Based on the Dalton Camp Lectures in Journalism, an annual series at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, 11 esteemed journalists talk at length about journalism, Canada, war, standing up to power, our tumultuous era and much more.

Reviewed by David Swick

If I am ever caught in an elevator with a bunch of strangers, I know exactly who I want them to be: all journalists, except for one masseuse—for neck rubs—and a pizza guy on delivery.

The Next Big Thing is kind of like that (minus the neck rubs and pizza). Eleven esteemed journalists talk at length about journalism, Canada, war, standing up to power, our tumultuous era and much more. All are smart, learned and compassionate; some are also funny. They are the kind of people you’d want to stand around with: storytellers.

The book is based on the Dalton Camp Lectures in Journalism, an annual series at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. When the journalism school director Philip Lee conceived of the series, in 2002, he called up Bernie Lucht, the longtime producer of Ideas on CBC Radio. Lucht knew a good idea when he heard one. On that first phone call he agreed to put the lectures on the air.

June Callwood was the first journalist invited to present. The Next Big Thing (Goose Lane Editions) also features talks by Joe Schlesinger, Naomi Klein, Roy MacGregor, Chantal Hebert, Ken Whyte, Sue Gardner, Stephanie Nolen, Neil Reynolds, Nahlah Ayed and David Carr, all presented over the course of 11 years.

Edited by Lee, this is the first book to emerge from the series. One of its delights is that every chapter offers fresh, distinct energy. Callwood graces us with optimism and decency; Hebert offers patient analysis; Klein delivers intelligent fury.

Joe Schlesinger speaks in a profound voice tinged with sadness. As a boy he lost both parents in the Second World War; as a journalist he specialized in covering war zones. He has seen the folly at the root of too much fighting.

One story he tells is about William Russell of the Times of London, who is often called the first war correspondent. Russell became popular during the Crimean War of 1854-56 because he did something unexpected: he revealed the truth. He did not just cover battles, but went behind the scenes and discovered “the incompetence and arrogance of the aristocratic British officer class and the suffering of ordinary soldiers.”

One hundred and fifty years later Klein also revealed wartime incompetence and arrogance. George W. Bush’s administration had such blind faith in its ideologues, she said, that a 24 year old was assigned to launch Baghdad’s new stock exchange, and a 21-year old former intern to Dick Cheney helped manage Iraq’s finances. The college senior’s favourite job before that? ”My time as an ice cream truck driver.”

This book is packed with deep thinking, solid insights and unexpected information on a wide range of subjects. Hebert tells us “most Quebecers no longer see sovereignty as essential to the preservation of a French-language society in North America … English is no longer seen as the language of a dominant Canadian class. Through globalization and the Internet, it has emerged as the lingua franca of a new globalized world…. Today, bilingualism is an economic asset rather than just a historical necessity.”

Callwood said that one indispensable ingredient of great journalism is great writing. To aspiring writers she offers brilliant advice. 1) Read more. 2) Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Nolen, a couple of generations younger than Callwood, said there is “value in the oldest of old media, in going there and going deep and really listening—and then, with the benefit of perspective, reporting it in a format of more than 140 characters and even more than 600 words. There is value in reflection and there is value in analysis.”

While I am grateful this book has been published, a couple of suggestions can be made. Callwood, talking about an infamous 1964 New York murder, said Kitty Genovese’s “shrieks had disturbed the sleep of about 50 people in nearby apartments and none of them attempted to help her.”

Recent revelations cast serious doubt upon this; the story may have been greatly exaggerated by a policeman and a reporter. Hopefully the next edition of The Next Big Thing will include needed clarifications.

Similarly, Hebert offers excellent insights on the Canadian political scene, circa 2007. A surprising amount of this, unfortunately, is dated. An afterword or footnotes would give readers context and resolutions.

A final word from the first lecturer: “You can be a good person without being a journalist,” Callwood said. “Lots of people do that. But you cannot be a good journalist without being a good person.”

David Swick is associate director of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.