets to record the song, and they choose which artist to launch at the end of the episode. (The live performance is in front of an audience, which looks odd because not one of them is holding a cellphone.) This is good for people who want to see a show about music and artists, and works to The Launch’s advantage. It’s not as glitzy and expensive as The Voice, America’s Got Talent or American Idol, but it owns that.

The editing (less oh-gosh-who-do-we-pick and more studio time and performance) and narration could use a bit of work, and the songs could be a bit more original, though these things don’t prevent us from enjoying the show.

But for goodness sake, if you’re a show about respecting artists, don’t cut entire artists out of it and make them feel stupid for promoting the episode that has so unceremoniously cut them out of it.

The Launch is an original format, and one of the big ways Bell Media head Randy Lennox has made his musical mark on CTV. I think it has some potential as a format that could be exportable elsewhere, despite its flaws. And I’ll be tuning in for the rest of the season.

The Launch airs Wednesdays at 9pm on CTV and can be watched on demand at ctv.ca.

Give the gift of not being a dick

It’s called the Wheaton Rule, or Wheaton’s Law (after the Star Trek The Next Generation actor and gamer), but it’s just common sense: Don’t be a dick. Don’t intentionally be mean to other people. Don’t bring other people down to make yourself feel better. Don’t make other people the butt of your jokes if they don’t like it. Don’t talk crap about people behind their backs to make yourself seem cool.

This year, as a lot of powerful people (i.e. men) learn the hard way the karmic consequences of being a dick, I feel we could use a reminder of the dickish things we do, even when we don’t realize it. Because it’s not just exposing our genitals to subordinates at work, or obscenely taunting an opponent during an online game, or whatever it is your neighbour Jean did 10 years ago that made her an enemy for life. Being a dick is something we all do a little bit on a regular basis, sometimes out of emotional insecurity, or jealousy, or frustration, or insensitivity, or laziness, and often without even knowing it.

The Internet makes the problem worse, and not just because of online anonymity. Public forums like Twitter encourage us to put on a show, to measure our worth based on how many people click that “like” button. And unfortunately one of the simplest ways to rack up those likes can be declaring an enemy and rallying people to the moral high ground, no matter how high that ground actually is.

It’s one thing when a serial abuser like Harvey Weinstein won’t stop until he’s publicly humiliated. It’s another when someone on Twitter says something well-meaning but insufficiently woke and you decide to make a public spectacle of how they should feel bad about it.

It’s one thing when you don’t like a movie or television show or piece of music or visual art. It’s another when you decide to lob public insults at artists, piling on to a bandwagon that mocks people for their perceived failures.

It’s one thing when the leader of a country is an insecure, inexperienced man whose immature outbursts can cause real damage to many people. It’s another when we teach our children that mocking people for their hair, their skin, their weight and their poor vocabulary is okay as long as you disagree with them about politics.

It’s one thing when a white supremacist shows up at a rally and says something anti-Semitic. It’s another when you dismiss an entire human being as disposable because she happened to naively vote for someone whose party she supports, and who promised her a better life with well-paying jobs.

It’s one thing when you’re gently teasing a friend to help him get over a silly insecurity. It’s another when you keep going long after he’s shown himself to be clearly uncomfortable with how you’re treating him.

It’s one thing when you’re having an animated discussion with someone in the hopes of teaching each other something. It’s another when you’re involved in such a discussion with no desire to learn, when your only motivation is to shoot down every point the other person is making and get in as many opportunities as possible to call that person stupid.

It’s one thing to calmly assert your rights when you’re speaking with a customer service agent, or to ask for a second opinion when speaking with a physician, or to ask for a decision to be reconsidered. It’s another to scream at someone because you don’t like how they’re applying a company policy, or failing to solve your problem, or upholding the law.

It’s one thing when you’re dealing with one of the few people in the world who is truly, irredeemably evil. It’s another when you have the choice to make an enemy or a friend, and you pick the former because it’s easier and makes you feel better faster.

There’s a lot of awful in this world without good people intentionally adding to it.

Nobody’s perfect. I’m certainly not. I could be better, nicer, kinder, more forgiving, more supportive. I’m not sure if there even is such an attainable ideal of good for us mere humans, or if attaining it would even be good for our personal health. There is such a thing as being too generous.

But let’s start small. Let’s support each other when we’re on the same team, even if we may not see eye to eye on everything. Let’s be open to learning from each other rather than just calling each other out. Let’s recognize that, for most people, a private friendly conversation based on curiosity and understanding can do so much more to change people’s behaviour than a holier-than-thou public shaming filled with hyperbole.

And let’s be more proactive. Go out of our way to make people feel included, make them feel important, make them feel cool. Take a moment out of our day (this one would be a great one) to send a friend a note or give them a call to tell them how much we appreciate them. Use “we” more often than “you.”

If given the choice between making people happy and making them miserable, all things being equal, choose the former.

In short, don’t be a dick.

Merry Christmas everyone. Wishing you a new year with fewer dicks and more … opposite-of-dicks.

Review: Municipal election night on English-language TV

I was busy last Sunday night, helping the Montreal Gazette put together its coverage of the Montreal municipal election. But my PVR recorded the broadcasts of three English-language television stations in the city to see how they covered the evening. Below, I offer some thoughts on how well they did, based primarily on the actual information they provided.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m watching an election results show, I’m looking for election results. Analysts are great for filling time, but the more data you can show me, the more races you can announce, the better.

So below, you’ll see me focus less on the in-studio analysts, who were all fine, and more on what someone would have actually learned watching the broadcast.

CBC Montreal

11:00-11:30pm (9:45-11:30pm on Facebook)

Anchor: Debra Arbec

In-studio analysts:

  • Reporter Jonathan Montpetit
  • Social media editor Molly Kohli
  • Reporter Sean Henry with results

Reporters:

  • Simon Nakonechny at Plante HQ
  • Ainslie MacLellan at Coderre HQ
  • Sabrina Marandola in Westmount
  • Kate McKenna in Pointe-Claire (Facebook broadcast only)
  • Marika Wheeler in Quebec City (Facebook broadcast only)

Reported results — ticker (top three candidates, party, vote count, polls reporting):

  • Montreal mayor
  • All Montreal borough mayors
  • All Montreal city councillors

Reported results — graphic (top 2-4 candidates, party, vote count, lead):

  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor
  • Ahuntsic-Cartierville mayor
  • Lachine mayor
  • Sud-Ouest mayor
  • Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension mayor
  • Plateau-Mont-Royal mayor
  • Montreal city council standings (leading, elected, total)
  • Dorval mayor
  • Côte-Saint-Luc mayor
  • Pointe-Claire mayor
  • Westmount mayor

The public broadcaster clearly won in the graphics department, and was the only English-language network with a lower-third ticker with live results. The ticker showed only results from the city of Montreal, but it did not only the city mayor but also borough mayors and all borough councillor races. It took about nine minutes for the top of the ticker to do the rounds of all 64 elected city council seats, so viewers got to see each race about three times.

While CBC was the only station to include Montreal city council results, it failed to include anything off the island of Montreal — no mention of Quebec City, Saguenay, or even Longueuil or Laval.

CBC was also the only one to include a live speech in their broadcast, carrying 10 uninterrupted (and untranslated) minutes of Valérie Plante’s acceptance speech to lead off the half-hour show (which had no commercial interruption).

The broadcast actually started on Facebook, where it went for an hour and 45 minutes, but still didn’t start early enough to get the Plante victory call on live. It did mention the Laval, Longueuil, Quebec City and Sherbrooke races, which didn’t get into the TV broadcast, and had live hits from Kate McKenna in Pointe-Claire and Marika Wheeler in Quebec City. And it carried Denis Coderre’s speech in full. My review here is based mainly on the television broadcast, but I’m adding this for the record.

For an election night broadcast with so many races to deal with, there was a lot of time devoted to analysis. And as much as I like listening to the soothing voice of Jonathan Montpetit, I didn’t learn much from him and Arbec repeating stuff that happened during the campaign, promises that were made and stuff that the candidates said in their speeches. Fortunately, they still managed to get a bunch of results into the broadcast, both on Facebook and TV.

Overall score: B+

CTV Montreal

11:30pm-12:04am

Anchor: Tarah Schwartz

In-studio analyst:

  • Former Westmount mayor Peter Trent

Reporters:

  • Cindy Sherwin at Plante HQ
  • Rob Lurie at Coderre HQ
  • Kelly Greig in Westmount (also reporting on Côte-St-Luc race)

Reported results (winner only unless otherwise noted):

  • Montreal mayor (with popular vote of top two)
  • Laval mayor
  • Westmount mayor
  • Côte-St-Luc mayor
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor
  • Pointe-Claire mayor
  • Montreal city council makeup by party
  • Beaconsfield mayor
  • Brossard mayor
  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor
  • Quebec City mayor
  • Dorval mayor
  • Longueuil mayor

CTV Montreal is the market leader. It has the most journalists, the largest audience, the most history. So it should be expected that they would slay election night coverage.

Which makes it all the more disappointing how little actual data was provided to viewers. Not only was there no ticker, but the individual race graphics didn’t even provide vote totals or party names. Instead, they just had names and photos and a checkmark next to the winner.

Only for the Montreal mayor’s race was any vote total given in an on-screen graphic. For the rest, well you’ll just have to guess.

This is the reason people tune in to election night broadcasts, and CTV’s viewers were left horribly underserved when it came to actual data.

It was the shortest of the three broadcasts, since it had four commercial breaks, and the last to start at 11:30pm. And CTV didn’t even think it was worth bringing in one of the two main anchors on a weekend shift, leaving the duties to regular weekend anchor Tarah Schwartz.

It had the fewest live reporters, which is surprising, and just about everything about this seemed like it was phoned in.

Still, CTV’s prestige meant it got the first live interview with the mayor-elect, right at the beginning at 11:30. And its reporters were more experienced and seemed to provide more useful information.

But overall, it should be embarrassing for CTV how poorly it did compared to its competitors.

Overall score: C-

Global Montreal

11:00pm-11:57pm

Anchor: Jamie Orchard

In-studio analysts:

  • Montreal Gazette columnist Celine Cooper
  • Former city councillor Karim Boulos

Reporters:

  • Amanda Jelowicki at Plante HQ
  • Tim Sargeant at Coderre HQ (also reporting on Pointe-Claire and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue mayor’s races)
  • Elysia Bryan-Baynes in Westmount
  • Felicia Parillo in Côte-St-Luc

Reported results (vote totals for top 2-4 candidates, percentage of vote for each, percentage of polls reporting, and indication of incumbent):

  • Montreal mayor (x4)
  • Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor (x2)
  • Pierrefonds-Roxboro mayor (x2)
  • Westmount mayor (x5)
  • Beaconsfield mayor (x2)
  • Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor (x2)
  • Côte-St-Luc mayor (x4)
  • Dorval mayor (x2)
  • Pointe-Claire mayor (x2)
  • Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue mayor
  • Senneville mayor (x2)
  • Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor (x2)
  • Montreal-West mayor (x2)
  • Brossard mayor (x2)
  • Longueuil mayor (x2)
  • Saint-Lambert mayor (x2)
  • Saint-Lazare mayor
  • Laval mayor
  • Anjou mayor

There are always two ways to judge Global Montreal when compared to its competitors: judge the quality alone, as a viewer probably would, or judge how well Global did with its limited resources.

By either measure, the station did well on this night. It extended its TV broadcast to a full hour, had informative graphics, and updated results through the night, though like its competitors it focused a lot on the island of Montreal and areas immediately adjacent.

The graphics weren’t as flashy as CBC, and there was no ticker, but you got vote totals, percentages, and an indication of who the incumbent was and the amount of polls reporting. Just missing the party affiliations.

Global also conducted an interview with Plante (just after CTV’s), and made good use of analysts and reporters.

They get extra points for being the longest broadcast, having a special “Decision 2017” opening theme, and putting in the extra effort. But it would have been nice for the only station that still has transmitters in Quebec City and Sherbrooke to actually mention the mayor’s races in those cities. I know it’s not Global Quebec anymore, but I’m sure viewers there would have appreciated it.

Overall score: B+

City Montreal

No election night special. We’ll see if that changes when they start having local newscast next year. They have four years to prepare for the next municipal election (and one year to prepare for the next provincial one).

Overall score: F

Some thoughts about the municipal election

Coderre’s party switchers all lost

The day before voting day I said I’d be watching races involving people who switched parties since the last election. Of the 11 who switched to Coderre’s party (most from Projet but others from borough parties), all 11 lost their bid for re-election, either as a councillor or trying to upgrade to borough mayor:

  • Richard Bergeron (Ville-Marie councillor) from Projet to Coderre
  • Michelle Di Genova Zammit (Anjou borough councillor) from Équipe Anjou to Coderre
  • Éric Dugas (Ste-Geneviève borough councillor) from Équipe Richard Bélanger to Coderre
  • Marc-André Gadoury (Rosemont city councillor) from Projet to Coderre
  • Érika Duchesne (Rosemont city councillor) from Projet to Coderre (now running in Villeray)
  • Jean-François Cloutier (Lachine city councillor) from Équipe Dauphin to Coderre
  • Lorraine Pagé (Ahuntsic city councillor) from Vrai changement to Coderre
  • Russell Copeman (CDN-NDG borough mayor) from Coalition to Coderre
  • Réal Ménard (Mercier mayor) from Coalition to Coderre
  • Kymberley Simonyik (Lachine borough councillor) from Équipe Dauphin to Coderre
  • Elsie Lefebvre (Villeray city councillor) from Coalition to Coderre

Those who switched to Projet and were running again were all re-elected.

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