Monday, January 28, 2008

No Sense Of Place

Canada has long prided itself on being the cultural mosaic as opposed to the melting pot. Retain your culture, celebrate diversity.

Unfortunately, through the disintegration of traditional print media, we’re rushing toward globalization at a disturbing pace, and in the most dangerous manner of all: subtly.

Most people probably don’t even notice it. While I’m specifically citing Canadian examples here, I’m primarily doing that because I feel I can critique my own country. The same holds true of many other countries, particularly where newspapers are concerned.

Over the years I’ve been to 26 different countries. One of the things I used to do, wherever I went, was try to locate an English version newspaper so that I could get a sense of the place. It gave me an idea of what issues the local people were facing, what was happening in their village/city/province/country.

What I find now is that in my own country, I’m hard pressed to access local news.

When I go online to various news sites, many don’t even cite the location of the incident being reported on. CNEWS is particularly bad for that. The other day I saw a headline for a particularly grisly murder. There was nothing on the teaser to indicate location. Now, I’ve just gone over and looked at their home page. Right now the headlines are:

Jury selection begins for mom accused of killing baby (no location cited below)
5 convicted in Britain’s largest cash robbery (LONDON)
Gunmen at Pakistan high school release hostages (PESHAWAR)
Hunt on for two Oshawa siblings (no located cited below, but inferred in title…

And the list goes on, specifically highlighting stories identified as happening in France, Pakistan, Indonesia, and one even located in Toronto. There’s a daily feature about a dog that doesn’t have an obvious location.

I click on the dog story, and it clearly states it’s from The Toronto Sun. I only have to skim four paragraphs down to find it’s specifically Newmarket.

So, I go to the story about the jury selection beginning for mom accused of murder.

Dayton, Ohio.

Oh, now I see it’s the microwave baby murder – not stated in the title. Now I know this case.

Can anyone tell me why almost all the other stories were ID’d by location and this one wasn’t?

In all honesty, it’s what I expect at CNews. Usually it’s the Canadian stories that don’t get a specific location. There have been several times I’ve started reading stories and had no idea where the story was happening.

Is it so wrong to want to be able to identify Canadian news from the headlines? If I go to The Toronto Star, I expect everything’s happening in Toronto unless otherwise stated. After all, it’s a location-specific newspaper. CNews is a central site from the parent company of The Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa Sun papers, and The London Free Press.

Sometimes, I even want to know if things are specifically happening local to me. I live near Calgary. So, what’s listed under Across Canada?

Ont. Should review shaken baby cases: Tory
Gun registry ‘not up-to-date’
Disgraced pathologist set to testify at inquiry
Driver killed in charter bus accident
Fallen soldier returns home
Health care off the radar
Train hit fatal for tricyclist
Bats the primary carrier of rabies
Research shows sunlight assists in cancer battle
Cops dodge bullets in standoff
‘Peg wants Monopoly board space
Tractor accident injures man, 60
Exercise bikes will light up shelter.

How many can I readily identify a location for? ‘Peg (I know it, but do you non-Canadians know it?) and Ont.

I have to click on the stories to see if I can pinpoint a more specific location:


We aren’t even trying to maintain the pretense that the locations are relevant to the story, and they should be. I skim headlines and focus on stories of interest. I do this with several papers. Internationally, The Scotsman. Location-specific, such as The Tri City News - after all, my new series is set in the Tri Cities. It stands to reason I try to keep up with that.

I don’t have time to read all the stories or click on all the links, and when I’m specifically skimming for location-based stories and can’t find them, it’s frustrating.

But it goes far beyond that. Because I live in a village outside of Calgary, there are often things happening that I’m aware of that aren’t being reported. Some I’m aware of because of my ex’s role on the fire department. Some through the grapevine. However, a place like the Tri Cities has the population to maintain a decent regular press presence. Here, there are just over 800 people. The community paper serves more than a dozen communities forming a semi-circle around Calgary, and only comes out once a week.

And being a community paper it talks more about the latest happenings at 4H than hard news.

And after living here for four years, I still don’t know where most of the little communities are or what some of the local organizations do. We don’t get news – we get fluff pieces and occasional spin about our supposedly glowing communities.

Well, and occasional rants about the construction in Balzac…

In fact, it wasn’t even until I stumbled across a poll last week that I learned Calgary had a suspected serial killer murdering women. How is it possible that someone who checks multiple news sources daily wouldn’t know this was happening in their own back yard?

It’s simple. Most of the news outlets, as I’ve demonstrated, don’t feel it’s important to tell you where things are happening. And with our increasingly busy lives, more than ever the headline is critical to directing our interests. A murder. Another murder. Sorry to say, but there’s nothing special about that until you tell me there’s something special. Tell me it’s a child, tell me it’s a grandmother, tell me it’s the third linked case, tell me it’s the microwave baby murder and I’ve connected.

Tell me it’s happening in my own back yard and I’m more likely to read it.

Is this where you ask why I didn't see it on the evening news? Oh, yeah, I forgot - newspapers are irrelevant aren't they? Especially if I have to watch the news to get the news. Used to be I could read it...

Now, from that list of Canadian stories, I knew the charter bus accident had happened in Alberta – Edson, to be specific. But the only reason I knew was from cross referrals to other news sources where they had clearly identified the location.

And that’s the reason we need to have multiple news sources. Just yesterday, I had a small exchange with someone over Canadian journalism and its political nature. Most press comes out with some slant on it. I assume that. It’s only by cross-referring to multiple sources that you start to get the balance of what’s really happening. When even two or three sources are reporting identical facts I start to trust in the accuracy.

However, having been behind the scenes in the reporting world, I’m sticking with the word ‘start’.

It used to be that reporters built up a level of credibility through their work. Part of establishing that credibility and carrying it forward came with name recognition. Now, as news comes at us from more national (and even international sources finding their way into national, provincial and city news) the names on the stories have lost value. Too many to keep track of. People coming and going and being sent here and there or switching departments or what have you.

And as we lose the personal touch, we lose our sense of identification with the local news. Considering I’ve lived here four years, considering the community paper head office is a ten minute drive away, considering how many times Kevin’s been on a call that was newsworthy and sometimes I’ve been out to fires or events, considering I used to work for the library, which is located in the village office, I’ve never even seen one of our local reporters.

Which contrasts with my experience as a kid, growing up in a town with ten times the population and, back then, two community papers. The Gravenhurst Banner and The Gravenhurst News – which I used to write for, but she’s now just a memory. I have clippings of me in the news going back to grade 1.

I got thinking about all of this last night, watching The Wire. Overall, the Sun storyline isn’t working well for me, but there is a lot in it that I can identify with.

A main city paper not knowing about a Grand Jury summons when the TV media has the scoop? Not being able to get the goods on major news from City Hall?

Getting rid of the experienced, established reporters with the name recognition and credibility - and contacts - to make a story happen, leaving in their wake the young, inexperienced, untrusted who can’t make headway?

Print media has a distinct role that must not be forgotten in the march toward online presence and consolidation. It is a record of our history that is accessible in current time. What is online comes and goes, here today, gone tomorrow. There is nothing permanent to it. And what comes out in history books often takes years.

This is our record, right here, right now. It is the moments that make up the sum our lives, our community, our evolution politically, socially, economically. Newspapers used to reflect their domain and identify it.

And now, most are churning full steam toward globalization.

It takes someone from Baltimore to put the situation with the newspapers there in perspective for me, and it speaks to the heart of what’s missing more and more from the media here:

To quote Brian:
The biggest paper in Baltimore, The Baltimore Sun, may have the bigger profile and the most history


the new kid on the block, The Examiner, may come in a more covenant design




My favorite paper has always been The City Paper.

They dig deep where the others won't or don't. They cast a wide net of city coverage. Their arts and entertainment reviews have a unique perspective that cover a variety of styles, genres and mediums.

Two prominent stories from The City Paper demonstrate the audacious idea of digging deep into a story.

The first is called Bloodletting. It takes an (in-)depth look at the murder rate in Baltimore and how those in charge over the year just haven't been able to get it to drop. Fans of The Wire may recognize some of the players here. Fmr. Commissioner Ed Norris is Homicide Det. Ed Norris on the show; Mayor Carcetti is based on Mayor & Governor Martin O'Malley; Narese is based on current Mayor Sheila Dixon & Former mayor Schmoke was the nameless health commissioner that appeared at the end of S3 defending Hamsterdam to mayor Royce.

The second is a two parter called The Dealer: The Rise and Fall of Fred Brooks and How Drugs Get to Baltimore. Part One & Part Two

The truth of the matter is that Gus, Twig and any of the other cast-offs in B-more would probably go work for the city paper.

I guess all I can say is, thank goodness there are still some places in the world where people can get that sense of connectedness, with relevance to their community, through the press. For me, it’s been a great part of my disconnect ever since I moved rural again.


Steve Allan said...

So there are places north of the US? That's crazy talk.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes. We're above you because we're closer to God.