Two years ago, I pointed to an admiring account of Nova Scotia’s unorthodox online business and politics journal, AllNovaScotia.com, on the website of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Halifax freelancer Tim Currie described how a “tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia.”
Last month, Kelly Toughill, director of the King’s Journalism School in Halifax, fleshed out the story in an 18-page “case study” submitted to the equally prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism. From the abstract:
This case tells the story of a small, online publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has confounded the punditry of the digital era. AllNovaScotia.com (ANS) sits firmly behind a paywall, does not allow its stories to be shared online, and even refuses subscriptions to employees of rival publications. Nonetheless, it has been financially successful. But in 2013, founder David Bentley faced a crossroads. At 69, he was ready to step back. But what should the next step be: sell out? Duplicate the ANS model elsewhere? Go more digital?
Although she canvasses various options for Bentley’s next step, Toughill ends her study as a cliff-hanger, without any prediction as to which course, if any, he might pursue.
She does, however, capture what I believe is the key to AllNS’s competitive journalistic edge:
The traditional organizational structure of a newsroom had been compared to a military organization, with power flowing through well-defined channels from the editor-in-chief or executive producer through sun-editors to reporters. AllNovaScotia was different. All reporters worked in the same room. Even Bentley didn’t have an office. There were no assignment editors telling reporters what to do; each reporter was responsible for finding and covering the news on his or her own beat. Most news organizations relied on a series of daily news meetings to make editorial decisions and to plan future coverage. Bentley did not believe in meetings. In 2010, eight years after founding the site, he proudly boasted that there had never been an official meeting within the organization.
Bentley worked closely with new reporters to help them adopt the sparse hard-??news style of AllNovaScotia stories. As the organization grew, new reporters also worked with a managing editor and several part-??time copy editors. Bentley’s standards were high, and those who couldn’t adjust quickly were let go. Those who stayed were expected to be ahead of the competition on their beat. Journalists who moved from local broadcast outlets or the local broadsheet reported that the AllNovaScotia newsroom had a more positive and dynamic ambiance than the organizations they had left.
“Reporters at AllNovaScotia had total independence,” says Kevin Cox, whom Bentley hired as an editor after Cox left the well-regarded national newspaper, the Globe and Mail.
All stories were self-generated. There wasn’t that top-down direction. At the Globe, you came in each morning and someone told you what to do. At the Globe, you were always double-checking with people up the line about what you were doing. There was no hierarchy at AllNovaScotia and that made for a completely different mood.
The generally meaty quality of its reporting is AllNovaScotia’s great strength (although its journalism sometimes suffers from a habit of nursing hobby horses and unreasonable pet peeves). Its continued success while so many other models are failing is a marvel to behold.
It may be that Toughill knows more about Bentley’s plans than she’s letting on. A note on Columbia’s website says the case has “an Epilogue” and a” Teaching Note,” visible only faculty members.
[See update/correction below] The Coast, a Halifax weekly paper, has produced a devastating account of Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly’s mishandling of the estate of a family friend who had named him as executor and sole trustee of her modest fortune.
In a prodigious piece of reporting, News Editor Tim Bousquet lays out the complex story in relentless detail, layering fact upon devastating fact through 5,000 words, illustrated with cancelled cheques and sketchy legal and financial filings. It’s too complicated to summarize here, but please read it yourself, especially if you are a resident or voter in HRM.
Bousquet’s work sometimes suffers from his habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve, but this time he wisely eschews umbrage and lets the facts of the late Mary Thibeault’s seven-year probate debacle speak for themselves. The accumulated evidence, Kelly’s refusal to comment, and his apparent effort to enlist wronged benefactors in a secrecy pact add up to an indictment of the scandal-plagued mayor. It’s impossible to imagine Kelly surviving an election in light of The Coast’s revelations.
Politically, His Worship is a dead duck.
It will take a lot of work for other Metro news organizations to catch up with Bousquet’s reportage, but I was surprised to see most of them ignore the story in their Friday editions. The ethical thing would have been to run a short creditor piece — “The Coast weekly reported Thursday that…” with comment from the Mayor and Savage — and the get their top reporters on the job in earnest Friday.
They chose instead to pretend Bousquet’s shocking revelations did not exist. The free tabloid Metro was an exception, as
was were the Rick Howe Show and CTV-Atlantic, both of which interviewed Bousquet.
No doubt these news organizations are embarrassed that The Coast, known mainly as a free circulation entertainment paper and a vehicle for syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, scooped them so badly on a story that was already in the public domain. But ignoring their competitor’s accomplishment, and their mayor’s shenanigans, only makes them look small. (Yes Caroline, Andrew, Sarah,
and Steve, I’m looking at you.)
[Update/Correction] Contrary to my initial post, CTV-Atlantic did cover the story by running an interview with Bousquet. Apologies for the mistake, and thanks to Greg Beaulieu for the correction.
Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism has cast its discerning eye on a Nova Scotia online journal that succeeds while disdaining all the internet rules:
How a tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia
Every morning, the business and political elite in the biggest province on Canada’s East Coast turns to an unlikely source of information about their own world.
Among all the online news organizations trying to find a way to profitability, consider AllNovaScotia.com, which has just celebrated 10 years online and now challenges its historic print rival for the attention of the province’s leaders.
It’s done that by not following the rules: It has a nearly impenetrable paywall, no social media presence, no multimedia, and only rare use of links. It doesn’t cover crime and barely covers sports and entertainment.
It is astounding that AllNS has succeeded so throughly while flouting so many Internet conventions—astounding, and often irritating. I wish it were less paywalled and more open to the sociable aspects of the web that seem to me enlivening and enriching. But this is a position publisher David Bentley and his editor-daughter Caroline Woods view with ill-disguised contempt.
it’s hard to argue with the results. AllNovaScotia doesn’t prove that other models can’t work on the internet, but it affirms something at least as ennobling: that there can be a profitable market for dogged, meaty reporting.
Commenter Gavin Anderegg shares my irritation at the deliberate impediments to sharing, but adds:
I was missing the point while focusing the platform. This site wasn’t for me. Sure they could fix these issues (and probably should), but all everyone else cared about was the content. And for such an aged looking site that doesn’t care about social media, AllNovaScotia beats Twitter to the punch when delivering certain types of local news.
After a while I started to understand: people are willing to pay read well written, properly investigated, and timely content. This is especially true when you can identify a niche group and write specifically for them.
Content comes first at AllNovaScotia. That’s the key.
The 1,700-word piece is written by King’s journalism professor Tim Currie and [disclosure] briefly quotes Contrarian.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald and AllNovaScotia.com, ranking arbiters of mainstream opinion in Nova Scotia, lent editorial support Monday to Mayor Peter Kelly’s forcible police removal of peaceful Occupy Nova Scotia protesters.
The Herald, in a bracing throwback to its days as the fusty Old Lady of Argyle, approved the eviction in every detail: violence, secrecy, sneakiness, double-dealing, rights-violation, and even Remembrance Day timing. AllNS tried to have it both ways. A commentary* by former-Managing-Editor-turned-United-Church-minister Kevin Cox quibbled with Kelly’s timing and secretive decision-making, but endorsed His Worship’s position that a vague and rarely enforced municipal bylaw should trump Sections 2. (b), (c), and (d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a letter AllNS published this morning, Halifax Filmmaker John Wesley Chisholm pointed out that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had reached the opposite conclusion, “saying the Charter of Rights prevented the city from arbitrarily forcing out the protesters — even if they’re breaking a city bylaw.”
Halifax officials, Chisholm wrote, took a big gamble with taxpayers’ money, risking hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions on a possible court defence of
the notion that these protesters’ use of tents to camp out in a public park was so egregious, so outstandingly shocking to our community’s values, of such a danger to public safety, so offensive to our public interests, that it justified a police action to deny their rights and freedoms to assembly and protest under the federal law on which our civil society is based..
Even by the smug standards of Halifax’s establishment media, this was a shabby performance.
*Access to AllNS is by paid subscription, and its flash-based web structure makes it impossible to post accurate links.
A recent story by Andrew MacDonald in the online journal AllNovaScotia.com included the following sentence:
NSP has begun slowly moving its 500 workers out of the Barrington Tower office to a new $54-million HQ on the Halifax waterfront, dubbed the Bennett Bunker for NSP ceo [sic] Rob Bennett [emphasis in the original].
The phrase, “dubbed the Bennett Bunker,” is noteworthy for having been cast in passive voice, a grammatical form journalists often decry as a way for politicians and similar miscreants to evade responsibility for their actions. Who exactly “dubbed” NS Power’s office building “the Bennett Bunker?” Why, AllNovaScotia, that’s who.
It invented the phrase on July 3, 2008, the day conversion of the building (which is actually rebuilt, not new) was announced, and shortly after Bennett assumed the company’s top job. As best I can tell from a Google search, no one other media outlet has ever used it. This failure to gain traction elsewhere hasn’t discouraged AllNovaScotia’s writers, however. The journal has used “Bennett Bunker” in 35 subsequent stories. Wouldn’t the honest thing be to write, “which we at AllNovaScotia.com call the Bennett Bunker?”
The cutesy alliteration hasn’t caught on because it conveys no fresh insight about the building or Bennett’s term as head of NS Power. Writers usually apply “Bunker” metaphorically to the fortified redoubt of an uncommunicative public figure who hides out to avoid critics or public accountability. The record shows that, as chief executives go, Bennett is reasonably forthcoming. He testifies before the Utility and Review Board, makes public appearances, takes questions, speaks to editorial boards, gives interviews, and participates in public engagement sessions.
AllNovaScotia’s use of “Bennett Bunker” is of a piece with the starkly hostile coverage NS Power receives from some of its writers, and from Nova Scotia media in general, who report electricity cost issues as if NS Power were solely responsible for rising world energy prices, ever tighter environmental regulations, and the Buchanan government’s understandable, but now regretted, decision to overcommit to coal generation in the 1980s.
The fact that unhappiness over increasing electricity costs has focused public hostility on NS Power does not relieve journalists of responsibility for reporting the reasons for those cost increases competently, honestly, and evenhandedly. (And, yes, the same could be said of opposition politicians.)
[Disclosure: I have done occasional contract work for NS Power, mostly writing.]
[Updated below] Our friends at AllNovaScotia (subscription required) appear to have been punk’d by [restaurateur] singing investor Denis Ryan and Halifax folksinger-comedian Tony Quinn in a YouTube spoof of a profane Irish expat turning the air blue-green with outrage over the Emerald Isle’s financial travails.
The NSFW clip identifies Quinn as a reporter for “the Financial News,” which morphs to “the Financial Times” in the AllNS piece. As alert Contrarian reader DR points out, however, the clip does not turn up on any site calling itself ‘Financial News,’ and the reporter definitely doesn’t say, ‘Financial Times.’
Also, the ‘reporter’ looks and sounds remarkably like local comedian Tony Quinn. You’ll note that at no point does any text pop up ID’ing Denis Ryan, as would normally happen in an authentic news clip, nor is there the omnipresent news agency watermark on the lower right corner. And, finally, the clip ends with a Michael Flatley joke.
Still, as an exercise in Peter Capaldi-grade malediction, the skit is, ah, bracing. Cover your ears, Grandma:
With only 36,000 views when AllNS went to bed last night, the clip barely had the sniffles, but as of 3 p.m., today, it’s on it’s way to modest viral status, with 274,281 airings. That’s well shy of How to Be Alone (2.1 million), United Breaks Guitars territory (9.6 million), or Picnicface (21.9 million) real estate, to cite three Bluenose examples, but not bad for a pair of ‘sixties geezers.
Quinn’s speaker’s bureau website, incidentally, bills him as offering “clean, corporate and convention musical comedy.” Well, he doesn’t swear in the clip.
Update: Roger Ebert gets with the program.
Friends and admirers gathered in the Midtown Tavern’s antiseptic new digs Thursday evening to honor journalist-businessman David Bentley’s 50 years of afflicting the comfortable.
Among the crowd were foot-soldiers of the late, lamented Halifax Daily News (née: Bedford-Sackville News), the once salacious Frank magazine, and the meaty, fact-packed AllNovaScotia.com, which today ranks Nova Scotia’s premier newsgathering organization. As Frank might put it, all three began life as Bentley organs.
In 1974, Bentley, his wife, and two partners founded the weekly B-S News, modeling it after the sordid tabloids of his native England. Five years later, he took the enormous gamble of moving the paper downtown, transforming it into a daily, and taking on both the stolid Chronicle-Herald and the nacent, corrupt Buchanan administration.
After selling the daily to Harry Steele’s Newfoundland Capital Corp. in 1987, Bentley and business partner Lyndon Watkins founded Frank, a legendary tweaker of toffee-noses. In 2001, with daughter Caroline Wood, he founded AllNovaScotia, an online publication that is, ironically, today’s must-read for Nova Scotia’s ruling elites.
When future historians recount Nova Scotia’s late-20th Century transformation from a staid, British colonial outpost to an almost modern society, Bentley will emerge as an unsung central figure. He taught the province that ritual deference to one’s betters is the surest guarantor of mediocrity.
Our betters are still smarting from the lesson.
Fittingly, the quinquagenary brought out longtime Bentley protégé, celebrity shooter, and onetime Frank co-owner Cliff Boutillier, shown honing his lens in preparation for next week’s edition. The Glace Bay native grimaced at the intrusiveness of today’s bloggers with their pesky iPhones.
“Whoever told you sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander,” he demanded.
David Bentley, that’s who.
A friend asked recently why I had not written about the MLA expenses flap, and I confessed that I have trouble summoning much outrage over the issue. While I admire Brian Flinn’s dogged pursuit of the facts in AllNovaScotia.com, I fear that the public and the media are almost as much to blame for the problem as our lawmakers.
The public nurses an attitude of begrudgery toward politicians, and the media fans these embers at every opportunity. This is not our most attractive quality, and it makes it almost impossible for MLAs — who by definition must set their own salaries — to pay themselves appropriately for the work they do. So MLAs have, unwisely but understandably, developed a variety of secretive ways to pad their allowances.
A few observations seem in order:
- On the facts adduced so far, an audit of the compensation received by 60-odd present and former MLAs turned up a small handful of obvious abuses, amounting to a few thousand dollars each, and a larger number of errors in accounting or judgment, amounting to less than a few hundred dollars each. Total recovery: far less than the cost of the audit.
- Compared to recent expense scandals in Britain and Newfoundland, this is thin gruel. No Nova Scotia MLA built a swimming pool at public expense.
- The media’s habit of lumping salary and expense reimbursement together is invidious. We expect MLAs to have constituency offices, and these require rent, salaries, furniture, postage, phones, electricity, computers, and sundry office equipment. We expect MLAs to travel frequently between their ridings and the capital, and this imposes real costs. To add these legitimate expenses to their base salary, and cite the total as “compensation,” is absurd.
- While it is reasonable to expect MLAs to support large expenses with receipts, I am not sure I want lawmakers spending their time adding up slips from Tim Horton’s.
- Many costs imposed on MLAs are not receiptable. You and I can brush past the minor hockey player in the supermarket checkout line, but an MLA cannot. They are hit up constantly for donations, gifts, handouts.
- The circumstances of individual MLAs — remoteness from Halifax, size of riding, local culture of constituent service, committee duties — are almost infinitely varied. Any set of rules governing expenses will necessarily be arbitrary, and will beget examples that seem unreasonable.
- The shaming of the premier into reimbursing the treasury for the cost of a leather briefcase was petty and unworthy of us.
- When I began covering Nova Scotia politics 36 years (!) ago, an MLA’s job was considered part-time; most maintained other occupations to supplement their income. Not so today.
- Upon taking office, most MLAs set aside established careers in exchange for a job with far less security than comparable positions in the private or public sector. A 2009 report on legislative salaries in Newfoundland and Labrador found that the average tenure for MLAs in that province over the preceding 20 years was 7.5 years.
- Nova Scotia cabinet ministers make less than the deputies who report to them. Backbench MLAs make less than civil servants several steps down in the hierarchy.
- Most MLAs work exceptionally long hours, especially in rural and Cape Breton ridings, where a culture of constituency service is the norm.
Yes, the compensation for MLAs should be open and above board, but the witless moralizing that has dominated the current brouhaha illustrates one reason it is not. I hope this will lead to a system in which MLAs receive a single, generous but all-encompassing salary, additional pay for cabinet service and a very short list of special house duties, and reimbursement for legitimate expenses, supported by receipts where practicable.
But if it does not, we can shoulder some of the blame ourselves. To paraphrase Pogo, “I have seen the enemy, and it is partly us.”
What’s up with AllNovaScotia’s curious blind spot for Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor John Morgan?
Like many others, AllNS’s editorialists took umbrage when the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society charged lawyer Morgan with professional misconduct for accusing Supreme Justice John Murphy, and Nova Scotia judges in general, of political bias in the performance of their duties. An AllNS editorial argued that it was dangerous and wrong to muzzle political speech by a politician who also happens to be a lawyer. So far, so reasonable.
The odd thing is that the usually reliable news service seems to be letting its editorial passion slop over into its news columns. AllNS news stories have persistently misrepresented the comments that got Morgan in trouble. Instead of quoting or characterizing Morgan’s original words, AllNS quotes only the sanitized version Morgan came up with after he got in hot water.
The background is here, but in short, Morgan pretends he merely said Nova Scotia judges were not tree-shakers; in reality, he went on for paragraphs alleging political bias by the judge who first rejected his grandstanding constitutional claim for higher equalization payments — a lawsuit that was ultimately rejected by every judge who reviewed it, up to and including the Supreme Court of Canada.
This promises to be a continuing Contrarian topic, but I will flag it briefly: NB Power’s apparently imminent sale to Hydro Quebec represents a tectonic shift in Nova Scotia’s energy options.
I mention this because, as is typical, the national news media seem to view the story as just another installment in Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams’s (to them) clownish battles with central Canada. Such a view is as witless as it is patronizing.
The sale poses huge problems for Nova Scotia and PEI, as well as Newfoundland. If Quebec can use its windfall profits from Joey Smallwood’s disastrous 1969 deal on Upper Churchill Falls to buy up all the available routes that might get Lower Churchill Falls power to market, you have to wonder whether Canada really is a country any more.
Nova Scotia needs desperately needs to get off dirty imported coal as an energy source. Of our three local renewable energy prospects—wind, biomass, and tidal—two are intermittent and require large amounts of dispatchable backup energy. (Dispatchable means it can be turned on and off quickly, unlike thermal plants, and when needed, unlike wind and tidal). Pt. LePreau nuclear and Churchill Falls Hydro are the two best only two prospects. To justify the cost of Churchill Falls, we need to be able to transit any excess electricity to New England.
Premier Darrell Dexter speaks bravely about turning the sale, and Newfoundland’s antipathy to Quebec Hydro, to Nova Scotia’s advantage by building an undersea cable from Yarmouth to Maine. That would add a third undersea cable to the project. (The first two would cross the Strait of Belle Isle and the Cabot Strait.) Maine Governor John Baldacci, keen on forging an energy alliance with NB, has previously rejected that idea.
Dexter may by hoping to keep the young’un’s spirits up by whistling past this graveyard, but he must understand that this is first big crisis to face his administration.
A sale would also blows a big hole in nascent plans for a green energy pool involving the four Atlantic Provinces, another potential solution to the problem of intermittentcy of renewable energy supplies.
The Globe and Mail reports that Quebec is holding out a sweet carrot to NB Premier Shawn Graham: wiping clean NB Power’s $4.7-billion debt, and cutting power rates to consumers and businesses by $5-billion. That will be hard for the province to resist, and it goes without saying that no national government would risk offending Quebec by blocking the sale, even if it cripples energy options for three poor-sister provinces.
More on this in the days ahead. Meanwhile, Costas Halavrezos has a good interview with Yves Gagnon, KC Irving Chair of Sustainable Development at Université de Moncton here, CBC-New Brunswick’s estimable Jacques Poitras has some cogent analysis, and, as always, AllNovaScotia is on top of the story (subscription required). Reaction from Williams here and here. The Fredericton Gleaner likes the deal, as does the New Brunswick Business Journal.