Toronto’s Mayor David Miller believes journalists should spend more time going deeper on serious issues and less on the catchy but trivial. Sure, but is there really an audience for such reportage, even in election years?
Miller was the guest speaker at the annual Journalism and Democracy lecture, a joint production of the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for Global Affairs and the Canadian Journalism Foundation.
By way of background, Miller’s municipal political career began in 1994. In 2003, he became Toronto’s second post-amalgamation mayor, easily winning re-election in 2006. He will be leaving the political stage when his term ends.
The people will choose his successor on Oct. 25.
If the turnout is anything like the 2003 and 2006 municipal elections, fewer than 40 per cent of Toronto’s eligible voters will exercise their franchise and cast a ballot.
Miller didn’t use his presentation to talk about how to get people more interested in being active citizens during election time.
However, he did present a few insights that might be worth noting.
Back in 2003, Miller was an underdog mayoral candidate, albiet one who had gained some profile through his work on the MFP computer leasing scandal.
Miller said his team found out that while he was running on the right issues, they hadn’t yet found a simple-enough way to get the public to accept his ideas.
Miller’s campaign manager John Laschinger and an advertising firm came up with the broom — emblematic of his intention to clean up City Hall.
They also found people saw Miller as being a serious guy, so the team tried to make fun of that image, including an ad with a reference to his great hair (the National Post reported the ad as saying, “Magnificent leadership, magnificent vision, magnificent hair”).*
* I dropped into the Little Rock, Ark., presidential campaign headquarters of Bill Clinton in 1992. There was a bumper sticker for sale, referring to Clinton and running-mate Al Gore: “Young guys. Great hair.”
Miller said he got four days of media coverage out of the ‘hair’ story.
Am I the only one who sees irony in a call for more serious journalism when to get elected, Miller had to find the right prop and the right sort of insouciant reference to his hair?
Or is it the media’s fault for going on a four-day jag about said locks?*
*As a fascinating sidebar, read this May 3 Globe and Mail story: Want to get paid like a CEO? Image is key
Miller, not surprisingly, appreciated the coverage given to the MFP scandal, but was less enthusiastic about media coverage about Couns. Sandra Bussin and Adrian Heaps (two Miller allies) spending public money to rent bunny and chipmunk costumes.
His Honour questioned why the Toronto Star, which had been so steadfast in support in support of a new deal for Canada’s cities, would run such stories — particularly giving three days of headlines on Bussin.
The Heaps story was reported on March 18 of this year, which is the heart of city budget season. People have trouble getting their heads around the intricacies of $9.2 billion in spending, but they can understand $439.50 of public money being spent on costumes for a councillor’s skating party.
Miller said those rentals were within the rules, but such moves can be seen as contributing to a narrative about councillors who feel entitled to their entitlements, if I can borrow that phrase from David Dingwall.
That narrative has fueled the campaign of Coun. Rob Ford, who has become the frontrunner on a mantra of ”stopping the gravy train at City Hall” — although people should realize that halting bunny costume rentals by councillors will, at best, only have a symbolic effect on the city’s finances.
Maybe so, but many people see new fees and taxes introduced, they see problems going unsolved — and then they see councillors spending and acting stupidly (see this Marcus Gee column from the Sept. 30 Globe and Mail). One might suggest retiring Coun. Kyle Rae lent undue credibility to Ford’s particular obsessions when he threw himself a $12,000 retirement party.
Some have argued that Rae covered the bill by giving surplus campaign contributions to the city, but the optics were not good. Ordinary people don’t get to throw lavish retirement parties for themselves.
To that same end, Miller pooh-poohed the hysterical reaction to the photo of a sleeping TTC collector booth operator. I tweeted this:
Here’s one TTC story of mine. Many, many other people have their own. The mayor neglected to mention that a blue-ribbon panel eventually came up with numerous ways the TTC could improve customer service. That photo got the ball rolling.
At the same time, was Miller’s weight more important than his work at a 2009 C40 cities environment meeting in Seoul?
This would seem to be a valid criticism, but it’s also driven by the realities of our time. People generally don’t find stories about policy very interesting, unless there is some hard news edge to the issue.
They are interested in personal stories, particularly about celebrities. Frankly, they’d probably be more likely to read about someone’s successful weight loss effort than how cities can combat climate change (anyone hearing climate change mentioned this campaign, which overlaps with what will likely be the warmest year in Toronto’s history?).
Which partly led me to tweet this:
Why does the audience never come in for criticism during discussions of journalism? #cjfdavidmiller
The theoretical underpinning of journalism is that it should provide the information people need to be effectively self-governing. What if large numbers of people don’t really care enough about their city or neighbourhood to inform themselves about major issues in preparation for spending two minutes in a voting booth once every four years?*
*A veteran Toronto backroom operative once told me this: “If you’re spending more than 15 minutes a week thinking about politics, you’re ahead of 99 per cent of the population.”
Here’s a little test. Which story would you click on:
- Motorcyclist clocked at almost 100 km/h over speed limit
- Would spending cuts save or savage Toronto?
But if serious news about civic politics has little commercial value in terms of reader interest relative to other, more sensational fare, then what?
I also tweeted the following:
An expanded thought: The citizenry doesn’t nec’ly consume news as an act of citizenship. What are serious J-ists to do?#cjfdavidmiller
Well, I still think the news media (I’m a journalist, I work for ctvtoronto.ca and wrote the two stories above) should do the serious stories that help inform people about how their government works and what candidates are trying to sell them. Just because a story has small readership doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be influential, if it’s read by the right people.
But as analytics get better and profit margins get smaller, the business case for writing stories that won’t get very good readership becomes strained. And if you’re a commercial operation, you have to make money.
Towards the end of Miller’s presentation, Edward Greenspon, now a Toronto Star executive but a former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief, said cutbacks in newsrooms have had some effect on coverage.
However, “we’ve never been good at ‘trend’ stories,” he said, adding it was something that predated Miller’s tenure.
Retiring Royal Ontario Museum president William Thorsell (also a former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief) addressed that topic, but I couldn’t hear him very well. Steve Paikin of TVO’s The Agenda proudly hailed his program’s high-mindedness, but it’s a non-profit. That’s a different game.
Miller suggested city hall beat reporters should spend less time at Nathan Phillips Square and more time out in Toronto’s neighbourhoods. Sound advice, but I tweeted:
A question I’d like answered, and which didn’t come up in the session, is what comes first: The journalism or the democracy? Do people develop an appetite for civic affairs journalism because they are active and involved, or does consuming well-executed civic affairs reportage and commentary make people into more active citizens?
It would be interesting to measure how much citizen-generated grassroots reportage is going on in Toronto and the wider GTA relative to 2006, and to see how many people are tapping that as a source of information about the election.
I should note the question-and-answer session was essentially under the “Chatham House Rule,” which is something I find objectionable at a journalism event involving an elected public official.
Finally, if you have any answers to this question, I’m all ears:
Note this Sept. 22 column from Gee.
If some enterprising media researcher has time, it would be interesting to know how Toronto residents consumed election news from when candidates could register on Jan. 4 to the aftermath of voting day on Oct. 25.
It would also be interesting to know how what election stories were the most read, how well-informed voters were, and what the most-read stories were in general over that period by people of voting age (this should eliminate any Justin Bieber spikes).
Another useful thing to know is whether voters this year are more or less informed than other civic election years, although I don’t know how you could go about measuring that.
I wonder if any political scientists have done longitudinal studies of civic literacy and activism and tried to correlate it with civic performance.
J-Source’s Dana Lacey also had a lengthy post on Miller’s speech.
In an Oct. 15 column, Gee referred to Miller’s speech as peevish:
Mr. Miller has many little-celebrated accomplishments, including moves to ensure greater integrity in government and ease the tax burden on city businesses, but successful leaders don’t moan about how the media has failed to explain their brilliance to the public. Their job is not just to state a vision and pursue it, but to persuade the public to follow. Somewhere along the road, Mr. Miller lost the city.