The New York Times’ campaign to conquer Canada

Partly, it’s envy. But it’s also part of a plan to become the world’s newspaper of record. Continue Reading The New York Times’ campaign to conquer Canada

By Paul Adams for iPolitics

The New York Times has come to Canada in a big way, and that has implications for readers here — many of them positive — as well as for the Canadian media landscape, which are more complicated.

For a decade or so, the Times has relied on a single Ottawa-based reporter, the extremely capable Ian Austen. It has now added a reporter in Toronto and two other U.S.-based correspondents with Canada as their beat. Equally important, the newspaper has licensed reporters in Science, Fashion, the Arts and other sections to report on Canada more aggressively.

It is part of a global media strategy to become a dominant international news brand, and in Canada it’s working.

The “failing” New York Times, as Donald Trump has dubbed it, is failing upwards in Canada at a dizzying rate. It has seen explosive growth in subscriptions here, its largest market outside the U.S. — and now rivals and perhaps substantially exceeds The Globe and Mail in digital subscription dollars (and digital advertising dimes) in this country.

Last week, I set myself the task of reading two months of Times Canadian coverage, which turned out to be a considerably larger task than I had expected. I have long been a daily New York Timesreader; normally I work my way through the homepage before feeling the need to get on with the day. That actually means I miss a lot of stuff.

I counted nearly 90 Canadian-themed stories in the months of May and June, using an admittedly arbitrary rubric — excluding stories where I thought the Canadian angle was tangential (for example, the Canadian man who attacked a security official at a Michigan airport). I included Margaret Atwood’s annotation of the TV series based on her book The Handmaid’s Tale, but not other coverage of the series.

Most of these stories were exclusive to the Times and written with the newspaper’s characteristic flair and attention to detail. I was struck by the variety of subjects and how often the paper offered stories I hadn’t read elsewhere: a story about a film being shot in British Columbia in a Haida language in which only 20 people are fluent; another about how female Canadian elk may be adjusting their behaviour between longbow and rifle hunting seasons to improve their chances of survival; and an article about how a Stratford play is using an “intimacy choreographer” to stage erotic scenes.

There were some great graphics and video features, including a 360-degree time-lapse video of two Inuit men making an igloo and a live session with some ornithologists from a wildlife reserve in Toronto.

All in all, the coverage meets the Times’ stated objective of writing original stories that can appeal to both international and Canadian audiences.

When you get away from the home page and the Politics page, the New York Times’ Canada is a complex, sophisticated and fascinating place. But in some ways, it’s the explicitly political coverage that tells a more interesting tale — maybe a more problematic one.

Probably it was inevitable that, in this Age of Trump, the Times would obsess a little over Canada as a parallel universe. What if, instead of their own Orange Mess, they had a hunky, centre-y, refugee-loving, happily married feminist leader who can get away with mismatched Star Wars socks? A girl can dream.

In fairness, there were only two articles on Trudeau’s socks during the period I reviewed — an act of almost superhuman restraint compared with our domestic media. While the caliber of the NYT’s political reporting on Canada is generally excellent (I’ll get to the exceptions a little later), the subject matter is often driven by American preoccupations.

Not surprisingly, Canada’s refugee and immigration policies loom large, as does its experience with multiculturalism. I was pleased to see the coverage went beyond stereotypes to a more rounded picture of the Canadian experience. There was an opinion piece praising the Canadian system of favouring immigrants with skills, but also a piece by a young Canadian under the startling headline: ‘I Am Not a ‘Paki”, Not a Terrorist. I Am Nobody but Myself.

The newspaper has given extensive coverage to Canada’s attempt to negotiate its sensitive relationship with the Trump administration. But when I watched a town hall the Times staged with Justin Trudeau as part of its promotional efforts here, I was stunned to find that not a single question from its newly-minted Toronto bureau chief, Catherine Porter, or from White House reporter Peter Baker dealt with any subject other than Trump.

When the Times’ talks about issues such as Canadian climate change policy or NAFTA, the perspective is relentlessly American.

Ian Austen’s scrupulous political reporting would be an adornment to any Canadian news outlet, though the publication dates are sometimes not as timely. But a visit from the Times’ international “Interpreter” section, timed to Canada’s 150th anniversary, raised hackles among some Canadian reporters. An otherwise thoughtful and well-informed piece explaining how Canada had escaped the international wave of populism managed only a glancing and opaque reference to Quebec’s experience with the proposed Charter of Values — and never even mentioned a certain crack-smoking metropolitan mayor.

British Columbia loomed surprisingly large in the Times coverage in May and June, perhaps in part because of the recent election, where the newspaper’s reporting on campaign finances had a direct impact. Quebec, in contrast, got relatively little attention. Perhaps that reflects English Canada’s own indifference these days, but could it also be a language issue?

The coverage of Indigenous issues is rich and intelligent, reflecting a very current Canadian news and social agenda. I was fascinated by a story about how the University of Saskatchewan is trying to marry the Western traditions of the university with the needs and culture of Indigenous people.

There are occasional fumbles. “Canadians are a modest and unassuming lot, used to being overlooked and overshadowed,” the Times tells us. Good to know. Naturally, some articles have to include boilerplate paragraphs to explain things Canadians are presumed to know through the domestic press.

There’s quite a bit about hockey, naturally — much of it excellent — but surprisingly also this paean to the CFL. Prominent Canadians such as Michael Bliss and Robert Campeau received substantial obituaries.

Most of all, there were many, many stories that were just great reads, as you would expect from the Times. In a deeply moving, magazine-length article, Catherine Porter followed a British Columbia man with an agonizing incurable illness through the process of assisted death. On a much lighter note, I laughed with recognition at Austen’s account of his family’s trip to Expo 67 that was so similar to my own.

You have to assume that with the continuing worldwide pre-occupation with Donald Trump, the Times will continue to attract Canadian readers who come for a front-row seat to the D.C. horror show but stay for the newspaper’s manifold charms, including its expanded Canadian coverage.

At some point, though, as the Times expands in reach and influence — potentially crowding out some Canadian competitors — we may want to reflect on what it means to see our own country through a lens mounted south of the border.

This story was originally published on iPolitics and is republished here with the editor’s permission.