Is it last call for newspapers?

Clay Shirky thinks so. He cites this graph:


Journalists have been infantilized throughout the last decade, kept in a state of relative ignorance about the firms that employ them. A friend tells a story of reporters being asked the paid print circulation of their own publication. Their guesses ranged from 150,000 to 300,000; the actual figure was 35,000. If a reporter was that uninformed about a business he was covering, he’d be taken off the story….

Contrary to the contrived ignorance of media reporters, the future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade. (If you work at a paper and you don’t know what’s happened to your own circulation or revenue in the last few years, now might be a good time to ask.) We’re late enough in the process that we can even predict the likely circumstance of its demise.

I have no reason to think he’s wrong. The odd thing is that, even as newspapers slip into free-fall, the ordinary citizen’s access to top quality reporting and commentary has never been better. This unprecedented cornucopia of information has masked the decline of newspapers, even as reporting by men and women still employed by newspapers has fuelled so much of it.

Shirky is clear-eyed about what their loss will mean:

The death of newspapers is sad, but the threatened loss of journalistic talent is catastrophic. If that’s you, it’s time to learn something outside the production routine of your current job. It will be difficult and annoying, your employer won’t be much help, and it may not even work, but we’re nearing the next great contraction. If you want to get through it, doing almost anything will be better than doing almost nothing.

H/T: Steve Manley


Lost and found

Four days ago, burglars broke into LaHave folksinger Darren Arsenault‘s house and made off with a clutch of treasured vintage instruments: an early 1960s gibson long neck banjo; a handmade Gilles acoustic guitar with a redwood top, butternut back and sides; a black Baritone guitar, and some recording gear.

Arsenault posted this message on his Facebook page:


As of today, when Arsenault posted the update below, 561 Facebook members had shared the message on their Facebook pages.


Whatever else you might say about social networks, they seem to be pretty effective at inspiring the return of stolen musical instruments.

Great art in ugly rooms

If you’ve ever wondered what Alexander Calder‘s work might look like in a strip club, check out the Great Art in Ugly Rooms Tumblr Blog:

Calder in a strip club

H/T: Sorry, can’t recall who or what led me to this gem.

New Glasgow has one, too — Updated


Yesterday I wondered why small town police forces in the US thought they needed mine-resistant armoured vehicles. This morning I marvelled that Keene NH, pop. 23,409, had asked for and received a Lenco Bearcat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) to protect its annual pumpkin festival from potential terrorist attacks. In an update this afternoon, I discovered that Ottawa Police have a Lenco Bearcat of their own.

Now thanks to an alert Contrarian reader with Pictou County roots, I know New Glasgow Regional Police have obtained a Canadian Forces surplus Cougar Light Armoured Vehicle. That’s it pictured above, with Emergency Response Team members from New Glasgow, Stellarton and Westville.

(The guy in the wool trench coat on the right is not a tact squad member, much as he might like to be. Peter MacKay, MP for Central Nova, was Minister of National Defence when the surplus unit was donated.) *

When the acquisition became public in March, 2013, police spokesman Const. Ken MacDonald admitted he couldn’t “recall an incident where we’ve needed a vehicle like this in the past,” but he was pretty sure it would come in handy in the future, “as a defensive tool, in case we need to go into a hostile situation to rescue fellow officers or victims.”

When local residents derided the acquisition on social media, MacDonald defended its utility to the New Glasgow Evening News:

There is a slew of situations [it would be used in], but overall, it would be used to evacuate or rescue citizens, transport officers to a dangerous situation that they may need to get into, transporting them from a dangerous situation that they may be in, for example different types of gun calls, different types of situations that endanger not only the public, but the officers as well. This is added protection for officers that happen to go into a dangerous situation or from a dangerous situation and also added cover and safety for rescuing members of the general public….

We live in a very safe community. Our community is safe, but the reason why we have an emergency response team, the reason we have an Armoured Vehicle General Purpose is solely due to the fact that it is resources that we have at our disposal. We have them there in case we need them.

You get the sense there’s some equipment envy going on in Canada, as police here look across the border and see their US counterparts acquiring vast stores of military weaponry. MacDonald again:

It’s not a new thing. Police Forces across North America have them at their disposal. When the time comes when we require it, it is going to be a very, very valuable benefit.

Windsor, Ontario, also snagged a Canadian Forces surplus Cougar, and MacKay told the Evening News Cape Breton Regional Police had also requested one.

[UPDATE] Police spokesperson Desiree Vassallo said CBRM never obtained a Cougar. “There were some discussions,” she told Contrarian, “but nothing came of it.” The CBRM website says its Emergency Response Team, “uses Chevrolet Suburban vehicles, as well as an an armoured vehicle that can be used to rescue injured civilians or officers,” but Vassallo said this unit has been with the force since before amalgamation in 1995. She did not know if it was military surplus.

Just by the way, the website also lists, “MP5A3 9 mm Submachine Guns, Remington 700 bolt-action Sniper Rifles, Remington 870 Shotguns, Diemaco C8 Carbines, X26 Tasers, Pepper spray (OC Spray) and Tear Gas (CS Gas), Rubber Bullets and Bean Bag Rounds.”

C’est la guerre.


- -

* [Update] From Contrarian reader Bill Turpin:

Even the dog knows it’s a stupid idea. It clearly doesn’t want to be in the photo. The good news: New Glasgow is armed and ready to fend off amalgamation.

Keeping pumpkin terror at bay in Keene NH – updated

Yesterday I asked what use a small town police department could possibly have for one of the mine-resistant armoured vehicles US Homeland Security has been handing out like candied apples at a Halloween dance. Thanks to Contrarian reader Ryan Van Horne for pointing our that comedian John Oliver already supplied the answer on his Sunday HBO show, Last Week Tonight:

When applying for one of the vehicles, the town of Keene NH said, “the terrorism threat is far reaching and often unforeseen,” and cited the need to keep its annual Pumpkin Festival safe from terrorists.


Not since Whittaker Chambers led investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee to his Maryland pumpkin patch in December, 1942, to retrieve microfilm allegedly implicating Alger Hiss as a spy, has the squash family played such a central role in US domestic security.

[UPDATE] When I tried to find photos of Keene’s Lenco Bearcat—the name is an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck—most of the images that turned up were of a similar model used by the Ottawa Police Dept. A photo caption said Ottawa’s vehicle “resembles the one delivered to sleepy Keene, NH, to defend the Pumpkin Festival. The Keene Bearcat is also painted military OD but has different options.”


The Ottawa Sun celebrated the Canadian purchase with a video showing the attack truck in action:

Ottawa's Lenco Attack Truck

Ottawa is not Keene, or even Ferguson, but… really? A Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck? Aren’t tear gas and truncheons enough?

Military weaponization of US police forces—mapped

In case you missed it, the New York Times provided this startling interactive graphic showing the amount of surplus military equipment US Armed Forces have supplied to local police departments, county by county, since 9/11 unleashed runaway militarization of civilian authority in the United States and elsewhere:


Once you click through to the New York Times, you can filter the map for types of weaponry, or hover your cursor over any of the 3,007 counties in the US to see exactly what gear police in that jurisdiction obtained.

Some of this is mindbogglingly inexplicable. I’m unaware of anyone—right, left, libertarian, vegetarian, Quaker, or Muslim—setting land mines in Centerburg or Plainville. So what exactly does a town police force do with a mine-resistant vehicle?

The is the kind of thing people mean when they say we let the terrorists win.

Dobro-Volvo duet

In the annals of musical eccentricity, one of the unlikeliest characters has to be Johan “Bottleneck John” Eliasson, 43, a blues musician from Lit, Sweden, pop. 1040.

I’ve been following Eliasson for years, because he shares my fondness for blues music and antique mechanical contrivances—old tractors, make-n-breaks, hot bulb engines, and hydraulic rams. He’s a sucker for vintage instruments, and he loves turning old machines into impromptu rhythm sections.

Here, in a clip he released yesterday, Eliasson plays a steel-bodied, 12-string Dobro and a ~50-year-old Volvo tractor. (Note how, at the 1:50 mark, he brings the tempo down by means of the tractor’s steering-shaft-mounted throttle.)

In this clip, from December 2010, in Arvesund, Sweden, Eliasson is joined by Patrik Idell on 5-string banjo and Lars Åstrand on steel-bodied Mandolin. Eliasson plays a second 5-string, while a hydraulic ram water pump hammers out the beat:

Eliasson is clearly having fun with these oddball contraptions, but I don’t dismiss him as a novelty act. The rough hewn workings of early engines and pumps made them accessible to backyard mechanics, but also lent them an aura of elegant simplicity that still inspires admiration and fondness. Can’t something similar be said of Delta blues: that its brilliance as a musical form arises in part from its deceptive simplicity?

There’s more info on Bottleneck John at his YouTube channelwebsite, Facebook page, and a review or two.

Surrounding hate and inviting it to surrender – updated

This machine...The head of Pete Seeger’s 5-string banjo famously carried the inscription, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” I thought of Pete yesterday when I saw the way two three young activist women responded the Ontario men who’ve been displaying gruesome (and possibly faked) images of aborted foetuses along heavily trafficked commuter routes in HRM.

The pro-choice women could have lashed out in anger. No doubt they were angry. But instead they chose to respond with a message of love—and of reassurance for women who face tough choices about sexual and reproductive health, and who may have felt frightened or intimidated by the anti-abortionists’ shocking imagery.

Allison protest Allison SparlingEvey Hornbeck, and Katherine Taylor festooned sheets of poster board with pink hearts and positive words like, “unafraid, unashamed” and “Have a really great day.” The makeshift signs also plugged a website their friends created,

Sparling told News 95.7:

We just want to provide a really positive message and let people know that they are safe to make the choices that are right for them in this city. There are many choices out there, whether your choice is to adopt, or to seek out other methods, or to go through and have the child. We wanted to make sure people are getting the best access to the information out there.

The YourChoiceHalifax website backs up that message with a list of what reproductive rights should include:

  • You have access to quality and non-judgemental resources that support your right to choose what happens to your body.
  • You have access to affordable and safe birth control.
  • You have access to clinical and social services that support your sexual and reproductive health (i.e. pap tests, pre-natal classes, parent support groups).
  • You are able to choose when and if to have a family, and the spacing between children.
  • You are able to live free of rape, assault, and harassment and free of sexual coercion.
  • You are able to access health care professionals and services that understand your needs regardless of your gender or sexual orientation

Social media sites showered the women with messages of gratitude and praise (while hate-filled sputum trickled into their email accounts from the other side).

What strikes me most about their counter-demonstration is that it proved effective not by matching angry slogan with angry slogan, but by staking out their own ground, and in the process, demonstrating something about their character that offered a stark contrast with their tormenters.

UPDATE: The repulsive image brigade moved on to Fredericton this afternoon, almost certainly oblivious to the damage they’ve done their cause—and to how much the charming response of young Halifax feminists multiplied that damage.

Protest groups of all kinds could learn a lot from this exchange: The purveyors of fear got smoked.

There’s a follow-up Pro-Love rally tomorrow at 8 am at South Park & Morris.


You know how to whistle, don’t you?

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014): Her iconic scene from To Have and Have Not.

Former CNS staffers dispute my theory of the origin of bad news releases

On the last day of July, I called out Communications Nova Scotia for not abandoning a patronizing, politically tainted, Harperesque style of news release that, I asserted, had been imposed by Premier Darrell Dexter’s office as it tightened the political reins on government communications. (I made a similar argument in a pre-election post last fall.)

Readers who once held senior positions at CNS took issue with my analysis. Jim Vibert, longtime head of CNS who now runs his own communications consultancy, wrote in response to the first piece:

Vibert[Y]our CNS reference is, on the surface, correct, but this sure isn’t the first government to try to control the message through CNS.  I spent a year (seconded) in John Hamm’s office, and when I went back to my old job at CNS, I was under steady bombardment from the political class around Hamm.  I was able to fight them off, in part because I could call the premier and he’d tell them to back off.  The current CNS leadership doesn’t have that luxury.  Interference in the government communications branch is irresistible by political appointees and, occasionally, by cabinet ministers.  I was “instructed” twice to fire communications staffers; once by a Liberal (MacLellan) cabinet minister and once by a senior political staff member in Hamm’s office.  Neither got fired, but in both cases it got testy and was touch-n-go (more for me than for the original targets, who didn’t even know they were in the crosshairs).  So the NDP isn’t unique, or even different from, or worse than, previous administrations.

One member of the political class around Hamm, Communications Director Peter Spurway, who now handles communications for Halifax Stanfield International Airport, also took issue with my comments:

I think you’re way off base on this one.

Of course governments connect the dots between their programs and the benefits of those programs the people who will benefit.

Peter Spurway resizeThese programs are products. Imagine a company that produced a product it felt would help people, and would make them money. Would you be surprised to see them advertising and marketing the benefits of that product? Of course not. They’d be fools not to.

“Just let us know what you’re doing, and trust us to figure out whether it’s a good thing, why, and for whom.”

Are you kidding? The last people they’d want to “figure out whether it’s a good thing, why, and for whom” is a biased, jaded and rather cynical media crowd….

Some people, predominantly politicians, hurt themselves in that they willfully exaggerate the benefits of the initiative. They oversell (and far too often under-deliver). This engenders cynicism. In the medium to long run, this hurts them. And yet they do it again and again. Effective communication is plain, simple, brief and makes it very clear why the activity is beneficial.

It’s not a matter of patronizing people, it’s a matter of being plain about what you’re doing and why. If there are no benefits to the activity, why are you bothering me with media release?

Former CNS communications advisor, now playwright and journalist Ryan Van Horne backs up Vibert’s claim that the news release template I object to went back at least as far as the Hamm administration.

When I started at CNS in June 2008, the Tories were in power and I was told to start every news release with how this government announcement was going to benefit Nova Scotians.

ryanvanhorne_resizeThere may not have been a template with the Tories—and I never actually saw a template imposed by the NDP before I left in March 2011—but the practice of starting press releases that way certainly continued under them. (Note: There was 2.5 years of NDP government after I left, so it’s entirely possible they did impose one, as you say.)

The NDP might have adjusted or refined this approach, but the fact that it has continued with CNS under the Liberals does not surprise me one bit. In an agency like CNS, which is more bureaucratic than political, you will see less change from government to government. Some see this as a good thing, others see it as a bad thing. The latter group would much rather see politically appointed press secretaries, the practice in most jurisdictions that I’m aware of.

I know the Liberals, especially Andrew Younger, were critical of CNS and the way the NDP used the agency, so I am curious to see how, or if, things change in the next few years.

Contrarian reader Tim Segulin, who, so for as I know, is untainted by past employment at CNS:

[P]olitical parties at their heart are proprietary organizations that package and market governments. Their most prized possession is their ‘brand’ upon which they trade at election time. Linking attractive outcomes to their time in government must be a very tempting promotional device for them. It helps to cultivate the vague notion among disengaged voters that good times happened when the [INSERT PARTY] was in power. Maybe they will come to think of the party the way they do Santa Claus?

Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, standards for which seem to be so strict these days, I should acknowledge that I served as Director of Communications for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency during the parts of the Hamm and Rodney MacDonald administrations. I reported primarily to the agency, but also to the CNS, whose officials never imposed any news release templates on me, and were unfailing supportive of plain, direct talk about cleanup options in an often hostile communications environment. Jim Vibert had left by the time I got there, but I frequently sought and got sage advice from Peter Spurway.

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