Branded and bullshit

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 1.54.19 PM

Yesterday one of my former colleagues at Fast Forward Weekly noticed that Branded Magazine, a new Calgary publication, had opened voting for their Best of YYC poll and directly mentioned that it wanted to keep Fast Forward’s Best of Calgary™ tradition alive. A couple of snarky tweets were sent and the arguments began.

Most people supported the snark, but some didn’t get the meaning, saying Fast Forward didn’t invent the reader poll and should just go quietly into the night. Fair enough, but they’re missing the point. Myself and the former staff I’ve talked to don’t care about a reader’s poll, or make any claim that it was a unique invention (though the trademark is still protected), we care about the fact that a vapid advertorial rag with no pretense of editorial integrity called Branded is purporting to keep a Fast Forward tradition alive.

This deserves comment.

Fast Forward Weekly was, as former staff writer Jeremy Klaszus so eloquently put it, a pain in the ass. We were at time reckless in our pursuit of stories to the detriment of our bottom line. We weren’t afraid to piss off advertisers for the sake of an opinion, a stance, a review or a news story. For us it was all about the readers and the smart advertisers stuck with us because they recognized our commitment to readers was the reason they bought ads with us in the first place. Others are only interested in the print equivalent of a rub and tug.

And so we have new publications like Branded.

Let’s get one thing clear, I don’t care that Branded is hosting this contest (if only it wouldn’t use the Fast Forward name in vain), or that the magazine exists. If it serves a certain segment of the population and those people enjoy reading it, great. It’s not my thing, and it doesn’t have to be. Best of luck to all involved.

That said, this magazine is about as far from a muck-racking publication as one can get, with features on what the markets are doing, to columns penned by a mortgage broker about housing opportunities and a section on eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. It’s a pile of mush.

I have serious doubts about the integrity of a Best Of poll in a magazine like this, and wonder if the people involved realize the intensity of the process and the controls we put in place to keep the Fast Forward poll honest and reflective of our readers — we scoured the results and eliminated chains, for example. We double checked different spellings of names and locations to ensure that every vote counted. We let anyone who fit the criteria win, even if they didn’t like us, or refused to advertise with us.

Branded is a disheartening representation of a staleness and lack of criticality that has engulfed Calgary and looks like a virus that will spread. There’s nothing of substance, just blind promotion. There’s advertorial rather than insight. It’s just an excuse for ads to have a home free of any uncomfortable statements or disagreements. It’s Calgary’s troubling boosterism wrapped up in a glossy package open to the highest bidder. It’s certainly not keeping any tradition of Fast Forward Weekly alive and they could have at least waited for the corpse to cool before claiming so.

p.s. I voted for Larry Heather in every category, maybe you should too, just to keep the spirit of subversion alive in some form.

On strategic voting and cooperation

LRovApJe

It’s a fundamental question for our democracy: do you vote simply to get rid of a party — or prevent it from seizing power — or do you vote your conscience for the party that best represents your interests?

With a provincial election apparently just over the horizon, and a federal one scheduled for October, progressives across Alberta and the country are rolling out campaigns to limit choice in order to ensure Conservatives don’t remain in power. From calls for cooperation, to plans for strategic voting, it’s a whirlwind of effort to ensure progressives have better showing in both contests. It’s dangerous water in which they’re swimming.

I’m all for cooperation, and see the coming together of similar parties, like the Alberta Party and the Alberta Liberals, as a natural process that needs to occur if either wants to see electoral success. That said, it has to be done at the party level, between executives in order for anything meaningful to occur. Think about the unification of the Wildrose and Alliance parties as an example.

Problems arise, however, when people start conflating the points of view of disparate groups. The Alberta Party and the NDP? The Liberals and the NDP? What of the Green Party? Just saying someone is progressive, or somehow compatible, doesn’t make it so. Only in Alberta would the Liberals be considered progressive.

This is particularly true when we shift the conversation away from cooperation and/or meger, and into the realm of strategic voting. The fundamental reason for casting a ballot is to elect someone who best represents your interests, not simply to prevent the person you like the least from winning. That’s counterproductive thinking and sops up an awful lot of time and energy in organizing campaigns that would be better directed at encouraging voting and focusing on issues that matter.

I resent that people would try to encourage me to vote for the best candidate to defeat somebody, rather than the candidate I want to see win. In 2012, when it looked like the Wildrose just might win the provincial election, otherwise sensible people rushed to support the reigning PCs, believing them to be a kinder, gentler conservative party. We got Redford, and now Prentice. We got arrogance and mismanagement and the abuse of labour, and now we have the coming austerity and the continued primacy of oil and gas and corporate bottom lines. It didn’t work out very well for those who abandoned what they wanted for fear of what they did not.

At the federal level, contrasts are even more stark, and more important. Take Bill C-51, the extremely dangerous anti-terror legislation introduced by the Conservatives. It promises to strip us of fundamental freedoms while doing nothing to alleviate threats from terrorism, especially those comparatively innocent solo acts that inspired this reckless legislation. It has the support of the Liberals, but not of the NDP. That’s a fundamental difference and one that won’t be bridged by Anything But Conservative sloganeering.

It’s up to the parties that share values and that truly do split the vote to sit down and talk about opportunities to cooperate and eventually merge, and it’s up to the grassroots to show them it’s wanted. It’s bizarre, however, when people suggest anyone on to the left or in the centre can simply walk away from principles and join a new organization in order to achieve victory. I, for one, want some choices when it comes time to cast my ballot and I’ll be choosing based on who best represents me.

If progressives really want to see change, and ensure that it’s stable, they should direct their energy at pushing for proportional representation, so that everyone can vote their conscience and see the results reflected in the final tally.

Alberta’s uncultured minister

Maureen Kubinec

One could be forgiven for assuming that Alberta’s minister of culture would have some semblance of the arts and the province’s arts community, but by all accounts, that’s not the case. If there were any doubts, this recent interview in the Globe and Mail should remove them.

The fact that Maureen Kubinec hasn’t seen a live performance in over a month (the last night of The Magic Flute in Edmonton was February 5) is troubling for a minister that should be out in the creative community. Scrolling through her Facebook page, the only mention of anything to do with the arts is a condolence message with a link to a Global story on the death of Michael Green. Scattered throughout her feed are snowmobile outings, announcements for upgrades to seniors facilities, flag ceremonies and more.

Now to be fair, Kubinec is responsible for culture and tourism, not the arts, but it’s a sure sign of just how much this government cares about the sector when this is the minister they put in charge. It would be nice to see an urban MLA in this role, rather than a farmer (and no that isn’t a dig against farmers, I’d make a terrible agriculture minister), or at least one that doesn’t favour Reader’s Digest over literature.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the short Globe interview is her final answer, essentially saying the arts are about to be gutted, but it’s okay because of bootstraps and all that blather. “I’m just going to give you a quick example: I’m a farmer; that’s what I do for a living,” she says, apparently forgetting her six-figure cabinet salary. “And when we’ve had a tough year, it’s not easy, but it’s made us stronger.” The arts in this province have long suffered from dismal and unpredictable funding and it hasn’t made the scene stronger. It’s made some — mostly large organizations — better at finding a few alternate sources of funding, but not much and not to many and certainly not stable. It’s an insulting and thoughtless comment and it’s a sign of the carnage that’s to come.

There have been whispers — accompanying those saying Kubinec doesn’t know or understand the arts scene (has anyone in that scene even met her yet?) — that culture will no longer be in its own dual ministry, but will be subsumed by a larger portfolio (Service Alberta?). It’s a paranoid thought, but one that should raise alarms in light of this government’s radical steps to restructure the province and impose austerity for all but the wealthy and the corporate.

Kubinec’s interview certainly does nothing to alleviate those concerns.

It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Calgary doesn’t care about you

Calgary-Dawn-Szmurlo

Photo by Dawn Smzurlo

Back in 2008, a friend of mine lived in a nice apartment with not-so-great neighbours on a bit of a sketchy corner. Still, the two-bedroom, 1950s-era space was big, relatively nice and relatively cheap at $800 per month. Six years later, that same apartment is up for rent, listed on rentfaster.ca for $3,000.

That represents a rise of $26,400 per year compared to six years ago, and I’d be willing to bet that number skyrocketed in one year. It’s a clear indication of just how insane, frustrating and financially debilitating our rental market is. Sure the city fathers/mothers can talk about attracting and retaining the “best and the brightest” from around the world, but what about us? What about those who can’t afford to drop half a million dollars into a mortgage, or pay $1,500 per month to share an apartment on a sketchy corner with the scent of KFC wafting through the windows?

At first glance, this city is maturing and it’s wonderful. There’s better architecture in our skyline and over our rivers, there’s a robust public art program that has mostly survived backlash from a loud and largely ignorant segment of the population, there’s an eclectic and talented arts scene, there are bike lanes coming and there’s a lot of talk about creating the kind of city so many of us want to see.

But those of us who don’t work in oil and gas or trades, those who are responsible for that art scene, for example, are falling behind and getting frustrated. We’re not even talking about those who don’t have a home or deal with subpar living conditions in subsidized housing. Who hasn’t seriously thought of leaving Calgary to find a more hospitable home?

We are bombarded with gushing reports of low unemployment, bursting bank accounts and high GDP. We are bombarded with the notion that the market will sort it out. We are bombarded with the message that interference in the workings of the economy will only hurt us.

At best these arguments centre on the notion that things like rent controls will contract the rental supply because no landlord would want to be in the market if that were the case. Accepting that argument, of course, means ignoring the huge number of cities across North America that get along just fine with rent controls in place. Rent control doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on a home, it just means you aren’t allowed to be an asshole.

At worst, these arguments come in the form of rants against the unwashed masses — the ne’er-do-well hordes waiting to invade any community as soon as secondary suite zoning is enacted. We hear of how renters will destroy communities. We hear of parking armageddon should renters move into a basement.

We all know this is outsized hyperbole, the kind of empty rhetoric that ignores evidence to the contrary and only serves to demean those who can’t afford a house of their own, or don’t want to be saddled with a massive mortage. More fundamentally, it ignores the very real crisis in housing in the most unequal city in the country.

Some councillors — Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Jim Stevenson, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Richard Pootmans, Andre Chabot, Shane Keating and Peter Demong — have consistently knocked down proposals to legalize secondary suites across the city, ignoring their role as leaders and hiding behind the “wishes of constituents.” It’s about as logical as turning off police sirens while racing through intersections because it bothers the neighbours — some things are important and have to be done, no matter what some malcontents have to say.

Even if we could get secondary suites approved throughout the city, there’s no guarantee it will solve our housing crisis. Will there be a flood of people building suites, saturating the market and bringing prices down? Unlikely, at least in the short term. It certainly can’t hurt, but the fact we can’t even get this Band-Aid solution through council demonstrates just how far this city still has to go in order to live up to its hype as a great place to live. Because the truth is, for vast swaths of the population, this isn’t a great place to live; it’s a place to scrape by while praying your landlord doesn’t up the rent. It’s bullshit and we all know it.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

A better response to the Ottawa shooting

Harper post

Photo by Remy Steinegger

If only…

Today, Canada awoke to a new reality, with the government saying it will do everything in its power to support those with mental illness and addictions after a citizen who had fallen through the cracks killed a soldier on Parliament Hill before being shot and killed outside the Library of Parliament.

“Too often those with mental illness and those who suffer from terrible addictions are ignored and left to their own devices in a society that has not provided the necessary care,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the suspect in Wednesday’s shooting, had reportedly been staying at a shelter in Ottawa leading up to the shooting spree. The man had stayed at shelters before and had a lengthy criminal record, but nothing violent, and had reportedly struggled with addictions.

“We have seen this far too often and we will not, as a compassionate society, sit idly by and let our citizens suffer. We will muster the full might of the state and its resources to help our fellow citizens. We will wage war against desperation and struggle within our own borders, no matter the cost,” said Harper, adding it would be futile to respond to the shooting by restricting rights and increasing surveillance on citizens.

“The best way to combat extremists luring Canadian citizens, is to look after our citizens and give hope to those with very little of it,” said Harper.

This is certainly not the first time that a man, struggling with inner demons, has wreaked havoc and shattered lives. In a recent and tragic example from Calgary, Matthew de Grood killed five people at a house party in April.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the young soldier who was killed far too young yesterday,” said Harper. “Our thoughts also go out to the thousands of Canadians desperately seeking mental health care in a system that has failed them, and to those who are left to struggle with addictions in a society which criminalizes them instead of helping them. While we mourn the loss of one life, we must work as hard as we can to ensure that these kinds of incidents don’t happen again. Herding those who need our help into overcrowded hospitals with little to no psychiatric or addictions care is a true national tragedy.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

The empty Postmedia empire

Postmedia/newspapers

Photo by Drew Anderson

This morning, the face of Canada’s newspaper industry changed, and it’s not for the best. Postmedia, owner of daily papers across the country and the National Post, announced it is buying Quebecor’s English-language papers, all 175 of them, including the Sun papers, for $316 million.

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that the industry is struggling. Declining ad revenues, competition from the web, and on and on. We’ve all heard the issues and the challenges and we’ve all witnessed the painfully slow acceptance of a new order and the cut-and-slash response that has done nothing to improve matters.

What we haven’t seen until this morning is the wholesale consolidation of newspaper ownership across the country — depending, of course, on a ruling from the Competition Bureau.

That sounds like hyperbole, and it sort of is. There are still other players across the country, but not many. The Globe and Mail is still alive as Canada’s national paper and the Toronto Star still does great work out east as it struggles with restructuring. Metro is active in several markets, including Calgary, but hardly fills the void left by large dailies.

There are also countless community papers, though they are often owned by chains, and Postmedia now owns a dizzying amount of them. This paper, Fast Forward Weekly, is owned by Great West Newspapers, which owns 24 publications throughout Alberta, including us. Great West will now be facing off against Postmedia papers in small markets across the province if this deal goes through.

We also shouldn’t forget about our independent alt-weekly brethren like The Georgia Straight, The Coast, NOW and Vue.

But the announcement today that Postmedia is gobbling up the a chunk of the Quebecor empire and effectively creating a daily paper monopoly in almost every major English-speaking centre in Canada is troubling (Quebecor, which owns the Sun brand, is keeping its Quebec properties).

We now have a situation where the pretense of diversity — Postmedia says it intends to keep two papers running in markets where it was competing with the Sun, including the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun — passes for a strong print media sector. There is one owner and one ultimate arbiter of what gets said and how it gets said governing almost all the major papers across the country, but pretending like there’s an option.

So why would they do that? Well, it allows them to control the market in a way they couldn’t with only one publication. By creating the illusion of choice and dominating the market with two papers, it creates an even larger barrier for any competitor entering the market than if you just had one. Of course, it would be crazy to open a new paper in today’s day and age, right? Not necessarily. But with Postmedia holding a monopoly it sure is.

It also allows them to sell into all the daily print publications, offering choice to their advertisers that doesn’t really exist for their readers.

Also troubling in all of this is the fact that a company that struggles to balance the books is using some financial wizardry (offering $140 million of new debt to an existing creditor, for example) to fork over $316 million for the Quebecor properties.

This comes at a time when newsrooms have been decimated and there are apparently no new hires on the horizon for places like the Herald. There’s no money, after all. A once mighty newsroom has been reduced to a fraction of the size, morale is low and now the company is essentially saying it would rather consolidate the media landscape than invest in the people that are required to commit good journalism.

It’s a hollow empire, one built on the backs of journalists expected to do more with less in hulking buildings now mostly empty or rented out to others all in the name of budgets and bottom lines. The purpose of the papers in the chain and the people who work for them long since discarded in a race to the bottom that is disastrous for the state of our national dialogue and our democracy.

To really invest in a paper, Postmedia should be putting more attention to creating work that people scramble to read. The announcement today is a repudiation of that strategy and stands  in stark contrast with a recent column from the New York Times’ David Carr, writing about the rebirth of the Washington Post after it was sold to Jeff Bezos, thanks mostly to investments in good journalists and good journalism.

It’s too bad that in this country, the majority of our news will now come from an organization whose actions are dictated by shareholders and debtors and which shows no interest in saving its business by investing in its actual business — journalism.

Click here a full list of what Postmedia will own, depending on a review from the Competition Bureau.

Click here for a statement from the Commissioner of Competition.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.