Dateline: Monday, March 24, 2008 (originally published by The Straight Goods)
by Jamie Swift
Kingston's Whig-Standard once enjoyed a reputation as a quality newspaper. Owned locally, the Whig had a big newsroom and reporters could cover specific beats like the Ontario city's famous prisons. No more.
The Whig-Standard was sold again last year. It may have been just before or just after the passing of a local car dealer made front-page news for two days running. In the seventeen years since the paper fell into the hands of corporate chains, the Whig has been owned by Southam, Hollinger (Conrad Black and his fellow kleptocrats), Osprey and now Sun Media, part of the Peladeau family the Peladeau family's Quebecor empire.
The Whig's publisher is Ron Laurin. And reporters have even been told by the publisher how to compose their stories. A case in point: On November 28, 2007 Laurin sent a memo to then-editor Christina Spencer instructing his underlings how to describe Kingston's controversial downtown arena, a pet project of the city's business elite.
"We need to discontinue our practice of referring to our City's new Kingston Regional Sports and Entertainment Centre as an arena," wrote Laurin.
This is an ad man's perspective. It's all about branding. Understandable, if you see a local paper simply as a promotional vehicle for pet projects of the booster boys. But troublesome if you're a journalist who values the integrity of your craft.
"In all the years I've been there, it's never been this bad," said one longtime Whig reporter. "This is an attack on our ethics. How can they tell us what words to use?"
The new regime at the Whig has meant that even less money is being invested in covering the news. Few reporters remain. Photographs get bigger, even though the number of photographers has shrunk.
On one midwinter day Page Two was dominated by three large photos of senior citizens playing ping-pong. Longtime photographer and community columnist Jack Chiang departed last year. The Whig hired no one new to fill his shoes. His salary seems to have left town, headed for Sun Media's bottom line.
For three days running around Christmas last year, the Whig ran a series of large front page photos above the fold. They featured people shopping at the mall.
Newspapers have traditionally placed what editors consider an important issue of the day in a prominent place. Hence, the use of the term "above the fold" in a broadsheet like the Whig. In early January, as Kenya was rocked by post-election riots in which hundreds died, the front page of the National/World section trumpeted an Associated Press story out of Los Angeles: Britney Spears had lost custody of her children.
Editor Christina Spencer quit late last year. Instead of considering the seasoned crew of reporters with lots of Kingston experience, the Sun Media boss interviewed but one person, a junior staffer with scant daily newspaper experience.
As it turns out, his choice, Steve Serviss, serves on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce. When the Whig announced that Serviss would be stepping up to the Managing Editor job, it reported his leadership position in a prominent special interest group unblushingly, without any sense of embarrassment or inkling that this could be considered a conflict of interest. As City Editor, Serviss once assigned an award-winning reporter to cover a jump in rider-ship of the Confederation Tour Trolley, run by the Chamber of Commerce.
"When a newspaper's senior editorial staff are heading up the local Chamber of Commerce, any sense of independent news analysis goes out the window," said prominent local author and former magazine editor Wayne Grady, incoming chair of the Writers' Union of Canada.
"Suddenly, what is perceived as being good for business automatically becomes good for the newspaper, whether it is good for the community or not. A journalist cannot run with the hares and hunt with the news hounds."
In a February letter to the Whig a writer sympathetic to the US invasion of Iraq and Canada's war in Afghanistan was sputtering angrily about a Whig editorial sympathetic to American deserters seeking refuge in Canada: "Deserters are cowards without honour."
This sort of thinking is common enough in Kingston, a retirement town with a military base, legions of old soldiers and streets named after Crimean War battles and artillery shells.
Yet this particular scribe had a point. How could the Whig keep displaying a yellow, support-our-troops symbol from its masthead and still run editorials supporting deserters? Such editorials were "decidedly unsupportive of our forces" were they not? Running them along with the yellow ribbon was "a marvellous display of hypocrisy," was it not?
Despite the general decline of the local daily, things still sometimes work as they should. A thin divide (preferably a solid firewall) still separates the publisher from the people who actually provide the paper's content. So it was that the same paper could carry the yellow ribbon and a message that did not hew to the Official Story.
Of course, the Official Story in Kingston is that yellow ribbons have nothing whatsoever to do with the Afghan war's merits. It's just about, well, about what the ribbon says. Support Our Troops. It's not about the crucial question of why our troops are, in the words of the old World War I song Over There. It's simply assumed that, once the war starts, ours is not to reason why.
Justifying the decision to dangle the yellow ribbon from the paper's masthead, publisher Ron Laurin claimed in a Remembrance Day advertorial that it was the Whig's way of supporting the troops "whose efforts allow us the freedom we enjoy everyday [sic]."
The Canadian military are apparently somehow involved in a replay of our liberation of Normandy from Hitler's claws. The freelancer hired to pen the advertorial described this — with no apparent irony — as an "insight."
Jamie Swift is a Kingston author of 10 books including, most recently with Keith Stewart, Hydro: The Decline and Fall of Ontario's Electric Empire.