Sunday, December 18, 2011

What's London; What's The London Free Press

I live in London, Ontario. I live here by choice and by necessity. The choice part comes from having moved here from Toronto back in 1976. I moved here; I stayed here; I raised a family here.

Celebrating family, I live happily in London.
The necessity part developed simultaneously with family. Both my daughters have stayed in London. They work here and they are raising their children here. With two beautiful granddaughters in London, my wife and I have pretty strong bonds with our adopted hometown.

It was with great interest I began following The London Free Press series examining London: What's London. Sadly, with every new installment my disappointment with the long-running series grows. At first, I blogged about the hollow claims being made by the paper — claims that could easily be disproved with just a few minutes of searching the Web and a few long distance phone calls.

For an example, read my post Hove to, actually. It is a classic example of shoddy reporting. When I pointed out to the paper that the claims made in the article were simply not true, the reporter told me: "Interesting how Hove and Brighton took a shot at another brand. The point," he continued, "was how Hove took a negative and made it a positive."

Huh? Doesn't the reporter realize he just smeared Hove and Brighton into one. The whole point of his What's London story was that "Hove, England, had a little identity problem . . . it was connected by name and geography to Brighton."

Randy Richmond, after a call to a Toronto professor, wrote about a fictional campaign to make Hove stand out as separate from Brighton. It was a campaign that never happened according to both local papers, a number of residents and others whom I contacted at some expense. The Toronto professor was dreaming, I was told.

I have one up on Richmond; I can make overseas calls. He can't. When I worked for the paper, overseas calls were not possible without a special code. Randy can call Toronto for a story on Hove but he can't easily call Hove to confirm the story.

The worse thing is, Richmond can't quit flogging the rebranding idea. "There's little interest among Londoners in branding ourselves the Food City, or Market City, or Agribiz City. Perhaps it's an inferiority complex," he writes. "Our neglect of our rural roots is understandable in a way. Since its start as a backwater town in the forest, London has always struggled to get and stay connected with the rest of the province."

What foolish talk. How many cities start as anything other than a little backwaters? Cities don't, as a rule, spring into existence fully formed. Toronto, a successful city in the eyes of the paper, was rebranded during its early backwater days by none other than Lord Simcoe. He rebranded Toronto as York. Simcoe, not known for approving of native names for new communities, declared the name Toronto "outlandish". We all know how well that turned out.

Why London would want to pigeonhole itself with an awkward moniker like Agribiz City, as suggested by the paper, is beyond me. To my ear, it sounds downright "outlandish".

Randy Richmond says the Forest City moniker is not true. Oh! Read the truth.

London was once a multifaceted, urban jewel. It was blue collar; It was white collar. It had factories and farms. London was a rich in opportunity and admired by other communities right across Canada. Today London, like the entire province of Ontario, is suffering through a horrendous economic decline.

It is true. My beloved London has problems, just as so many other cities and towns. The problems in London are not unique but they are severe. For instance, when it comes to jobs the unemployment rate in London is the second highest among major Canadian cities.

If the paper's series was simply a waste of newsprint, it would be bad enough but not worth concern. But, the series is posted to the Internet to be found by anyone searching the Web for information on London.

London is a town unable to "shake off  (its) sleepy pastoral past", it's a place with "an inferiority complex", it's a town "in the middle of nowhere with the future passing (it) by." At least, that is what one might come away believing if one believed The Free Press.

The editor-in-chief of the paper, Joe Ruscitti, tells us London is a an island. Worse, it is composed of numerous islands. And, to a certain extent, Ruscitti is right. Where he goes wrong is in his negative approach to the paper's no-surprise-here faux discovery. All communities are, to varying degrees, composed of separate but linked "islands". We even have a word for these: neighbourhoods or districts.

Think Paris and think of the tight pattern of arrondissements and of the more distant banlieues. Many folk living in Paris have little need, and little interest, in traveling outside their own, unique neighbourhoods. They live in their own little section of Paris where they also work and shop. No one heaps scorn on Paris for this.

Children playing a few hundred yards from my front door.
I live in the Byron banlieue in London. It's a lovely neigbourhood that encourages strolling and chatting with neighbours. It is an especially welcoming walk whenever my little granddaughter, Fiona, accompanies me.

I also shop in the area. If I don't feel like walking, and I often don't, I can drive there in mere minutes.

The island community that is damaging to London is The London Free Press itself. Once known to those who worked there as "the mighty Free Press", the paper today is a pale of ghost of its former self. It is a shrinking presence in the city. Recently the paper laid off 17 more staff members, with at least four from the editorial department: three reporters who were also capable copy editors plus a multi-talented photographer with decades of experience. (I have been told, some work once done locally by Londoners at the paper, is now being outsourced as far away as India.)

The paper tells its readers about every layoff at every major employer except for those cuts made at the paper itself. When Pierre Karl Peladeau, the head of Quebecor, the ultimate owner of the paper, was slated to visit the newsroom recently, Ruscitti fired off an e-mail telling the staff:

“This would be a good time to look and act sharp.

“This would probably not be a good time to tell the boss how much better we would be if we had this many more reporters or this or that piece of equipment, etc.

“At least for those 90 minutes, you like the new emphasis on the mobile newsroom and the concept of the mobile multimedia journalist. You think the newsroom redesign will help us be that kind of newsroom. Etc."

The e-mail made it onto the blog of former Free Press editor-in-chief Phil McLeod. Ruscitti, to his credit, ignored the leak. PKP to his discredit, or so I've been told, couldn't. He pressed Ruscitti and Ruscitti pressed the newsroom. The source of the leak was uncovered and given a short suspension.

The Free Press likes to play shrink, putting London figuratively on the psychoanalyst's couch. This is a damn hard thing to do with a city of hundreds of thousands. But, this is an easier thing to do with a paper of only a few dozen tired, overworked staffers.

At a recent retirement party held to honour departing staff members, the most common word I heard to describe the newsroom was "hell". Maybe working in hell has soured Randy Richmond and the other reporters. Maybe Joe Ruscitti is not playing at the top of his game with PKP breathing down his neck. Maybe the sour view from The Free Press newsroom is tainting their series.

1 comment:

  1. A place for children to play with their tobogans in the snow near your place. That's real cool! Happy Holiday Season and Wish You Success in 2012, Ken!