Monday, 6 February 2017

As ridiculous as it is, she's the head of state: why doesn't Canada's public broadcaster say it?

This tweet and and article by the CBC has been annoying me all day.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is the public broadcaster of Canada. Yet it refers to Queen Elizabeth’s 65 year slog as being spent on the throne of Britain*, which while true, ignores the horrible reality that she also spent that 65 years on the throne of Canada.

This isn’t Buzzfeed or Mic or The Rebel or some impertinent start-up that could be backhandedly forgiven for not knowing basic facts. It’s the fucking CBC, which ought to know better.

This isn’t a new annoyance to me. In my Grade 9 social studies class, before the lesson, the teacher walked up and down the aisle “Who is Canada’s head of state.”

Someone said “Trudeau”. Pierre, the then-Prime Minister. Someone else tried “President Reagan.” A third tried “Premier Bennett.” And then there was an uncomfortable silence.

It’s crazy – this isn’t an mind numbingly hard question in Britain or the US.

Anyway, she got to me. “Darren?” “Queen Elizabeth,” I said. To howls of laughter.

It annoys me to this day. How do you get rid of her if people don’t even realise she’s there?

Also, 65 years is not a real anniversary.

  • And the throne of Britain isn’t even a thing, either. The monarch of the rocks in the North Atlantic is the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

An easy nine step plan to fix the Vancouver Sun and Province

During the short visit to my hometown of Vancouver, I did something most Vancouverites rarely do: read the two daily papers, the Vancouver Sun and the Province.

These two papers were unusual in Canada in that they were both owned by the same company, with combined back offices but adversarial newsrooms, a situation that had been going on since the 50s. However, last year the papers’ latest owner, Postmedia, combined the two newsrooms with one editor in chief, a scheme that was replicated in the half dozen other cities which have dual Postmedia papers.

Sure, we all like the idea of two or more daily newspapers clashing it out every day, where hard bitten journalists expose corruption in bits of paper, printed by ink stained craftspeople in the press hall and delivered by bright eyed paper carriers to eager citizens. Almost all of that fantasy has been outsourced now: delivery is by adults in cars, printing is by a low-bid third party printer and the hard bitten journalists have mostly taken their buy outs.

Unlike many people, I’m not opposed to the combined newsroom. Combining the newsrooms was an opportunity to finally create two distinctive papers, assign stories based on the best person for the job, and distinguish them by editing and by story focus. But rather than reinvent themselves the Sun and the Province chose to create two newspapers that are essentially the same. Same articles, same bylines. No difference in point of view.

So, as a favour to the bean counters of the hedge funds who own tranches of the debt of Postmedia, here are my recommendations to salvage the Sun and the Province to keep them in business and, possibly, daily journalism alive in Vancouver.


1. Bring back a proper newspaper nameplate.

It was bad enough in the 80s when the Vancouver Sun replaced its gothic lettering with an soulless serif typeface, but the current logo is a green abortion. Created by Winkcreative (owned by Monocle magazine editor and Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brule), Postmedia has replaced all its broadsheet daily paper logos with a shitty icon. The Sun’s is supposed to represent the seawall.

The Sun needs to bring back this logo, from the 40s. This nameplate says ‘local newspaper’ and not ‘we’re planning on merging all our broadsheet newspapers together in the near future and the only thing that will change city to city is the shitty logo.’

Better yet, an updated version of the Sun’s predecessor, The World.

The Province never had a fancy nameplate. Since 1898, it’s name was always in plain type so it can keep the current one.


2. Make them both tabloid-sized

The broadsheet is dead. You can’t read it on the bus, it’s annoying to read in coffee shops or bars and if you’re not reading in those places, where are you reading it? You don’t have a kitchen table anymore as you’ve rented out the kitchen to gain a fourth roommate so you can stay in Vancouver.

All publications are better in a smaller format. In my current city, London, the Times, converted to a tabloid size long ago much to the pleasure of its plutocrat readership. As did the Evening Standard, which took the extra step of going free and increasing its circulation sevenfold. The Independent also went tabloid in the 90s, although it recently took the extra step of dying.


3. Edit the hell out of them and make them different

In a city that spawned Greenpeace, Adbusters, plain-clothed punks, property-rich hippies, COPE, and keeps electing Gregor Robertson as mayor, the Sun and the Province both maintained a right-wing, Fraser Institute friendly editorial stance. It’s an old journalist koan, “is a newspaper a mirror or a window to the community?” The Sun and Province were neither – they imposed a view from far away owners that was alien to Vancouver’s DNA. The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Winnipeg Free Press, are all example of non-Postmedia newspapers that found the middle of the road.

The Sun should be edited as the paper of Richard Florida’s creative class. Report and support development of buildings, condos, transit and bike lanes, call out anti-Vancouverism measures like the Massey Tunnel replacement without Skytrain or replacing the Patullo bridge. Make education a true beat. Cover arts seriously. Make the video game and film industries the focus of the business section, and make them must-reads by those in it.

The Province should be edited as the paper of the proletariate. Stand up for working people and expose unfairness , whether it’s financial, racial, or gender based. Make it funny, as nothing scours like humour, but don’t ignore politics – make it personal. Those working class voters from Surrey to Chilliwack that constantly vote Tory,they need a champion. How about a champion that doesn’t work against their interests.

Or vice versa the editing style. They’re identical right now.


4. Kill filler

When readers are online and they see something they have read already or is boring, they are instantly gone. Stop training print readers to do the same.

You have a whole day to figure out what is going into your paper – don’t get lazy and fill it with Canadian Press or Postmedia pieces. We don’t need to know about a school strike in Sarnia, unless it is about something other than money or class size and, for that matter, something isn’t a story just because it happens in ‘Canada’s largest city.’ Although that’s really more for my rant about the CBC.

Every single story should be deliberate and edited to the length it should be, not the length that fits.

And, for god’s sake, stop running tweets. It looks like space filler, it reads like space filler, and, if any one wanted to read them – and they don’t – they could have read them yesterday.


5. Explain with photos and graphics

Here is something positive to say about the Sun and Province: they have great photographers, who have talent and experience, and the papers have the equipment to support them.

Yet page after page is tombstone type or stock photos.

Unleash the photographers and graphic designers, make every story a visual story as well. You have the space because you killed all the stories comprised only of Tweets.


6. Unleash the reporters

Here is another positive thing to say about the Sun and Province: they have great writers, who have talent and experience.

I can sympathise a little with the problem of editorial staffing: you can only afford so many heads.. But if you don’t buyout some of the longest serving staff, you have no room for new eyes and new passions. However, your longest serving people are also the ones that know how the damn city works. Not to mention writing is a craft that gets better with experience.

Reading the Sun and Province lately, the reporters are obviously constrained. Maybe they just feel hopeless.

But read the New York Times or The Guardian or even, to a lesser extent, The Globe & Mail and you can see boring old inverted pyramid writing style sing. People pick up newspapers to read, ergo, make that reading enjoyable to read.


7. Admitting that you are dull is the first step to healing

Look, I love you guys at the Sun and Province, you’re working at a big city daily, it’s a household name, you think that you’re the creme de la creme.

But there is something you need to admit to yourself: you’re not the top of the print-lover’s food chain, you’re the bottom.

Here’s an apt analogy:

  1. Group 1: HBO, Netflix, FX, AMC = the golden age of television; TV that could be in the cinema
  2. Group 2: NBC, CBS, Global, ABC = TV for the lowest common denominator, the mouth breathers, insert people you really don’t want reading your paper here

Sun and Province: you’re Group 2. Surprise!

People who want world news do not go to the Sun or Province first. Or culture. Or politics. Or local news. Canucks and Lions news, sure, but sports in general no. Do you feel good that only local sports fans consider you as their main source?

But now that you know how the world views you, you can change.


8. Make the weekend your showpiece

The Sun and Province have seemed not to notice that their weekend papers are their best sellers, by tens of thousands. Yet the actual papers are basically the same as the daily product, expanded sightly as more advertisers wish to benefit from the higher circulation.

Forget about why circulation is higher on the weekend. Just note that on the weekend, more people want to buy the paper, people who aren’t buying it the rest of the week. Make it the greatest edition of the week, make it a showpiece. Tens of thousands more people are buying it already, but more than that want to but don’t because it sucks.

Give them the long features, give them the greatest graphics. More people want it, so make it so people want more.


9. But but but… everything’s on the web now

Fuck the web. If you are writing stories that mean something to people, they’ll walk over broken glass to get to it. They’ll even pay a $1.25.

What they won’t pay for is stuff that they can get for free already. I’m not sure why this isn’t really understood – but the Sun and Province have page after page of stories that I have already read online. Not the exact same article, but the gist. I paid you for this – why are you insulting me?

Don’t put the articles on the unpaywalled web until enough time has passed. A week? A month? It’s a good advertisement for future readers. But don’t miss the significant part: only paywall the stuff worth paying for. Paywalling the garbage doesn’t encourage newspaper sales and why were you printing garbage in the first place?

But have a daily blog. Hot take every single thing throughout the day, whether it is by your own giant combined newsroom or linked to someone else’s reporting. Stick that on the front page of the website.


Those nine points should cover it nicely, but I think I could conflate them all into one simple point: ‘give a fuck about what you’re printing’.

But I fear that other wheels are turning, and this is just a step to clear away union problems and other hurdles. I half believe the end game is to kill off one Vancouver paper—obviously the Province, as it was the most starved of resources—and ultimately have the Sun as a local news section wrapped around the National Post. What makes it less convincing to me is that even this has a local news section, and that may be a cost that the hedge funders don’t wish to bear.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Someone seems to be filing fake lawsuits to trick Google and others into removing web content

Due to the protections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, American-based websites with strong freedom-of-speech ethos will ignore people who claim that they have been defamed by user-created content unless they have a successful court decree of libel.

How weird then that someone in the US seems to be filing cases of libel against possibly fictional people with the same name as real writers, having these possibly fictional people agree to the court that they have committed defamation, and then the ensuing decision is used to have real reviews on Yelp or Google or wherever removed.

The full story is here.

Joyride: The crazy magazines that funded the publisher of Eros and Avant Garde

Last month, I wrote about the amazing 60s Avante Garde magazine being available online. month.

Somehow, my memory was jogged of a 1990 SPY Magazine piece in which Joe Queenan wrote of his four years editing Better Living, American Business, and Moneyworth magazines, three terrible newsletters that existing solely to sell and resell their mailing lists. But because they had circulations in the millions, Queenan was invited to luxury junkets, meetings with world leaders, and endless free swag. These crazy magazines kept Eros and Avante Garde magazine publisher, Ralph Ginsburg, in the black.

Here’s the link to Google Books version of the article.

Escaping from Turkmenistan when your US employers want you to break the law

This is an incredible story.

My friend Marina Roganovic took a promotion from administering a private school for diplomats children in Montenegro to running one for the same organisation in Turkmenistan, a country that can make North Korea look like your local cat cafe. It’s not a country that one breaks local law carelessly.

You see, there is a very active currency black market in Turkmenistan. Turkmen currency, the Manat, was pegged at 3.4913 TMT to $1. Black market rate at that time was 4.5 TMT to $1.

Bill suggested he takes $1000, exchange the money on the black market, give the school 3500 TMT, and we would pocket the rest. He would do this will all of the dollars we needed to convert – and by the end of the three year project, he said we could make a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

When I reported him to [the US-based bosses], I was told that, instead of investigating their dear friend, [they] made a decision that I will be the one to break this law in Turkmenistan. The school will be the beneficiary of the illegal currency exchange.

Let me paint a picture here – a 15 year old Turkmen exchanged $100 on the black market. His whole family went to jail for seven years.

Earlier: Hockey Night in Turkmenistan by Roganovic’s husband, Brian Salmi

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

SPY magazine reboots for the 2016 US election

SPY cofounder Kurt Anderson:

As Trump became the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, lots more people, pretty much every day, said to me, “SPY really needs to be rebooted, if only just for the election. SPY really needs to be rebooted, if only just for the election.”

I guess maybe they’re right, so I’m very pleased that Esquire has decided to produce an online pop-up SPY during the last thirty days of the presidential campaign. It has my whole-hearted best wishes. And it’s also a nice serendipity that this October will mark the magazine’s thirtieth anniversary. It’s as if SPY, a retired superhero, is making a brief but necessary comeback.

Read it here.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The entire run of Avant Garde magazine is now online

I have written about Avant Garde magazine before. It’s one of the great 60s magazines, and the beginning of the modern magazine.

Now you can read the entire run of Avant Garde online.

Hockey Night in Turkmenistan

Had I known there were no bookstores in Turkmenistan maybe I would have said, ‘No way,’ when my wife told me she’d been offered a job there. Any nation that bans bookstores is no place for a writer.

There were other signs that the Central Asian petro state was not going to embrace me as a comrade: I am an anarchist (funarchist, actually) – whereas Turkmen authorities once jailed a young man, for a year, for organizing a flash-mob dance party. The ultra authoritarian police state, known to expats who reside there as North Korea Lite, is a vast desert where the summer temperature usually hovers around 45 degrees – whereas as I am a tree-hugging, snow-loving Canadian whose genetic roots are buried in the Finnish permafrost.

Brian Salmi’s story on how he hoped to arrange the first Turkmenistanly Cup just gets weirder from there.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Textpattern 4.6 released

Textpattern has been my goto CMS since 2004, which is prehistoric in CMS years. Wordpress people love the zillion of templates out there, Textpatterners love that TXP lets you essentially turn regular webpages into CMS’s. This new release is a significant upgrade and lead developer Stef Dawson should be proud of his team.

"Okay boys, this is what they pay us for"

This Politico oral history of the passengers of Air Force One on 9/11 is fascinating. What is mind blowing is that George W. Bush and company were getting most of their information via rabbit ears from broadcast stations that faded in and out as they cruised for hours.