When Haligonians must rely on Twitter for the News

I don’t post here very much.  That’s because I don’t really believe in citizen-journalism. Although I’ll grant anyone a right to a soapbox so that he or she can can stand up and be heard, I’m wary of people who think that the soapbox allows their opinions to move from being public opinion or individual commentary to being journalism.

The journalism profession may be morphing into something that is just a shadow of its former self, but that doesn’t change the fact that journalists, as we know them, are the trained professionals in the field of news-gathering.  They are the ones with the schooling and the experience, and they’re the ones who are most adept at finding, tracking, synthesizing, and finally conveying the newsworthy story to the people.

Some time ago, The Halifax Daily News shut its doors.  Then the Halifax Chronicle-Herald made deep cuts to its organization.  And then the Herald laid off a quarter of its newsroom.  We all know this already – it’s old news.

But maybe it’s time to take stock of journalism in Halifax and ask ourselves how our knowledge of our communities and neighbourhoods have been affected by the cuts I mentioned above.  How is it that you keep an ear to the ground so you can know how a certain issue might affect you?  They say that “all politics is local,” but I’d contend that what is more local than politics is actually journalism.  It’s the journalists who are paid to uncover things and follow stories of significance to the community.  And right now, I don’t think there is a healthy “journalistic community” (if I can call it that) in Halifax, especially at City Hall.

For months, I’ve been following The Coast‘s Tim Bousquet as he reports on City Council meetings (when he’s allowed to, given that nearly a third of all meetings are in-camera nowadays) over Twitter.  People seem to love this – here we are using this new instant-messaging tool to get the story out.  And I applaud Bousquet for his Twitter efforts – I applaud Bousquet for everything he does, actually, because the man’s got it figured out when it comes to journalism and the city.  Bousquet’s reportage at TwitCoast reveals the dynamism at play on council when people with different personalities, let alone different politics, stand up for the people of Halifax. Following TwitCoast shows us how exciting, and ridiculous municipal politics can be.

But what does it say about our city, our news sources, and ourselves, when we have to rely on Bousquet’s 140-characters-or-less Tweets to figure out what’s going on down at Grande Parade?  Where has all the local reportage gone?  Tim Bousquet, on behalf of all Haligonians, I hope to all things sacred that you keep up your awesome work. And keep tweeting.  But I also bemoan the fact that you are the lone reporter we can count on for significant and consistent local journalism, and that if I want to know what’s going on in town on any day other than Thursday (the day The Coast publishes its weekly in print format) that I have to follow your little tweets.

Think about it, Halifax.  We have become starved of news and information about what’s going on around us.  An uninformed people is not something we should aspire to be.

I have no answers to this situation.  But I’m incredibly saddened by it.  The next time that you, too, find yourself following Bousquet’s awesome work over Twitter, think about what it means for your town that this is how you are forced to get news about your municipal council.

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald And The Community

Desperate times call for desperate journalism.

Welcome back to the armchair mayor.  I’m not speaking to all of my adoring fans so much as I’m speaking to myself.  Every now and again I need to rant about the State of Things in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Often, I do it under the guise of any number of blogs I have littered the internet with.  And then, every now and again – perhaps once a year or so – I do so under the guise of the Armchair Mayor. Today is that day.

This winter, The Halifax Chronicle Herald laid off one quarter of its newsroom.  The last day of work for 24 or 25 reporters in Halifax was in early March – two or three weeks ago.  And now we’re beginning to feel the effects.  Subscribers to the Herald (myself included – I’m a 7-day-a-week reader of the paper version) are now being offered a pale imitation of what was landing on our porches and doorstops just a few months ago.  The number of local stories and the number of bylines by actual Chronicle Herald staff (as opposed to Wire services) has drastically reduced.  This past Monday, for instance, the Mail Star – the “local section” was predominantly obituaries and weather reports.  This is sad.

Yes, this is sad.

What’s sad about it is that newspaper journalism is dying.  Things are coming to an end in newspaper reporting:  not just in Halifax, but across all of the western world.  It especially hurts in regions such as Atlantic Canada, where the Chronicle Herald is (was?) the main information and news-gathering source.  Other media outlets followed what the Herald discovered.  The Herald may still be a leader, but the race is hardly as significant as it once was.  I’m inclined to cancel my subscription due to the dearth of local reporting in the paper, but I have pangs of guilt at the thought of it, knowing that it would be one more micro-revenue source lost the paper, which may lead to less local news.

What is really, really, sad, though, is the manner in which the Chronicle Herald refuses to report on any of this.  This has been the biggest news story in Nova Scotia this winter, and the paper won’t comment on it because it is a privately-owned family business and doesn’t have to make public its statements.  All I’ve seen in the newspaper is a small business column several weeks ago talking about how the industry is bleeding and the paper is no exception.  Instead, Haligonians must attempt to read between the lines in a Coast article that tried to speak to Herald ownership and management, who bickered and stalled and refused the whole time.  And then, after the Coast article was published, they cried foul at the thought that their side of the story could not be heard.

Now, Herald editors are using Twitter to ruminate about non-profit media models, and are heaping scorn on the the Coast as yellow journalism, and and are  “lavishing attention on the sailboat” when one quarter of their staff are now without employment.  And it gets worse when the same editors then write columns for the paper telling Nova Scotians that they should care about CBC layoffs because it affects culture and reporting – without fairly conceding that the Herald done the same thing to the province this winter.

Sigh.  I don’t have all the facts on this, I will admit.  I don’t know what the financial statements at the Herald look like, and I don’t have a right to know, frankly.  But I am bothered by the Herald’s pretenses in this mess.  This company’s mission is to report – to provide the facts to its readers.  But they’re not doing that.  The reporters are not reporting, and the management are not talking.  This can breed distrust between the organization and the community.     I’m not a reporter, but I’m a pretty smart fellow, and I can cry foul at this one.  There are many, many things wrong with this Herald situation, and Halifax and Nova Scotia isn’t hearing it.  If the Herald really is the community paper and organization it claims to be, then it should be more open about what goes on its offices.

Halifax: City Planners in Charge

Another day passes in the Chebucto Road Fiasco.  As Sheila Fougere noted, things are coming to an end because the residents of the Chebucto Road area have most certainly lost their fight against City Hall and their back-end bureaucrats.

Neighbourhood residents and other citizens of the town held a protest at City Hall on Tuesday, where they cheered and chanted for two hours, according to the Halifax Chronicle Herald [PDF Archive].  According to Amy Pugsley Fraser, the reporter, they directed many of their cheers toward Mayor Peter Kelly’s second-floor office window but did not receive any acknowledgment of any kind.  Of course, the Mayor and his staff could have been out for the day, and there certainly are better ways to contact the Mayor of any city, but there remains significant symbolic value in the protesters’ actions nonetheless.  As always, Mayor Peter Kelly has been silent on Chebucto, except when he is in Council and regularly votes in favour of the widening.  Peter Kelly doesn’t ever have much to say unless it is to be said at a glad-handing ribbon-cutting ceremony, or has something to do with convincing a rock band to play in town instead of his Maritime rival town, Moncton NB.  Kelly does not facilitate debate on Chebucto within the community.  Kelly doesn’t listen to residents’ concerns.  Kelly doesn’t work on some sort of conciliation on the issue for all parties involved.  For Peter Kelly, the Chebucto Road widening has always been a done deal because city planners said it should be done, and that’s good enough for his vote, so let’s get on with the digging and paving already.

I’m rambling on like this to raise two issues here.  First, Halifax has a serious problem with the leadership of its elected representatives.  Peter Kelly is no capable mayor in the modern sense of the world.  Kelly cannot manage this town or its council.  Kelly can only kiss babies and attend photo-ops at skate parks, schools, tourist destinations and parades.  Kelly’s time came long ago, and its about time that the Halifax citizenry chose some one else to lead the town.  I’m not advocating an “Anybody but Kelly” agenda, but I am suggesting that some one out there step up to the plate to create  a race that features real debates about policy. All eyes are on Sheila Fougere right now, who may be capable.  All the same, Halifax would be rewarded from a real election between Fougere and another high-profile and capable candidate.

The second point to my rambling has got to do with the city planners.  As the Herald noted, bureaucrats proposed that Chebucto be widened 2 1/2 years ago.  For 2 1/2 years, residents not only of Chebucto but across HRM have told Council and their representatives that they do not want this road to be widened.  However, the proposal, once put on the Council agenda, was pushed through by way of the ‘expert advice’ of city planners.  Other Councillors, apathetic to the concerns of Chebucto residents, would vote along by of this ‘expert advice’.  The apathy and parochialism we see at HRM Council ensures that unelected bureaucrats form the city’s agenda, and drives it to fruition.  Let us not forget that Dave McCusker, Transportation Manager of HRM, has a duty to ensure that cars travel efficiently and freely in town.  This man will naturally instruct his office to develop a report which suggests that Chebucto must be widened – it is the very reason which his department exists.  His department will produce reports that will naturally come to a conclusion favourable to their own opinions, then propose these baked proposals to our apathetic Council.  Councilors will then look back toward the Department for expert advice – on the Department’s own proposal – and go on to approve the proposal itself. When it comes to HRM, the fox is in the henhouse, and the hens don’t mind.

HRM Council and its bureaucracy is in dire need of reform.  As it stands now, the parochial attitudes that prevail at Parade Square ensure that the city’s Mandarins are running the show.  Ask yourself how well your representative can debate a transportation issue with a Transportation Manager who simply argues “we’ve done the studies, this is how it is”, and a plurality of other councillors who couldn’t care less unless the policy affects their own backyard.  The residents of Chebucto were doomed from the start.  When it comes to policy at HRM, we’re all doomed unless we agree with the bureaucrats.

Halifax and Chebucto Road – a city against itself.

Tuesday, July 7.

So the trees have been felled, the protesters have been curtailed, the complaints have been lodged, and the roadwork is about to go on.  The beginning of the beginning of the end is certainly upon the residents of Chebucto Road now.

This morning, Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald reported that work crews were on the scene around 5:30-6AM Monday morning to bring down the trees, and that the police were close by as well to ensure things would go off without a hitch [PDF Archive].  Some residents likened this police presence to a surreal war zone, which is an analogy that doesn’t quite do justice to real war zones, or to the mess on Chebucto.  What we’ve seen on Chebucto is a city, or rather, a regional municipality against itself.  One community is standing up and fighting, as best it can against the mechanics of poor government.  The residents of Chebucto have a few area representatives on their side as well as a plurality of citizens both in the urban core and in the outlying regions.  Against them, however, are several construction crews, the local police, city planning officials, and regional council.    It’s no wonder they look sometimes despondent, at other times, desperate.  Their aims, to maintain their property and to not give it over to vehicular traffic, appear futile.

The internet has seen a flurry of comments from bloggers and users and other citizen-journalists (if we really must use that term), as seen on The Herald’s website and on the CBCAn interesting debate with reasoned arguments for both sides of the issue has been going on at the SkyScraper City forums, which might be of interest to some people. Wherever one surfs though, one sees that most people are wearing their hearts on their sleeves and are getting their backs up about the destroyed trees or numbers of SUVs the extra lane will facilitate.  I admit to doing that from time to time.  I think we need to look at the roots of the situation, though.  The Chebucto Road Fiasco is another demonstration of HRM’s poor governance.  On the one hand we can certainly look at the particulars and wonder why Mayor Peter Kelly, as usual, has been particularly silent on this issue. On the other, we can ask ourselves why city planners can propose X for a particular area, and see that proposal pushed through Council by so many representatives who, excuse the eco-pun, fail to see the forest for the trees.  On any issue that arrives at Council, the residents of the area it affects are immediately at the mercy of a bureaucracy that can advocate its own plans to a plurality of council members generally apathetic to issues that do not affect their own communities.

The residents of Chebucto have been hung out dry on this issue – they were fighting a losing battle from the start.  I would ask any councillor who voted in favour of this proposal, however, if their decisions would have been any different if they had to represent Chebucto, or if they have a different opinion if the HRM bureaucracy planned on widening a road up to the doorsteps of the residents whom they already serve.  The implicit argument – that HRM politics are parochial and HRM governance is at the mercy of its bureaucrats, should be made explicit.  It is difficult, I admit, to do this without sounding parochial or against all governance in the process.  Let me be clear that this is not my intent.  Rather, we must raise the question that ought to be raised more often:  how often do HRM councilors actually work in the interests of the entire municipality instead of their own region, and should they have an obligation to do so? I hold that a balance between the two must be made, and that most HRM councilors are leaning heavily to one side by always pandering for votes instead of considering the long-term interests of the entire region.

There has been a groundswell of support for the residents of Chebucto and against the widening of the road.  This has not been recent, either.  Yet Council, too many times, has refused to consider the interests of this community.  HRM councillors should look twice proposals for more roads that come from planners whose job it is to advocate for more roads in the first place.  If we can look back and see that a harbour highway was indeed a bad idea and that the Cogswell interchange is still a poorly designed structure that facilitates traffic instead of neighbourhoods, then surely we can use our foresight to consider what central Halifax might look like 30 years from now because of this street widening.

Chebucto: What of it?

Flotsam and Jetsam.  That’s what most of the internet is.  That is what most of of the stuff on the internet we think to be important is, too.

This website will begin as flotsam and jetsam.  In all likelihood, it will remain as such.  But with a little luck and grace, it may turn into a minor launchpad for local issues in and around Halifax, Nova Scotia.  I’m okay with either option.  All I’m really looking to do is create some significant google hits for all the people who are searching for terms such as “Chebucto Road Disaster“, “Nova Scotia ATVs“, “HRM By Design“, “Nova Scotia Conservatism”, and “Piss-Poor HRM City Council.”

This town is pretty in the summer time, pleasant in the autumn, bearable in the winter, and hard on the soul in the spring.  But at all times of the year it is run by a bureaucracy that breeds political opportunism, pandering, and parochialism.  Municipal politics across most of Canada is like this, yes, but the 1996 amalgamation of Halifax, Halifax County, Bedford, and Dartmouth (in no particular order) has developed a form of municipal governance that is prevented by its very design from ever creating and maintain a long-term vision for the communities which it serves.

I don’t expect to change the region or the town with this site.  I don’t even expect to update it consistently or on any regular basis.  But I do understand the power of Google, as well as the political will of neighbourhood and grassroots organizations.  And I wonder if perhaps these few words and links will help change the minds of a few people.  It would be nice if it might call a few people to action, not just in an election year, but on a regular basis.

I live in the real world.  so do you.  Once you finish reading this, head outside and do something to make it better.