After five years at J-Source, (three-and-a-half years as editor-in-chief), Janice Neil is turning over the reins to Bruce Gillespie today. Here, Neil reflects on some of the stories we've covered, the debates we've provoked, the ethical challenges we've tangled with, and how we've tried to turn our own mistakes into 'learning opportunities' for you in the community of Canadian journalism.
By Janice Neil
Like many of you, I work in community journalism. While I don’t live in a small town or in rural Canada, I do oversee a news organization that has close and continuing relationships with the people and institutions we cover. Many of us, and many of our readers, are friends, acquaintances and colleagues. This “place” is the community of Canadian journalism, and our main media outlet is J-Source. After five years here (the last three-and-a-half years as editor- in-chief), I’m heading out. But first, I want to tell you a little about what I see in the rear-view mirror.
Like many of you who work in small media or started out in a more intimate place, we wear a lot of hats to try to serve the many needs of our readers. We try to give you the news, although with just one full-time person, the Associate Editor (doesn’t that sound familiar to those of you riding solo in too-quiet newsrooms?), we rely heavily on our friends who work the media industry beat or the arts beat or columnists with a penchant for following the news business. We couldn’t have done much without any of the fantastic AE’s who have lived J-Source full-time over the years (Regan Ray, Dana Lacey, Lauren McKeon, Belinda Alzner and Tamara Baluja, plus, for this summer, Eric Mark Do).
But we’re more than just a “mom and pop” shop (actually, few pops). We’re a community news organization because a whole lineup of people who really love this place and are committed to news media take responsibility without remuneration for a section. More than 20 people write, take pitches, assign and edit articles, all on top of their other jobs as journalists or journalism faculty (although academics have their work recognized as part of their service or research responsibilities). Seven years later, we have quite a list, including some Day One-ers: Mary McGuire, Kelly Toughill, Paul Benedetti, Robert Cribb, David Spencer, Robert Washburn, Lisa Lynch, Stephen Ward, Patricia Elliot and Fred Vallance-Jones, and all are to be lauded for their dedication.
Obviously, part of our mission is to report news. But since we’re dedicated to making this “place” as good as it can be, to help journalists do better work with responsibility, we have to produce stories and commentary that do a lot more. We do that by:
– reflecting and sharing best practices, such as the first-person stories you’ll find in Field Notes, edited by Nicole Blanchett Neheli. These are the stories journalists have long swapped in press clubs or bars; we hope we’ve given them to a larger audience. For instance, this summer we told you how the Montreal Gazette grappled with how its reporters could talk to the devastated survivors of the runaway train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, and how newsrooms in Calgary broadcast and published in the midst of widespread flooding. Or, two years ago, how reporters in Vancouver who found themselves in the middle of a riot pushed information out to readers in real time, despite tear gas, press-targeted violence and countless dead batteries. Our long-time Journalism Education editor, Mary McGuire, has published numerous best practices for journalism instructors and students, developing a unique resource about Canadian journalism education.
– provoking debate: we’ve had engaging discussions, back-and-forth with readers about, for instance, whether a journalist covering the 2010 Vancouver Olympics could also write for a corporation. And, the media storm that erupted when we tried to compile a Top 101+ Twitter List for journalists — bam! You objected to who was in and who was not. We turned that firestorm around to give you a transparent look at the dialogue in our Storify piece. We had so many compelling pieces looking at the complex ethical and legal dimensions of the so-called Ford Crackgate story this spring that we published a special newsletter just to capture the range of debate, such as whether it was ethical for the Toronto Star to run stories without the videotape.
– offering opinion and providing context to help journalists consider the ethical dimensions of their own work and that of others. Our own ethics column, Wards Words, has featured eloquent writing about the evolving arguments about reporting suicide, and our ethics editor, Ivor Shapiro, has helped shape (with the CAJ Ethics Committee) the framework for journalists wading through moral or ethical dilemmas that I’ve seen reported in numerous stories and referenced in academic papers.
While the close density of a community can sometimes irritate members who operate by sniping and gossiping, in this place we’ve left that to others (i.e. Halifax-based Frank; Ottawa-based Frank magazine is promising/threatening to return). We’ve discussed, and then discussed again, about whether to allow only registered users to publish comments, and to have an editor approve publishing. We know it deters some, who more recently have just turned to Twitter, but by forcing writers to stand behind their comments, we hope it eliminates antisocial, contemptuous or defamatory dialogue.[node:ad]
Look, we are constantly negotiating a tension that is familiar to community and beat reporters, the “constant conundrum” between our responsibilities as professional journalists to report what we know, and the desire to still be part of a community by keeping salacious or inconsequential stories offline. We twist and turn and ultimately think about the implications versus the value of the story. There’s also the caution contained in an interview with the former media reporter for The New Yorker, Ken Auletta, about journalists in his country: “Reporters, unlike the people we cover, are unused to being criticized and have particularly thin skin.” Sometimes we have no choice, because “[t]he best thing about community journalism is that you get to write about people you know — and the worst thing is that you get to write about people you know,” as one US academic and former newspaper editor described.
Not surprisingly, after about 15,000 stories since 2007, we have produced some stories that made some of us cringe and led to heated “discussions” when we bumped into each other later. We know we put ourselves under scrutiny and, at the very least, prioritize fairness and accuracy. I personally know about this, not just as editor, but from my own experience attending a trial (involving a man who pushed my son and a friend onto subway tracks) and then scrutinizing the coverage, complaining about every minor error, an experience I then reflected on for J-Source.
We’re not shy about our corrections and retractions, and have, over the years, tried to make them as prominent as possible. Sometimes, we’ve turned them into “lessons learned” to share with all of you. When the then Ethics Editor, Ivor Shapiro, was attending a CAJ conference in 2010, he tweeted out comments he thought he heard, that The Globe and Mail would relaunch as a daily magazine. When he found out he’d gotten the facts wrong — which he only found out when he e-mailed John Stackhouse directly — he posted a correction and then wrote a Twitter-style mea culpa that lays the process — and the problem — bare.
We try to be transparent, and when we can get other journalists to do the same, to dig deep and share their rawest journalistic experiences, it produces compelling and informative stories. For instance, when we produced a package of stories about the coverage of Russell Williams, the former colonel charged with murders and sexual assaults, we asked reporters to tell us about the experience of covering such depravity; many told us about the sleepless nights. CBC reporter Dave Seglins went further and chronicled the entire week of the sentencing hearing, calling it a cautionary tale, and produced a truly gripping read.
The Canadian Journalism Project, the umbrella name for both J-Source and ProjetJ, is a young community — just in its seventh year of publishing. It has filled a gaping hole, one that perhaps a former French scholar was thinking of when he observed just a few years before we began, that journalists don’t, for the most part, cover their industry and profession the way we cover others. “Media do not criticize each other: blind eyes are turned on the failings of colleagues. Self-criticism is almost unknown…in this profession, as in others, solidarity sometimes verges on collusion,” observed Claude-Jean Bertrand in 2000.
My predecessor, the phenomenal founder of the project, Ivor Shapiro, with Colette Brin, stitched together a collaboration of many of the country’s journalism schools and secured funding from the non-profit Canadian Journalism Foundation. It has become a rich databank representing the conversation journalists and the industry have been having with each other during a period of profound changes in the media business, technology and many aspects of the practice of journalism. For my part, it’s a rich vein that I plan to mine as I start my sabbatical research project. Now, I enthusiastically turn it over to the talented, experienced journalist and academic, Bruce Gillespie. Welcome!
Janice Neil is an Associate Professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. She served as J-Source Ideas Editor 2008-2009 and Editor-in-Chief since then until today. She feels very fortunate to have worked with so many talented and dedicated journalists, editors, writers, contributors, and the outstandingly supportive staff at the CJF including Heather McCall, Wendy Kan and Natalie Turvey. Thank you!