I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM).
This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.
Could it be possible to do high-quality investigative journalism in the context of a shrinking economy undergoing austerity, and where the media sector is contracting and consolidating around a small number of media companies? Is it possible to launch new media products in the face of a contracting economy and reach new audiences and create new markets?
In Canada, the early to mid 1990s were the years of government austerity and economic crisis. After the crash of 1989/1990*, institutions came under great stress. Health care, for example, was pitched into a period of turmoil and change. Drawing on my experience working in the health sector (Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute), I covered this crisis in many stories for various publications, in particular Today’s Seniors.
The Canadian economy severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada says, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.
The media in general could not avoid the wider economic crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage. Canadian media as a whole also has a “great dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 70% of daily newspaper revenues, about 64% of magazine revenues,” which means there is enormous pressure to only publish stories that do not upset advertisers. And monopolies exert great control over news content in Canada: “In the United States, ten companies control 43.7% of total daily newspaper circulation. By contrast, in Canada since 1996, one single company controls a comparable share of the media pie.”
The impact of this crisis was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the book The Missing News, where he said newspapers are “shrinking in size, personnel, ambition and, as a consequence, in their curiosity,” …. “I believe the result has been a diminution in quality.” (p64)
This is the context in which, ironically, it was possible to flourish as a much-sought-after investigative journalist who could get the story and get the quotes and as an editor. And it was also a time for opportunity, in particular as new media rose in importance, from cable and satellite television, to the rise of the Internet.
I broke original stories for Now Magazine as a member of their investigative reporting team, for Today’s Seniors as its Medical and Health Correspondent, and as a reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK. I also broke original stories as a freelancer for many other magazines and newspapers, including Hospital News, The Toronto Star, This Magazine, The Annex Gleaner, Flare, The Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, and others. I drew on strong contacts in health care, media, politics, international relations and the military.
I was an editor for magazines, newspapers and newsletters as well, gaining invaluable experience and contacts. This included as Editor-in-Chief for start-up youth publication, Watch Magazine (see Case Study 2), and as Features Editor for Id Magazine (see Case Study 3).
Themes covered included the uses – and abuses – of data, the impact of military engagements to uphold international law, how to re-structure health care when budgets are tight, with populations ageing, and technology and scientific advances quickly expanding options, the emerging new media world of cable and satellite television and the Internet, the sexual revolution 2.0, urbanization and how it re-shapes politics and community, international development, and youth culture.
Story highlights include covering data concerns over Canada’s border screening measures, questions about the air quality of aircraft cabins, the debate over airstrikes in Bosnia, scandals involving peacekeepers in Somalia and reporting on the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, reforms to medical education in Canada, innovators in health care, the tug of war over health care spending during austerity measures, London, UK designers, the growing role of Nordic countries in cable and satellite television, the film financing scene in Europe and the UK, the new sexual revolution and its impact on cable and satellite television and the rising Internet, changes to Canada’s media industry, and Toronto’s embracing of the megacity concept and the political battles it sparked.
I edited newsletters and newspapers aimed at specific communities, from Canada’s medical history community to part-time students. And had the privilege of helming a start-up youth magazine as its Editor-in-Chief to its commercial success (see Case Study 2).
* “The last two recessions in Canada occurred in 1982 and 1990. … The most recent Canadian recession began in the second quarter of 1990 and over the next 12 months GDP fell by 3.2%. … The recovery from this recession was unusually slow; there was almost no growth between mid-1991 and mid-1992. This slow recovery was export driven.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
“In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems.
“… the recession here was more severe than in the United States.
“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession and, in many instances, wages and salaries were frozen or reduced (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)
A small sample of published stories with links is below:
1991: Begin career as investigative journalist and editor.
1992: Work as a Medical and Health Reporter for Today’s Seniors and as an Investigative Journalist for Now Magazine. Work as Editor and Writer for the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine’s newsletter.
1993: Published in many publications, including The Toronto Star, Canadian Living and This Magazine.
1994: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 2.0 and its expansion (see Case Study 2).
1995: Work as reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK.
1996: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 3.0 and its expansion. Begin work at Id Magazine as its Features Editor (see Case Study 3).
1997: Begin two-year assignment with the United Nations mission in Mongolia (see Case Study 4).
“David South … proved himself to be a penetrating, thorough and hard-working journalist. He produced a lot of very good stories …” Neil McCartney, Editor, Screen Finance, Telecom Markets and Mobile Communications, London, UK
Where social activists have tried and failed to get Canadian corporations to change their behaviour towards the environment, labour, women and minorities, EthicScan Canada – a for-profit consulting and research firm – steps in.
Toronto-based EthicScan acts as a consultant on ethical issues to both government and private businesses and produces a guide for investors. Its latest project hit the bookstores last fall. The Ethical Shopper’s Guide to Supermarket Products rates products according to companies’ ethical performance. “EthicScan is the only company in Canada doing this,” says senior writer Joan Helsen. “Companies respond to us differently because we are – like them – a business. We have a very good reputation for doing strong research and presenting the facts.”
Non-profit groups have produced similar guides. In the US, perhaps the best known is the American Council on Economic Priorities’ Shopping for a Better World. Here in Canada, both Pollution Probe’s Green Consumer Guide and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group’s The Supermarket Tour offer educational information.
But The Ethical Shopper’s Guide is the first guide in Canada to give a product-by-product breakdown, and to detail the web of corporate ownership. It lists more than 1,200 brand-name products from baby food to soft drinks, with the manufacturer’s “grade” for each ethical category. The guide also profiles 87 companies, with an “honour roll” of 37 corporations.
All of this can be confusing. Oxo gets an F for “women’s issues” and F+ for “environmental management,” but scores A+ on “progressive staff policies” and “environmental performance.” (Apparently. “environmental management” has to do with company structures for dealing with environmental issues while “environmental performance” measures how much it actually pollutes.) What aspect of Oxo’s ethical behaviour do you reward or punish?
EthicScan’s approach fits current advertising trends. Nissan tells us it is just trying to build cars we can live with. Loblaws puts “Green” on everything from plastic garbage bags to tubes of shampoo. But once idea-starved ad copywriters move on to the next gimmick, EthicScan may find that the relationship between ethics and profit isn’t as straightforward as its grading system suggests.
The United Nations’ bloody hunt for elusive Mogadishu warlord general Mohamed Farah Aideed has many observers wondering whether the world body is making up the rules as it goes along.
Some critics, such as George Cram of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, an influential umbrella group for Canadian non-governmental organizations of NGOs, question if the obsession with Aideed isn’t just burying the UN in a deeper image problem with the Third World.
Critics point to the fallout of growing resentment from the July 12 attack on Aideed’s compound – killing more than 70 civilians – boding ill for a peaceful reconstruction of Somali society.
The fact that among those killed within the compound were clan elders who were negotiating a peace has upset Somalis even more, says Cram, a Horn of Africa researcher.
“The UN has lost its credibility, its moral authority, lost its blue-beret neutrality,” says Cram bluntly.
The degree to which Aideed should be the main focus of current UN actions has some relief agencies scratching their heads. Aideed has become Somalian bogey man number one with UNOSOM’s (United Nations Operations in Somalia) head, US Admiral Johnathon Howe. He has placed a $25,000 price on Aideed for an arrest.
“I don’t recall the UN ever going out and actually attempting to arrest individuals – they certainly haven’t done it in other conflict zones,” says reverend David Hardy of Saskatoon-based Lutheran Relief, who has organized relief flights into Somalia.
He cites the example of Cambodia, where the UN brokered a controversial peace with those purveyors of the genocidal killing fields, the Khmer Rouge, in order to secure free elections.
David Isenverg of the Center for Defense Information, a liberal Washington-based think tank, worries that doggedly going after Aideed while ignoring the other factions will paint the UN as siding with one faction over another.
“The protracted effect is to turn the US and UN into partisans to the conflict.”
Hardy believes Aideed, who is adept at seeing which way the wind blows, has inflated his stature as an opponent of the UN as foreign invader.
Then there are other criticisms. Some observers wonder whether the UN is too proud or too blind, or simply oblivious when it comes to seeking advice from the locals it went in to protect.
Even Canada, while supporting the UN’s military effort since Aideed “is obstructing relief supplies,” believes that national reconciliation should be a main focus, says external affairs spokesperson Rodney Moore.
He says Canada continues to urge the UN to move quickly on national reconciliation, bringing together women’s groups, clan elders and other non-warlord groups.
“One of the areas where the UN operation went wrong is the tendency to deal with the ‘superpowers’ of Somalia while ignoring groups like women’s collectives,” says World Visions’ Philip Maher, who has just returned from Somalia.
“Part of the problem is misunderstanding,” Maher says. “The UN hasn’t done a great job of telling Somalis what they are doing.”
Many point to the peaceful north, where the as yet internationally unrecognized Somaliland offers a successful model, combining women’s groups and elders to wrest control.