The Cost of Separation Might Not Matter

imgres

By Robert Delaney

The assignment came in from the Financial Times: use the fate of Quebec’s financial community as an example of what Scotland faces whether or not it votes for independence. Max word count: 500.

Reuven Brenner, from McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, and Joe Martin, director of the Canadian business history programme at University of Toronto’s Rotman School graciously provided colour and anecdotes to back up what we all know. Separatism scares money away, and the consequences are long term.

If this is so apparent, why is the fervour to break away so strong?

Quite obviously, a good number of Scots and Quebecois don’t care about the economic consequences. There was no room to examine this in 500 words, so I need to expand on the Scotish-Quebecois connection here.

As a third-generation U.S. citizen of Irish and Italian descent – who’s lived in six countries and recently pledged allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II as part of the Canadian citizenship process, I have no strong cultural ties. I don’t know a single word of Gaelic and the only words familiar to me in Italian relate to food. (Doesn’t everyone like his/her pasta al dente?)

Canada was good enough to offer a solution when, nine years ago, I needed a country progressive and secular enough to recognize my marriage without any qualifications or caveats. I live in Toronto, where it’s not unusual to hear Russian, Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, Hindi, and Portuguese within the confines of a five-minute stroll down Queen Street West, (recently dubbed the world’s second hippest neighborhood.)

Who wouldn’t want to belong to this country?

As part of the citizenship test, I had to know the details of the prejudice, violence, and subjugation that Francophones endured throughout a lengthy chunk of Canadian history. But weren’t many of Quebec’s grievances addressed in the policies that followed the 1976 provincial election?

Not enough. And perhaps the effort is futile.

It wasn’t until I began reading about “ethnie” in grad school that I had to acknowledge that practicalities aren’t always front of mind for people with strong cultural ties.

Anthony Smith, an ethnosymbologist well regarded in nationalism studies, helped develop the idea of ethnie, a mix of “ancestry myths and historical memories” that doesn’t require borders, and has meaning for people regardless of how elites or the powers-that-be manipulate the narrative. Ethnie, as Smith sees it, legitimizes the national narrative as a channeling of feelings “deeply embedded in our language and everyday practices, suggesting a social reality that cannot be easily dissolved.”

Neither my experience nor that of recent immigrants can be compared to the social reality of Quebec. What we’re seeing play out in Scotland, and the tension that will surely endure in Quebec, is a competition between practicality and ethnie.

My Financial Times article concludes with a quote from Dr. Brenner: “if they do not have access to credit, sovereignty becomes a costly illusion.”

If I had scope to discuss ethnie, I would have been able to add the following rejoinder: But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people willing to bear that cost.

Advertisements

The Shift

Image

By Robert Delaney

Just a couple of months after my career shift from journalism to brand journalism and I’ve been asked at least once a week what it’s like to work on the “dark side.”

It hasn’t been very different. So far, I haven’t had to come up with a tag line or a sales pitch or a special offer. I spend much of my time looking for objective sources of information and data. I put this material together for an audience that has opted into a particular conversation because they want, more than anything, to learn something. The members of these audiences opt out once the content looks like a marketing initiative. So in short, not much has changed, except that the work is meant to drive sales leads to my company’s clients. Put simply, the objective is to make money for a certain group of stakeholders. There’s a profit motive.

News outlets have the luxury of claiming to be in the business of creating transparency. But how many of them can claim to ignore their balance sheets for the greater good? At Bloomberg News, we were told to write for “Aunt Agatha,” but in reality we were writing for the Wolves of Wall Street. At The Globe and Mail, a venerable Canadian institution, extremely difficult financial circumstances hang over every reporter’s head, and many talented people have had to leave as a result.

Perhaps I’m drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid, but I have to believe that audiences will always be sophisticated enough to know when to look for brand journalism and when to consult The New York TimesThe Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, or The Wall Street Journal. And I’m happy that the era of the sales pitch is coming to a close.

Jim Flaherty’s Death Brings Out the Best in Canada’s Politicians

Jim Flaherty’s Death Brings Out the Best in Canada’s Politicians

Jim Flaherty

Justin Trudeau, Katherine Wynne, Andrea Howarth, Dwight Duncan… It’s great to see so many respectable politicians of different ideological stripes expressing condolences over Jim Flaherty’s death and admiration for his work. The man cared deeply about Canada and helped the country through a very tough time.

Obituary – Canada’s Jim Flaherty dies aged 64 – FT

Like Drowning Children for Steak

Image Image

By Robert Delaney

@robertoftoronto

 

These two headlines, running within a few days of each other, reflect what may be a filicidal degree of stupidity.

New U.N. Report: Climate Change Risks Destabilizing Human Society 

Farms Can’t Keep Up With Demand for Meat 

When scientists and representatives from 110 countries – including China, the U.S., Tanzania and the Maldives – agree on something, perhaps we should pay attention.

The conclusion they reached – and one that is reinforced with every new round of studies – is that human activity is “extremely likely” to be a dominant cause of climatic changes that threaten to flood many populated coastal areas and interrupt our ability to produce enough food.

I doubt these folks are just reaching for an Upworthy headline.

I won’t bother with the connection between fossil fuel burn and climate change. A four-word Google search will give you more than you need. What is treated, frustratingly, as tertiary is the degree to which methane gas from livestock exacerbates the problem. Even business-oriented Bloomberg News explains the case for a meat tax. A Worldwatch Institute report pegs it at 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas production.

Huge numbers of people, particularly North Americans, believe that a portion of meat defines a meal. That means three helping of animal flesh every day, which translates into 122 kilograms of per-capita meat consumption annually in the U.S.  Too many reporters hit their word limit before they can work the meat problem into their climate change stories, and that could be why we’re so fixated on fossil fuel burn.

It’s much easier to reduce or remove meat from our diets than it is to do the same for fossil fuels. Renewable energy solutions help at the margins, but their reliability often depends on weather conditions, and it will be many years before we can move a freight train or a passenger jet with solar cells.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint. Nor would I argue that we must all give up meat completely. (I will, however, suggest that we demand better treatment of animals and reform of mechanized and medicated livestock production.)

Given the scientific consensus, would it hurt so much to, at least occasionally, serve bean burritos or a hummus platter or a hearty lentil soup instead of cheeseburgers? What goes through the minds of parents who drive their Cadillac Escalades to the supermarket to load up on ground beef and steaks?

Do they look in the rear-view mirror and wonder how life will be for their kids if scientific consensus turns out to be accurate?

GOD HATES PPT!

Image

 

By Robert Delaney

I never learn.

Sometimes I find a shirt or a blazer selling for such a discount that it seems irresponsible to not buy it. You know the kind. That which you think can be worn at the office and for a night out. It might be just a little off in terms of fit, but of course that’s too small a detail when you’re saving so much.

Then you wear the garment for a full day and the problem becomes apparent. It pulls in the wrong places. It bunches up oddly when you sit. It becomes a low-level irritant that puts you on edge. No matter how strategically you tuck or arrange, the garment subverts those efforts as soon as you take one step.

As I read the obituaries of Fred Phelps this week, packaged with photos of him in ill-fitting garb, I couldn’t help but conclude that the rage-filled man who made homophobia uncool probably made the thrifty fashion mistake far too often.

Mr. Phelps made a name for himself in the 1960s as a civil rights lawyer whose work helped to overturn Jim Crow laws. In photos of him from those days, he wears some decent threads. At least they fit well and probably didn’t ride up and irritate him.

I’m a bit foggy on his background over the next couple of decades, but I’m guessing that business thinned out for Fred Phelps once all of the segregation-era laws were struck down. That may have led him to the discount racks, where he must have thought: “Well, it’s just a little on the big side. If I tuck and arrange strategically, I won’t even notice.”

And that, I bet, is where the virulent hatred anti-gay passions flared.

When I’m wearing my worst-fitting shirt, (which happens when I don’t have time to iron any of the good ones), minor irritants can set me off. For example, I once almost threw my laptop out of my window because PowerPoint refused to resize a shape the way I wanted. Not only did I hate Microsoft that afternoon. I also wanted to go to Seattle to picket Bill Gates with a “God Hates PPT!” sign. Should software really incite such rage? Heavens, no. It was the Kenneth Cole shirt that I got for 70% off. It would simply not stay tucked.

Perhaps, when Fred was at the end of his rope after tucking his shirt in for the 8,000th time, he happened to be behind a couple of guys in the supermarket buying fresh endive, pasta and a nice bottle of wine. Maybe he fixated on these men as he battled his shirt. As much as he wanted to launch a crusade against his clothes, he knew subconsciously that a war on textiles wouldn’t go far unless he was sure they were woven in China.

And thus, the Fred Phelps who will always be tied to hate was born.

So, I think we should keep this in mind when we remember the legacy of Fred Phelps.

And we should hope that his family will make sure that Mr. Phelps’ shirt isn’t riding up when he’s lowered into the ground.

(For more of my thoughts on fashion, read here.)

fred-phelps-ryan-plfuger

The Globe Thinks It’s Above the News

url

By Robert Delaney

“The Globe thinks it’s above the news.”

One of the paper’s editors said that to me just a few months into my tenure there. The comment resonated with me for weeks.

The echo of that comment swelled up in the wake of the news today that The Globe and Mail’s Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse was replaced.

Elena Cherney, Managing Editor

Derek DeCloet, Editor, Report on Business

John Stackhouse, Editor-in-Chief

All of them, strong intellectually and emotionally, and gone in just a little over two months.

I didn’t work for The Globe and Mail for very long. They hauled me into a conference room just five months after they hired me to do whatever was necessary to bring a “Bloomberg orientation” to a newsroom swathed in union rhetoric, but also to respect the authority that “T-GAM” (as it’s known inside the walls) has among the general Canadian readership.

It was a balance I never managed to find. And so I went. … or so I tell myself even though the official line was that the decision was purely monetary. (Perhaps it was. It’s just difficult not to suspect other factors.)

“We’re not a newswire,” I occasionally heard.

And so I slunk back to my desk and did the best I could to make yesterday’s news seem somehow relevant for the next day’s readers.

“Look, can you have the story to me in one hour instead of taking the time to work it into something that will look great on A1 or A3 or B1 tomorrow? Because no one is going to care then.”

Most of the reporters I worked with understand the urgency and push themselves to publish in accordance with the new reality. But I was wrong. One hour is too much time in the new reality.

The Globe and Mail has played a crucial role in the formation of a nation. It held North America’s torch when it came to social justice, while it strove to provide the news of the day to the farthest reaches of a far-flung population. And to this day, amid a bewildering period of revolving-door management, many of its reporters and editors still produce some of the world’s best journalism. Anyone who doubts this should look at TGAM’s coverage of what caused the Lac Megantic disaster or the account of Blackberry’s downfall.

But those journalists producing the best that “T-GAM” has to offer are fighting against the news organization’s own mythology.

For every one Canadian looking for a good feature story from the country’s most trusted source, there are 10 others in their purchasing power prime, who – because of social media – want to know what’s happened in the last 30 seconds.

It’s an awful reality for those of us who want to put the day’s events into perspective. Because perspectives have changed. If the story doesn’t make sense to a twenty-something who’s juggling an Instagram romance with a divorced parent planning a wedding in Puerto Vallarta and wondering whether to apply for a university program in computer science or the liberal arts – within the first 140 characters –it’s just not a story.

Best of luck T-GAM. May you prevail. Canada needs you.

Net Neutrality, Corn Flakes, and Kool Aid

ImageImage

By Robert Delaney

sugar,

salt,

malt flavoring, and

some kind of processed grain.

These are the first four ingredients for many of the breakfast cereals that we’ve been led to believe are an ideal way to start the day. The ingredients are then “fortified” with vitamins in an industrial dehydration process that allows the product to sit on a shelf for a year or more. The worst of them – laden with chocolate, marshmallows, and other bits of chemically dyed candy – can give any child a head start on the path to obesity and diabetes, categories in which the U.S. distinguishes itself. (Malt flavoring, by the way, is just another form of sugar.)

The breakfast cereal assumption remained strong for the better part of a century because food producers, grocery distribution chains and marketing firms left little choice, or at least did a great job in creating that impression. Fortunately, many of us now know that these products aren’t as healthy as a wide range of alternatives – fruit, nuts, plain yogurt, eggs – that are just as easy to prepare. This is why sales of breakfast cereals have started to slide.

“There’s a sea change going on,” Larry Johnson, head of the food and beverage practice at U.S. consultancy Stanton Associates, was quoted by The Globe and Mail’s Eric Atkins as saying about consumer attitudes towards breakfast cereal.

This is also why I have hope for net neutrality. The reasoning is simple: online content falls just behind food and shelter in the ranking of stuff we need to live, and we don’t want money to regulate the flow of this particular stuff. One of the benefits of the fragmented social mediascape that we now both view and create is that consumer choice is dictated more from the ground up as opposed to the top down approach that had for so long shaped our assumptions and habits about food choice.

Net neutrality means that Internet service providers can’t vary the speed of online content delivery in accordance with the amount of money content providers pay them. To be sure, the issue isn’t black and white. There are some circumstances under which an ISP should have the right to control what comes through its pipes.  Industry, policymakers, and the general public should debate what to do about applications that commandeer huge chunks of bandwidth. But a regulatory regime that allows controls based solely on efforts to hobble competition would effectively turn ISPs into robber barons and don’t square with the principles of free trade. The FCC is mulling moves that will keep net neutrality intact until the issue is cleared up through legislation.

The history of business is littered with deals struck between government and industry that have limited consumer choice, often with negative consequences for quality of life or the environment. Absent such collusion, we might have had reliable electric cars on the road many decades ago. But the general public might just be smart enough now to balk at any suggestion that ISPs should have free reign to decide what content comes through the pipes first. That would be sort of like turning on the water tap and getting Kool Aid first.

(For anyone concerned about Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, the Wall Street Journal explains how the move might bolster net neutrality.)

The Trouble with China’s Press and Margot Robbie’s Breasts

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 3.25.28 PM IMG_0299

By Robert Delaney

Why is press freedom in Greater China so important for the New York Times?

Sitting in the Raffles Hotel’s storied Long Bar in Singapore this week, the bartender gave me a copy of the paper’s international edition.  Stories about press freedom in China occupied prominent spots on pages A1 and A3: one about the sudden departure of the editor-in-chief of a well-respected Hong Kong newspaper known for investigating corruption and corporate malfeasance, the other about a Beijing-based New York Times journalist, Austin Ramzy, whose work visa wasn’t renewed. Ramzy had to pack up and leave China.

These are bad developments, but they concern me much less than what’s happening to the press in North America.

As a journalist, press freedom has been important to me on two levels: the implications for an industry that has been my livelihood for almost two decades, and the essential role that objective, well-researched, and professionally edited journalism plays in keeping politicians and corporations more honest than they would be in an environment free of committed journalists.

Unfortunately, the value of journalism has dropped sharply in North America, and I can’t help notice the lack of concern about this. For every Austin Ramzy forced to leave China, there are hundreds of journalists in North America who are essentially forced to take buyouts or are simply let go. The reasons for this are too complicated to analyze in one blog post, but consider this: When the Globe and Mail puts anything that suggests nudity on its home page, the clicks far exceed those on important stories that take days, weeks, or months to research and edit. That’s why videos like this one about Margot Robbie’s nudity stay on the site for weeks and reports this one by Janet McFarland and Jeff Gray cycles off within hours. The latter should be of interest to anyone who aims to retire comfortably.

Many analysts have faith in bloggers, some of whom produce engaging and relevant content. But this I’m sure of: it takes a newsroom to blow the lid off the ugliest of scandals. For example, the investigations of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his family by the Globe and the Toronto Star has required multiple reporters, editors, and lawyers working together.

The devaluation of hard news and analysis is a societal problem. As with the financial crisis that we still haven’t recovered from, we can’t blame one industry or institution. Unless we as a society and as individuals become more mindful about our priorities, we will lose the capacity to find the termites.

Let me be clear. The plight of Austin Ramzy and other journalists locked out of China disturbs me because I believe the country where I spent much of my life benefits when journalists work to uncover corruption, institutional overreach, and illegal activity. But, I would always be a “laowai” (think “gringo”) in China, regardless of how long I stayed and how well I learned the tones of Mandarin. And, as I say so often it’s becoming my mantra: there are 1.3 billion people in China. Many of them quite intelligent. It’s up to them to demand the system they want.

I have to wonder if there isn’t a concerted effort among some politicians and CEOs to encourage a focus on China’s attitude towards reporters. After all, in our post-crisis economy – which remains frail in terms of job opportunity despite some improving indicators – there is plenty to dissect. And many answers that readers should demand.

(For my analysis of why no one should expect China to embrace complete press freedom, see this.)

Jane, you ignorant s***l

Image

Robert Delaney

Blend, a new social networking app aiming to attract university students, is one of the many new channels drawing attention from Facebook, according to a Digiday report.

The name suggested to me the start of a move away from the trend that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lamented several years ago: online applications that allow college students to select roommates most like themselves.

Roommate screening makes sense at first blush. You really don’t want to live with a yodeling fetishist or someone who listens, unironically, to N’Synch. But think about the idea again and it flies in the face of the spirit of the university (root word: universe), where our young are supposed to be exposed to new ideas. It might not be spelled out in the curriculum, but university students of different backgrounds, ideologies, and lifestyles should learn to, well … blend. Or at least mingle.

The compulsion to bunk with our clones is just another manifestation of the social trends that have led to the sort of loudest-voice-wins political discourse we see pundits spew in front of television camera. Dan Ackroyd’s “Jane, you ignorant slut” wouldn’t necessarily register as comedy these days. Without this ferocity, broadcast news would be dead and buried. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where an inability to accommodate differing views has shut down the federal government.

Perhaps Blend, as the name suggests, would break down the walls we construct through social media…. those echo chambers within which some people can’t imagine anyone not appreciating Latin jazz, Jeff Koons sculptures, and bibimbap. All at the same time.

So this brings me to blend.com, which turns out to be just another incarnation of twitsnapinstumblineredditvinebook, with the benefit of more advertisements that you can’t kill. It’s YouTube without having to type any words, and it’s promoted with a video featuring college students getting drunk, stoned, and felt up, all to the beat of trance music we’ve heard for the past 20 years. (For some thoughts on why music hasn’t changed for two decades, read my previous post.)

I was hoping, rather quixotically, that blend would have found some way to bridge social media micro-tribes through… I don’t know… some sort of challenge. Let jocks figure out how to show modern interpretive dance afficionados something that would force them to acknowledge the artistic value of sports. And vice versa, of course. Let fans of Justin Bieber… um, nevermind.

So, in the end, I’m let down by Blend. It’s just another way to amplify the social media bubbles we inflate unconsciously regardless of how much Blend pushes the image of young people carousing with each other indiscriminately.

It’s not that I object to university students getting drunk, stoned or felt up. Hell, I wish I had got more of that when I was there. I just wonder if that gets boring in the absence of anything else, especially when it’s probably happening with their clones.

Marshall McLuhan and the Suit I Wore to 30 Interviews

Image

Robert Delaney

I had always hoped that the first time my name appeared in a headline, the matter would be somewhat auspicious. … Something I would be happy to highlight on social media. Instead, it turned out to be this.

There are countless angles from which I could begin analyzing this turn of events. The steep drop in the value of objective, well-sourced and professionally edited news is a topic that won’t begin or end on my blog. But my termination from the Globe is still too recent for me to pick this apart dispassionately.

So instead, I want to write about art and fashion, partly as an antidote to all of the financial newswriting and editing I’ve done over the past 20 years.

Once the shock of my termination wore off, I started setting up interviews, so I needed proper threads. Most of my office attire dates back to sometime around Y2K, yet this didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Clothes that have been in our closets since the late-1990s still work if you want to put them on. Fashion isn’t the only lifestyle segment that’s been on hold in evolutionary terms. Music hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. We’ve not seen any breakthrough art movements apart from Banksy. A restaurant called “Asian Fusion” just opened in downtown Toronto’s Queen West Village. Wow. Is it 1992 again?

Yes, I know. Quinoa is huge now. Mad Men-influenced thin ties and tightly tailored suits have been big for the past few years. Hipsters wear tight jeans and Rat Pack-inspired hats (because the irony of wearing similar outfits as a way of expressing individuality doesn’t become apparent until you’re out of your 20s). These are fads and echoes, not zeitgeist. The pair of Gap jeans or khakis and the Oxford shirt you had tailor-made in 1999 –– when you thought some sort of Y2K-related armegeddon might wipe out your credit card debt –– will always get you by in a pinch. In 1985, clothing bought 10 years earlier would only work for costume parties. Ditto for just about every 10-year increment throughout the 20th century.

Music? Consider what topped the charts in January of the following years:

  • 1985: “Like a Virgin” (Madonna)
  • 1975: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Elton John)
  • 1965: “Come See About Me” (The Supremes)
  • 1955: “Mr. Sandman” (The Chordettes)

Hair? In the 70s you could just let it grow because you had to be a free spirit. In the 80s you’d need enough hair spray to look like the Queen of Sheba because wealth was all that mattered. Is there any hairstyle that defines anytime since 1998?

What to make of the fact that music, fashion and art, in general, hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically in the past 20 years as it had in the century that ended in the early 1990s?

This thought led me to that most irritating touchstone of cultural theorists and intellectuals. Marshall McLuhan and his most quoted assertion: “The medium is the message.”

The first time I heard it, as a communications student at Philadelphia’s Temple University sometime in the Paleolithic era, I thought: What the fuck does that mean? I heard it again in 1997 from my supervisor at Bridge News (a long-ago bankrupted financial news and data service that thought it could put Bloomberg out of business). At the time, Bridge News was working on the radical idea that it would package its news reports with hyperlinks, photos and – one day – video. As my boss explained what was coming down the tracks, he concluded with a comment meant to sum up the changes: “The medium is the message.”

And I wondered, again: what does that mean?

Fast forward to 2011, when I was doing my master’s degree in communications at Toronto’s Ryerson University. I realized that you can’t be a communications student in Canada without referencing McLuhan. So I thought, fuck it, I’m going to write an entire paper on how the Bloomberg terminal is the realization of the McLuhan universe. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I used the word “epistemology” a lot because academics love that word, and I got an A. (Not an A+.)

As I contemplated the suit and accessories I wore to more than 30 interviews, I finally understood more clearly what McLuhan was talking about.

The clothes we wear, the music we produce (and listen to), and art in general, represent the messages we send out, individually and as a society.

Somewhere starting in the late 90s, the message, as McLuhan predicted, became the medium. That is, the channels we chose to communicate became more important than what we were saying.

“Do you Yahoo?” I chose not to look at someone’s resume in 1998 because that question concluded the email he used to send me the document. That applicant is probably better off having never worked for me.

Are you sending a message via LinkedIn, a blog, Pinterest, email, Reddit, or the f-word standby whose name we dare not speak? The choice of the medium is more important than the message. Banksy’s art isn’t radical so much for his subjects as for the canvases he dares to grace or deface (depending on your point of view).

So as our lives have become embedded online, we don’t worry about the message we’re sending – which used to be conveyed in what we wore and played – as much as we worry about how we will send our message. Technological advances have absorbed our culture’s capacity for change.

The revolution that’s taking place online has obliterated our ability to craft a common message that defines our time.

No judgment here. The absence of a style that defines our newly online existence allowed me to sail through more than 30 interviews with one suit, paired with several different shirts and ties, all from the turn of the last century.

And I ended up with several offers.