Fighting that ‘persistent myth’ about the community press

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

J-Source recently published an opinion piece by Dale Bass defending the community press. “Community papers do more than fluffy, ‘happy news’ stories” the title reads. I sighed as I read it. Not because I disagree with the author’s sentiments — quite the opposite — but because the criticisms levied at community news noted in the piece are similar to many others I’ve come across in my research. The  Bass piece includes the usual stereotypes that community news is a training ground for the nation’s reporters, weekly reporters are timid, and the papers are filled with puff pieces and are little more than an advertising vehicle. It’s reminiscent of the labels I’ve often come across, those being ‘boosterism,’ ‘refrigerator journalism’ and ‘commercial pluggery.’

There seems to be this persistent myth that the community press is substandard compared with larger papers. Bill Reader suggested this is in part due to a scathing rebuke about the lazy country editor that media critic Ben Bagdikian wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1964. Bagdikian described weeklies (and most small dailies) as the “backyard of the trade, repositories for any piece of journalistic junk tossed over the fence” where canned copy and “commercial pluggery” are often found on the pages of smaller circulation papers. Even Jock Lauterer, who is considered an advocate of community journalism, levied strong criticism against the community press when, in 2006, he wrote:

Many small-town papers seem to attract and harbor the washed-up derelicts of our business; community papers at their worst become sort of a stale backwater for the flotsam and jetsam of journalism. This results in poor management, terrible writing and uninspired photography; a community paper that resembles the journalistic version of a zombie. It just keeps coming at you, dead or not.

While Lauterer did specify “at their worst” and I understand what he might be referring to (I am sure we’ve all come across one of those papers before), generalized criticisms leveraged against the community press not only serve to discredit the vital role they play, they help perpetuate the myth that community journalism is inferior.

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Tourist fees charged in Niagara Falls are voluntary, but they won’t tell you

August 19, 2013 129 comments
The much improved view on our second night.

The much improved view on our second night.

We spent a few days in Niagara Falls (Canadian side) last week and had a lot of fun. There was, however, this strange “tax” that we kept seeing on many of our bills. Not being one to just shrug and pay it, I decided to look it up. The first hit I got from Google was this 2012 CBC article about tourism fees being collected with little oversight. The part that intrigued me most, though, was the bit that noted it was a voluntary fee.

Wait. It’s voluntary?

No one bothered to mention that. And that’s why I grew annoyed. Who doesn’t dislike hidden fees? Or cash grabs? Of course it could be argued parts of Niagara Falls are little more than cash grabs (Clifton Hill anyone?) but those are known tourist traps and you choose to either partake or not. Did we over pay for indoor glow-in-the-dark mini putt? Yes. Did we know that beforehand? Yes. But we chose to go ahead and do it. It’s this extra fee masquerading as a mandatory tax that’s unacceptable. An additional 3-3.8 per cent might not seem like much, but it does add up. Plus it’s the principle. This is the whole opt in vs. opt out, but without letting the consumer know they can opt out in the first place.

I wondered if perhaps things had changed since that article was published, but looking around online it seemed not to be the case. So I tested this when we arrived back at the hotel. I spoke with someone at the front desk about the fee and asked to have it removed. They said they would remove it for that night. I told them I wanted it removed for my entire stay. I was informed I’d have to get a manager to do that in the morning (we hopped around rooms due to an issue with the view of the falls on the first night, so they were considered separate bookings although it was all one booking). Read more…

Coffee shop fun: More than meets the eye

The leader of the Autobots likes his hot chocolate.

The leader of the Autobots likes his hot chocolate.

In an effort to stop customers from inadvertently grabbing the wrong order, coffee shops often ask for a name they can scribble on the side of their cardboard cups. At least that’s my guess as to why they ask for a name. If so, it generally works. Since they started asking for names I’ve not had my order accidentally snatched up by someone else in a hurry. My name, however, often gets butchered, so I decided to have a bit of fun during one of my visits.

Before I go on, I should mention I’m not upset they have creative spelling options or shortened versions of Patricia. Names are so varied that to expect them to get it right is unfair, especially when they’re getting your name quickly in a noisy coffee shop. If it’s close and it stops someone else from accidentally grabbing your drink, then it did its job. I’ve noticed a few sites now dedicated to Starbucks getting names wrong (here, here, and here). I’ve also noticed some are actually angry that either their name is wrong or they were asked in the first place. If you don’t want to give a name, make up a moniker. As for misspellings, does it really matter that much? It’s a cardboard coffee cup that’s going to end up in the trash. And yes, I say that as someone who double-checks names and spellings on a regular basis. You don’t want to get a name wrong, even just the spelling, in the news. There’s a reason spelling a name wrong was an “F-able” error in journalism school when I was in undergrad. But we’re talking about disposable coffee cups here.

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No shirt, no shoes, no kid, no entry

Apparently child-free Lego enthusiasts are not welcome at the Vaughan Legoland Discovery Centre. At least not during normal operating hours. If the child-free crowd is interested in taking in the intricate Toronto skyline fashioned out of Lego, they can only go on designated evenings.

The Legoland Discovery Centre has a strict policy that adults must be accompanied by a child to visit the centre.

It’s unfortunate that, for one 63-year-old Windsor man, that policy isn’t front and center on their website. Oh, it is on the website, buried in a page or two if you happen to go clicking around, but that’s not really useful for most potential visitors. So unaware of the policy, he and his adult daughter made the trip to Legoland to find themselves turned away at the door. And as the story goes, their request to speak to a manager was denied.

So why the policy? In the words of the marketing manager, it’s to “protect the families and children that visit.” Yes, of course. Because all child-free people are automatically suspect, especially if they happen to be in a child-friendly or family-friendly environment.

Someone should tell Disney. All those child-free people roaming their parks is clearly a recipe for disaster. Read more…

Rebranding the public journalism movement?

I was at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference last weekend and had an opportunity to attend some interesting panel discussions. There was the usual and expected offerings: future of news, ATIP workshops and data journalism –  all useful, especially for those who might not have access to training in their newsrooms. There were some other very interesting topics too. But the one that originally caught my eye was a panel entitled “Models for Community Journalism.” Were they really giving a nod to community news?

Alas, they were not. It was daily media talking about community engagement. Still interesting so I went anyway.

Before I talk about the panel and why I find the term ‘community journalism’ curious, let me add a bit of context about how I approached this (aka my bias). For the past eight months I’ve been picking away at my thesis while getting my coursework out of the way as I work on my Master of Journalism. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it seems I’ve taken Bill Reader’s comment to heart and have decided to work “against many entrenched institutional biases against the ‘silly little papers’ that dominate the journalism world” because I have chosen to focus my research on community newspapers. In very general terms, I am examining the role of Canadian community news in democratic social inquiry, with an emphasis on what that role looks like in a digital environment and what impact the Internet and social media is having on the long-term viability of community journalism.

See that key term in there: community journalism. Admittedly I am using a narrow definition. Community, after all, can take on many meanings (which could be a post unto itself). But what I am referring to here are the many weekly/bi-weekly papers we see scattered throughout the country. Those papers that focus on hyperlocal content. They are what the industry refers to as community newspapers. So it’s understandable there might be a bit of initial confusion when community journalism is used in a different context. Read more…

Blizzard’s majestic hoodoos

It occurred to me that there was another place I saw hoodoos, or hoodoo-like formations: World of Warcraft. Blizzard  made their sandstone spires  nice and tall. And keeping with the fantastical, they filled the canyon with mythical creatures.

Thousand Needles, pre-Cataclysm:

Now these are some tall hoodoos.

But then Deathwing reappeared:

So much for all those hoodoos.

Those disappointing Hoodoos: photography vs. reality

April 12, 2013 2 comments

When I first saw my brother’s photos of the Hoodoos in Alberta, I knew I wanted to go see them myself some day. Little did I realize at the time that when I finally got the chance to tour the badlands, I’d find myself disappointed that the reality of the Hoodoos did not live up to the expectations borne from the photos I had seen. That’s not to suggest they aren’t worth seeing – they are, especially if geological formations interest you – it’s just that those sublime images did not mesh with what amounts to a tourist spot beside a highway.

Let me explain:

Can you guess how tall these Hoodoos stand?

The above image isn’t a great match for what I saw in my brother’s photos, but it’s close enough. What we see here are some of the Hoodoos found in the Drumheller area of Alberta. It is an image of the sublime, like those taken of the Grand Canyon that David E. Nye speaks about in his piece Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon. Hoodoos are not necessarily the “‘wonder’ of the West” that the Grand Canyon can lay claim to, but they are a fascinating example of millions of years of erosion at work. Without getting into the geology of these formations, the first thing we see in this image and others like it is a lack of human encroachment. There’s an untouched beauty to be found in these pillars. Mother Nature left to do as she will. And what is the outdoors, but a means of getting away from it all? These giant pillars reach toward the sky in solitary majesty, promising the adventurer a place of solitude and reflection. It’s as far removed from civilization as we can get. It’s an untamed space of rugged beauty. We are welcomed by the warm, earthy tones of the sandstone and the nearly-clear vibrant blue sky. The clearly defined layers within the rock hint at the millions of years of change captured in the formations. Looking at the pillars in the background to the right, we see curves that are soft and sensual, their folds evocative of flowing robes, only these are carved by Mother Nature herself. Yet there is a softness there, despite it being rock.

Read more…