On Trump, the apocalypse, and missing the forest for the Tweets

At the beginning of every apocalyptic thriller there’s always a scene where the hero is getting ready for work, feeding the kids breakfast, dealing with a dog that has barfed in the living room, and generally dealing with the million minor stresses of every day life. 

Meanwhile, on the TV or radio in the background the news is cycling through the usual mundanities of petty crime and traffic and local weather, except thrown into the mix there are always a handful of Easter eggs: warnings of nuclear sabre-rattling by jumped-up third-world dictators; quirky reports of bizarre weather patterns in Europe; a fun little hit about a couple from the midwest who swore they saw an alien spacecraft collecting samples in a field behind their house.

These scenes play a key role in setting up the narrative, in three ways. First, they establish the family ties that will provide the emotional basis for the film.… Continue reading

Dan Drezner on the Ideas Industry

drezner

I had the privilege last night of seeing Dan Drezner give the inaugural Barton Lecture at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa. His lecture was a condensed version of the argument of his book The Ideas Industry, and while I’ve read the book, the talk was useful. It’s often interesting to see people give book talks, since you get a better sense of what they think their book is about.

Drezner begins with a paradox: Everyone laments the decline of the public intellectual in our civic discourse, and yet, via outlets such as TED and related Big Ideas type lecture series’, the demand for ideas has never been greater. Drezner squares this by distinguishing two types of ideas industry labourer: Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders. They break down as follows:

thought ledrs

What Drezner argues, in a nutshell, is that public intellectuals have been largely eclipsed by thought leaders, so that people like Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria now dominate.… Continue reading

First do no harm: Why Melanie Joly was right to stay out of the news biz

The “Creative Canada” policy framework announced last week by Melanie Joly seems to have left no one happy, but the reaction in the news media and its interested observers has been most interesting. Despite the fact that Joly declined the invitation to empty a few wheelbarrows full of cash onto the doorstep of suffering Canadian news organizations, opinion was soon sharply split between those who saw hope that she was planning to do so by stealth, and those who feared she was planning to do so by stealth.

For the most part, these responses have been little more than occasions to grind well-worn axes, and it’s not worth going over them here. But for background reading, if you are interested:

McMaster commmuications prof Sara Bannerman arguing in The Conversation that the government is ignoring the crisis in Canadian journalism.

Communications prof, Marc Edge, arguing in Policy Options that Joly was right to do so.… Continue reading

Reality starts to bite at the Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail has announced some fairly serious changes in the last week, and it’s hard not to see them as part of a much larger strategic shift at the paper. If so, it’s been a long time coming: compared to the big strategic bets at Postmedia and at the Star (and at La Presse as well, in Quebec), the Globe has had a quieter time of it. There have been layoffs and cuts, and obvious changes to the product but on the for-profit media side, the Globe and Mail seems to have been more insulated than anyone else to the wrenching transformation and revenue decline affecting the news biz.

The changes at the Globe include the cancellation of the print edition in the Atlantic region (so no paper Globe east of Quebec); the cutting of standalone arts, sports, and life sections during the week (so going to basically a two-section paper focused on news and business); and the end of two long-time (and quite popular) columnists, Leah McLaren and Tabatha Southey.… Continue reading

Freedom of Speech on Campus II

(This is part of a longer piece I’ve been writing about universities in the public sphere. I’m posting this because I think Joe is right that these issues are especially current at the moment, and the conversation is seriously compromised because people keep conflating academic freedom and freedom of speech. This is an attempt to help sort out the difference. It draws heavily on two pieces: A blog post by Alex Usher, and a transcript of a talk by Jacob Levy. Go read both first, then come back here if you care for my take on things.)

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With both Ryerson and the University of Toronto this week cancelling scheduled on-campus events that were guaranteed gong shows, Marie-Danielle Smith of the National Post had the smarts to call up Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and ask him about his campaign pledge to take away federal funding from any university that failed to “foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus.” It wasn’t just a tossed-off proposal: in his pledge he listed specific funding mechanisms that would be at risk, and carved out a special exemption for private and especially faith-based institutions.… Continue reading

What if Donald Trump is an authentic douchebag?

There was always a bit of the locker room in the old Mencken line about democracy being the theory that  “the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.  But from “grab em by the pussy” to “I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” Trump and his allies have finally brought that locker room insight square into the Oval Office.  

So while it doesn’t make for family-friendly newspapers, if there’s one good thing that might come out of the gong show inside a dumpster fire on a train wreck that is the Trump presidency, it will be to kill until it is dead the idea that what we really need from our politicians is more authenticity.

It’s been the dominant meme of American politics since at least the 2000 election, when Al Gore was widely ridiculed as being a wooden, poll-driven phony, in contrast with Dubya’s Tex-folk posing.Continue reading

What the failure of Star Touch teaches us about a media bailout

The Toronto Star announced yesterday that it was shuttering its flagship Star Touch tablet app, laying off 30 employees and eating something north of $20 million in investment costs.

This comes a week after a group called “News Media Canada” — basically a legacy news media lobbying group — pitched the feds on a plan for the government to give the industry $350 million in support that would include funding 35 per cent of newsroom costs.

Clearly, the failure of Star Touch proves the need for the bailout money, yes?

Actually, no, it proves the exact opposite. Star Touch is exactly why the feds need to leave the news business to its death throes.

Some quick background: Star Touch was an attempt to recreate the walled garden of print in a digital format, to provide a closed environment where readers would come and stick around, paging through the heavily designed and curated app.Continue reading

*All The President’s Men* for the Trump era

If you’re looking for guidance on the current media-political climate in the United States, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of All The President’s Men, the book-length account of the Watergate investigation by Woodward and Bernstein. This is one of those I-can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-sooner books, something I really should have been handed the day I walked into the newsroom at the Ottawa Citizen almost a decade ago. (The movie is great too, but it only covers the period from the break-in until Nixon’s re-election in ‘72, so it misses what is arguably the most interesting stuff. It’s also a bit jarring to read the book knowing that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, the #2 at the FBI at the time.)

Aside from its value as analogue journalism-porn (See also: Spotlight) in many ways, it will make you feel better about what’s going on now. History doesn’t repeat itself but it definitely rhymes: America has seen shit-show presidencies before and survived.… Continue reading

Why you should read “Should we change how we vote?”

Last summer, a lot of us expected that roundabout now the Liberal government would be either introducing legislation to change the electoral system, or making preparations for a national referendum on a proposal to change the electoral system. That’s because Justin Trudeau promised, during the 2015 campaign, that the upcoming election would be that last one held under the “first past the post” electoral system, and by summer 2016, it was clear that time was running out on the government’s ability to make good on that pledge.

Hoping to both intervene in the government’s decision-making process and contribute to the public debate, Daniel Weinstock, Peter Loewen, and I organized a pair of conferences last fall, one in Ottawa and Montreal. We also arranged for MQUP to publish a “quickie” book out of the conference, one that would do a shortcut on the usual academic press publishing timelines and get something out in time to contribute to the anticipated debate we would be having this spring.… Continue reading

Why Facebook is the Devil: Platforms, publishing, and the public good

Prologue

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace — John Perry Barlow, 1996

I.

You all know the line about generals always preparing to fight the last war. News media execs, and many academics and media critics, on the other hand, have spent the better part of the last two decades fighting the current war while trying to figure out a way of getting everyone to agree to return to the terms of the old. That is, a good decade after it became clear that the math for digital publishing was never going to work, there are still a lot of publishers, aided by a sizeable scholarly industry, who are devoted to finding some way of rolling back the clock on the business model.… Continue reading