Monday, April 27, 2009

Your advice please: how to manage a love affair

I really loved this piece by Jonathan Kay on his love affair with newspapers (the paper kind): how he came to love them and why he loves them still.  His point on the responsibility they provoke on their readers is bang on and he put into words a sentiment I, as an active subscriber to dead trees, have never been able to do.  

Newspapers (and other forms of the printed word), by sitting there, remind us that "the world is sending you homework."  And doing homework is an important part of everyone's responsibility to themselves and the world around them.

I share Jon's love and his belief in the importance of the daily reminder not to be intellectually lazy, even if it means waking up with newsprint on your cheek.  It's something that the web, in all its fabulousness, just doesn't do.  Newspapers and their brethren remind me why it's important to remain curious about lots of things.  Furthermore, like my mother did when I was young, they remind me that I have to do my daily bit of homework.

Perhaps my mother was too successful, though, as I have dug myself into a paper habit that threatens to overtake me.  I share Jon's newspaper (albeit more limited... this one comes Monday-Saturday and this one on Sunday), and an even worse magazine habit.  Like with a good bar of chocolate or bottle of red wine, once I start I can't stop.  

I'm overwhelmed.  My house is stacked with dusty reading material that I can't part with until it's at least skimmed.  I'm killing trees.  I think it's important to stay in touch, challenged and engaged, but I'm feeling guiltier by the day.  And there's only so much guilt one can healthily handle.

Dear readers, I need your help.  Here's where I'm at:

I've tried to cull, to some success (e.g., I cancelled this one, this one and this one, as they were the last ones I'd read, but my decision on the latter made me feel guilty for not supporting the Canadian magazine industry so I resubscribed one year later).  

I've tried resisting, to greater success (e.g., sometimes Rogers sends me Canadian Business and Chatelaine for free for a couple of months and I so want to subscribe, even though the copies are still sitting unread beside the toilet, but I don't; when Conde Nast launched Portfolio I confined myself to the newsstand copies only, thank goodness).  

I've also tried aggregating, largely through an ever-growing list of web tools (including this one, great for headlines and for following the future of news discussion, and this one) plus the wisdom of friends.  However, I'm finding all these feeds and recommendations are only furthering and not alleviating my guilt (e.g., I have so many unread blog posts and browser windows with half-read Twitter links that I'm drowning).

And this doesn't include my book habit, which is another matter all together, or my favourite podcasts or my attempts to get a more global perspective.

So here's where I'm at now.  I get Maclean's for a general overview and out of loyalty to the publication (I'm a third generation subscriber), to friends that work there and to a belief in the importance of strong current affairs magazines to any country's democracy (i.e., it's not going anywhere).  I get Spacing and the Walrus and read Corporate Knights for the same reason.  

Toronto Life is fun, so it comes monthly, as does House & Home, a great gift for an otherwise design-impaired new homeowner (thanks SCR!).  

I get the New Yorker to make me smarter and remind me what I loved about living in the US when I did.  And the NYT magazine comes on Sundays.  Oh, and I also get this and this at work, and recently this, due to another generous gift, also turned up.

What's a girl to do?  Advice?  What do you read?  What would you recommend?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good idea of the day, second in a series: safely getting rid of dangerous stuff

I was away in early April so somehow missed the annoucement of this very cool website that makes it a little bit easier to get rid of old dangerous garbage.  You know, the stuff that can't go away through the normal garbage or recycling process so instead takes up room in basements across the province.

If, like me, you've actually MOVED this stuff from one residence to another, this site is a particular godsend.  Last spring I moved neighbourhoods, packing up and taking with me a collection of dead batteries, an old television and a spyware-infested laptop (the latter making its second move).  A combination of laziness and lack of car prevented me from hauling it to the appropriate municipal depot, so instead it's been busy collecting dust in the otherwise unused garage alongside the paint cans left by the previous owner.

Now I can type in my postal code and the hazardous or e-waste I want to get rid of, and voila, a long list of drop-off points appear before my eyes.  Who knew there were 11 e-waste options within 5 kms of my house?

If the stuff is still there next year, I only have my laziness to blame.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The business model for newspapers isn’t toast, but it’s in the toaster"

Because I promised, and you already know I'm slow, here's a dispatch from the investigative journalism conference I attended in Berekely, CA in early April.

Overall, it was a good couple of days that largely showcased various investigative stories on corruption and the journalists who uncovered them (this Frontline doc was the feature).  It was a clubby affair of many long-serving journalists from the major branded news outlets, and I was generally fascinated listening to the undercurrent of it all, which was naturally the "what the heck happened to our industry?"  My favourite quote was from Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, who began his remarks with the quip, "the business model for newspapers isn't toast, but it's in the toaster." [as an aside, later that week I read that he equated saving the Times to saving Darfur, so he obviously has a gift for the soundbite]

The most interesting and useful session, given Samara's objectives, was the last one on the future of investigative journalism (glad I didn't duck out early).  You can read the details here.  My favourite panellist was Esther Kaplan from The Nation Institute.  The group has been around since 1966 and was created to address the bias in the independent press to write opinion pieces since no one had the resources to do reporting.  These days she's getting more and more requests from freelancers, bloggers and new journalists for mentoring and support since there aren't a lot of older people around newsrooms to help anymore.  She said, "I feel like I'm the social safety net for independent journalists."  This jives with some of our early thinking at Samara, where we've identified some big gaps on the professional development side for those doing public affairs journalism - regardless of the medium.  For example, there's really no media and public policy course taught in our journalism schools, save for a bit at Carleton.  Nor is there much support provided to practising journos, whether attached to media organizations or working independently.  In any event, we've promised to stay in touch on our respective efforts.

I was also reminded of some of the things I miss most about living and working in the States (of course, there's much I don't miss).  Specifically, despite my best efforts, I didn't know the half of the tremendous proliferation of interesting media experiments happening all over the US.  I lost count of the number of foundations and wealthy individuals funding journalism and investigative work of varying sorts.  There were also a number of local news experiments (this and this were particularly interesting, and these examples don't even begin to scratch the surface on the local news front).  I also learned of some neat university collaborations, news literacy projects, workshops and incubators, legal collaboratives, global networks of reporters.... the list goes on.  In short, a lot for us to learn from, and we'll share what we find with you as we get into the details.

On a final note, one of the major threads running through the conference (besides the "what the heck" stuff I mentioned earlier) was the need for journalism to be more "collaborative."  There were a couple of examples of people doing apparently radical things like talking to each other and even going as far as sharing ideas and sources within and across news organizations!  The horrors!  I was a bit shocked, frankly, as none of these "radical" things seemed all that radical to me.  I suppose I didn't appreciate how the old model, where resource constraints weren't so real, may have limited creativity quite so much.  I'll leave it to Dave Eaves to analyze that nut further.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Good idea of the day, hopefully the first of a series

In yesterday's post I complained that I wasn't reading enough about what we little people could do (or are doing) to carve out some meaningful space for debate, discussion or action on our public challenges.

Well, leave it to my inspired colleague Reva Seth to coincidentally pass on this cool little story about two Brits who, after ranting in person and on Facebook about those free commuter newspapers that litter public transit 'round the Western world, decided to offer an alternative.  Called "Choose What you Read," they hand out free books at various London Underground stations every Monday to encourage those who want it an alternative to these insipid dailies.  At its heart, however, is a desire to encourage diversity of thought and active choice about the ideas one consumes.

A small example, but an important one.  Worth a read, and a thought.  Or two.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When you're holding a hammer...

I'm always wary of falling into the trap encapsulated by that old adage "when you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail."   Caveat notwithstanding, I've been hearing and reading a lot of stuff lately that speaks to what we're working on at Samara: namely, how we can spark projects that encourage a culture of public service in Canada by strengthening the interconnected areas of political leadership; citizen's connections to ideas and the media's contribution to public affairs.

Before I share a few of these with you, I thought I'd explain how we came to this ambitious and still amorphous goal (and of course welcome your reactions and ideas).  While naturally our own experiences and passions were important, in large part Samara grew from the 200+ interviews we conducted last year with Canadians across the country.  We pursued three lines of inquiry: how did they view the public policy landscape; what was working/where were the gaps; and how could a small charitable initiative could help to fill those gaps.

I'd expected a laundry list of the usual policy complaints (healthcare, immigration etc.) but instead, the identified gaps were broader than any one issue, and included things like: our political culture, the way our media frame and elucidate issues, the fact that many citizens are disillusioned or worse, don't care, the disfunction of our Parliament and our political parties.  It's almost as though the incentives everyone has to be expedient in the short term has led to a situation that doesn't serve any of our long-term interests. 

These are tricky things to tackle, but our hope is to get some small, practical projects off the ground this year and see how we go.  We'll surely learn a lot, and will do our best to share that with you as we go, and invite your participation.

In the meantime, the few things I've noticed recently are listed below.  These focus mostly on the intersections between parliaments and the media.  I'd like to see a bit more on the responsibility we as citizens have as well - to read, watch, listen and work understand, to ask questions when we don't (including of our journalists and politicians) and to do our part to improve things, even in a small way - but I've likely just missed it.  

In any event, here goes:
  • CTV's Craig Oliver's acceptance speech for the Hy Solomon journalism award, where he laments the inability of MPs to demonstrate independent thought and the corresponding failure of Parliament to be "a house of ideas" that better reflects the discussions we should have.  You can listen or watch it here. He takes his fair share of shots at his profession and the "punditocracy" too.  He was moving and also very funny (as, unexpectedly, was Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall in his opening remarks - well worth the 5 minutes if you have them.  I wonder if Ottawa is in his future...).  
  • Jim Coyle's column in The Star on the way politicians and journalists demean Parliament and in doing so, delegitimize both their professions and themselves.
  • Elizabeth May's interview with Jian Gomeshi on CBC Radio to promote her seventh book on the crisis of Canadian democracy.  My personal preference is to reserve words like crisis for countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka, but that aside, she said gutsy things that I don't hear a lot of politicians talk about.
  • The March 5th At Issue panel about what a joke Question Period is, particularly at a time when we're looking for real discussion about real issues, and how the media doesn't do much to make things better either.
And this doesn't include the myriad articles on the state of journalism (where the crisis word is used quite liberally, and perhaps with good reason).  Much more to come there, but in the meantime, NYU's Jay Rosen's seminar on the future of news is an absolute must.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dispatch from McGill's Public Policy in Crisis #2: No marks for timeliness, but maybe one for political science 101

It has been nearly two weeks since I was in Montreal for the Public Policy in Crisis conference, which I appreciate is a lifetime or two in blog-land.  However, many of you* wrote to say that you enjoyed the dispatch so I thought I'd make it the first of at least two.

While the evidence panel was my favourite panel, my favourite individual speaker was Peter Russell, the long-time constitutional scholar from the University of Toronto.  Addressing the conference theme, he spoke to the two crises that underlay Canada's "Parliamentary crisis," now better known by the (previously-unbeknownst-to-me) term prorogation.

In Russell's analysis, crisis number one was our fiscal and economic policy (basically a badly- crafted budget that lacked consultation and ignored the economic crisis).  The prorogation, he argued, improved this crisis by allowing the implementation, in record time, of a budget that was better and developed with debate and consultation.

With crisis number two, which is our policy for dealing with parliamentary government, especially in a minority situation, Russell argued that we Canadians are not so lucky.  The request to prorogue laid bare the fact that too few of us, including the PM and his advisors, are either a) aware of or b) willing to adhere to the principles of parliamentary government or the functions of those within it.  The details are less important, but the upshot is that if, like me, you a)believe we're in for a series of minority parliaments in the years to come and/or b) want to improve the function of government in Canada, we should do our part to learn a little more about how it's supposed to work. 

Fortunately, Russell and a gaggle of experts constitutional have made this a little easier for us by writing down the rules in the Toronto Star.  He also pointed out that, "we're not in good shape if a handful of constitutional experts need to say this when... we need consensus [among the governing party and the public] for Parliament to work and we don't have that." So please do your bit!

He closed with a small rant on the weakness of our Parliament and its disconnect from policy making and from citizens (incidentally, one of my hobby horses of late).  Proving he was an equal opportunity critic (the PM and his crew took a real beating), he expressed frustration at the sentiments of one Liberal MP, who said in this Parliamentary session his party would focus on enforcing the government's "probation," rather than proposing policy ideas that can be stolen by the Tories.  "Have we not had enough?" Russell asked.  "Policies should be discussed!"  Amen.

*I say many meaning more than "a couple," however as a new blogger I am heartened by any reader feedback, so please keep it coming!  And feel free to use the comments section too.

Coming up: More dispatches, this time from the Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium I attended in Berkeley this past weekend.  It reminded me of a few things I missed about living in the U.S., in particular, the willingness of private philanthropy to step in creatively in issues of public importance (although not always for the right reasons or with good outcome).  If your curiosity is getting the better of you, Mark Glaser blogged from the event.  See his April 4 and 5 posts.