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On November 30, the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre hosted “Opening the Opinion Page,” a panel exploring the role and relevance of editorials and op-eds. Watch it here!


-Robyn Urback, CBC News columnist and editor of CBC’s Opinion page
-Andrew Phillips, Editorial Page Editor of the Toronto Star.
-Moderated by Ann Rauhala, Professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism.


Opinion editors opine on opinion journalism

By Ben Cohen

CBC and Toronto Star editors shared the stage at Ryerson last month, for a behind-the-scenes look at opinion journalism.

Robyn Urback, CBC News columnist and editor of CBC’s opinion page and Andrew Phillips, editorial page editor of the Toronto Star, took part in “Opening the Opinion Page,” a panel moderated by Journalism professor Ann Rauhala.

The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre organized the discussion to unpack the process behind editorial and opinion publishing, and exploring its role and relevance.

What makes a good editorial writer?

Each day, the Toronto Star publishes an unsigned editorial — and it’s up to Phillips and his team to determine the topic and craft the piece.

Phillips said successful editorial writers  should be “clear-minded.”

“You get an awful lot of people who have an opinion, but they’re fuzzy about how they got there,” he said. “To do (editorial writing) well, you need to have a rigorous mind and able to go to the heart of the matter of a complicated issue.”

“It’s a certain cast of mind, and not everybody has it,” added Phillips, who has been running the Star’s editorial pages since 2011. Before that, he served as editor of the Victoria Times Colonist and The Montreal Gazette, and was a writer and editor at CBC Television News and Maclean’s, as well as business editor of the Star..  

Selecting the writers and topics

When selecting pieces to run in the CBC Opinion page, Urback said she emphasizes balance and novelty.

“It sounds very cliché, but I’m always looking for writers who represent Canada,” Urback said. “Part of my job, and why I was hired on, is to work with people who may have never written a column before.”

Urback, who graduated from Ryerson with a degree in journalism,  cut her teeth writing opinion articles for Maclean’s Magazine. She went on to contribute to major news outlets across the country until joining the National Post as a columnist and editorial board member in 2013. In 2016, she left the Post to work at CBC.

Whereas Phillips largely edits the work of full-time and regular columnists employed by the Star, Urback’s contributors are often freelance and from all over the country.

Urback says the “luxury” of working for an online-only opinion page is that she can help inexperienced writers who may have fresher, valuable perspectives.

“I don’t have to fill two pages every day, so I’m spending time working with the grandmas out in St. Thomas to get their columns up-to-snuff and publishable,” she said.

Working for a daily newspaper, Phillips said news and current events-focused pieces usually nab the top spots in his section.

Phillips tries to keep a healthy mix of stories circulating his pages, he said, noting that there’s a tendency for certain events to attract more columns.

“When the St. Michael’s College scandal broke, after the first day or so, there was a flood of people wanting to sound off about it,” said Phillips.

With each piece he runs on a particular topic, Phillips said, the bar gets higher for subsequent pitches.

“People have to have something more to add.”

Opinions becoming news

Urback said she is mindful of the fact that opinion pieces tackling big events can often become news themselves. As an editor, she says the knowledge that you’re putting something out there that can change or derail the conversation is an “extraordinary burden.”

Urback cited one particular column, written about actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial lifestyle brand Goop coming to Canada, that had its own impact on the news cycle.

“I had a million pitches about why Goop is pseudoscience, and that’s fine, I’ve read that piece a thousand times, but I got a pitch from a doctor who wrote a piece about how Goop appeals to women in particular,” she said.

Thee column’s thesis was that Goop is successful because it identified the fact that many women don’t feel heard when they go to the doctor. Urback said, after it was published, the author’s phone “blew up” with interview requests.

“It really became this huge thing,” she said. “The initial peg was a news story, ‘Goop is coming to Canada, let’s talk about it,’ but the angle that she found was so unique and I think it was so bang-on that it changed the conversation.”

Phillips said that at the moment, there is a “very active debate” on giving a platform to reviled people and opinions.

The line is narrower than he would like, he said, which is a detriment to people who enjoy opinion journalism and want to see diverse perspectives clash.

“Of course, there are people you don’t platform,” said Phillips.

“Different organizations might draw the line differently. For our purposes, an opinion might be perfectly reasonable, even well done, but I might think ‘you know, that might be a great piece in the Toronto Sun, but it isn’t really a Toronto Star piece.’”

“It’s branding. It doesn’t mean that the person has no right to speak, it just means that, as the Toronto Star, we choose not to particularly select that in our menu,” he added.

The editorial line is more difficult to draw at CBC, Urback said. Her concern when publishing a controversial piece is the repercussions it can have on its author – up to and including death threats.

“You have to talk to writers beforehand, especially if they’re new, and say ‘look, the CBC’s platform is humongous, you’re going to piss people off. Are you ready to do this?’” she said.

Urback rejected the initial industry concern that CBC’s opinion page would eclipse smaller news organizations already struggling to survive, saying that many Canadian opinion sections were already “devolving on their own.”

She says many newspapers began laying off columnists and shrinking editorial boards before CBC got into the opinion business.

“It wasn’t the CBC that was responsible for closing down the opinion section of the National Post. These places were shutting down already.”   


*Disclosure: The author’s sister wrote the aforementioned CBC article about Goop.

Dozens of students, professors and professionals packed a new research hub at Ryerson last month for “Rubix,” the Faculty of Communication and Design’s annual expo. Part science fair, fashion show and art exhibit, the event showcased FCAD’s scholarly and creative work and paired it with free wine and charcuterie.

This year’s event was also the launch of The Catalyst, a new, 5,000 square foot space in the Rogers Communications Centre that’s been in development since fall 2016.  The Catalyst is now home to more than 20 FCAD labs and centres, including the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Greg Elmer, director of Catalyst, delivers a speech to attendees of Rubix 2018. (Ben Cohen).

“A lot of people have been asking about this space,” said Catalyst director, Greg Elmer, addressing the Rubix crowd.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to advance our scholarly, research and creative projects, agendas and collaborations, and work with our students … It’s to encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary projects.”

In an interview, Elmer said many FCAD researchers have been spread across campus and isolated from each other.

“I think what you’re seeing today is really a homecoming of sorts and a tremendous opportunity for us to collaborate,” he said.

“You have all these natural collaborations and topics forming and that leads to serendipitous moments.”

Building the Catalyst cost about $1 million, funded by the federal government’s Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), said Lauren Clegg, Ryerson media relations officer.

Rubix was the 22nd event at the Catalyst, during its first five weeks in operation. The space has also been host to panel discussions, lunch and learns and workshops.

Several projects were on display at Rubix, from a wide range of disciplines.

Local news an ‘urgent’ issue

Asmaa Malik, journalism assistant professor and director of the graduate program, was at Rubix to display “The Future of Local News: Research and Reflections,” a multimedia publication which chronicles the “struggles and successes,” of local news around the world, according to its website.    

Asmaa Malik displays The Future of Local News: Research and Reflections at Rubix 2018 (Ben Cohen).

“The issue of local news is very urgent,” said Malik.

“The situation is pretty rough, in terms of news outlets closing, people having less access to information and the effect this has on democracy and civic participation,” she added.

Malik said the project was spurred by the 2017 conference, “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future,” organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

April Lindgren, Ryerson journalism professor and research chair, presented the Local News Map. The crowdsourced digital map tracks the openings and closures of local news outlets across the country, and is updated every two months.

Lindgren says the map “addresses a significant gap in data,” which exists as a result of Canada’s lack of central tracking for local news.    

Rethinking police uniforms

Sandra Tullio-Pow, associate professor and program director at the Ryerson School of Fashion, debuted a series of fully formed police uniform prototypes.

She created the project, “Neighbourhood Policing: Designing Uniforms That Work,” in collaboration with fellow School of Fashion members Kristen Schaefer, Lucia Dell’Agnese, Pui Yee Chau, Tanya White, Jennifer Dares, Diana Lee and NaHee Kim.

Sandra Tullio-Pow (left), associate professor and program director at the Ryerson School of Fashion, and fashion masters student, Jennifer Dares (Ben Cohen).

The Toronto Police are looking to improve attire for officers in the new neighbourhood police program, Tullio-Pow said, and after bidding on a request for proposals, her team noticed a glaring issue.

“These officers (in the program) are either on foot or on bicycle, but they’re still in their standard uniforms,” she said.

“You can imagine, when you go to the gym you don’t wear your dress shirt and you don’t wear dress pants, and yet, those are the kind of shirt and pants they’re riding their bikes in.”

Her group then held targeted focus groups with police in order to better understand what they needed.

They then developed four lightweight, breathable uniforms featuring mesh ventilation and reflective material, which Tullio-Pow said are completely absent from what bike cops are wearing now.    

Making academia understandable with artificial intelligence

In another part of the Catalyst, Robert Clapperton, assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communications, displayed his artificial intelligence project,“The Present Absent Author.”

“We’re building a natural understanding platform,” said Clapperton.“Basically, what you’d think of as a bot, but a little bit more complex of a bot,”

The platform will be able to read and peer-review academic papers and then be able conversationally answer questions about them.       

He added that the goal of the project is to eventually be able to enter even the most arcane scientific articles into the system, which would be able to make them understandable to a layperson through question and answer.  

Clapperton said the program is about 20 per cent complete, and is currently training and learning.

Building the Catalyst ‘from scratch’    

As far as setting up both Catalyst and the Rubix event, Elmer said there were “challenges every day,” likening it to moving into a new condo.

“Whenever you build something from scratch, you’re starting anew, you’re hiring new staff, you’re making sure that it’s a safe environment, you’re doing your best to welcome in as many people as possible from across campus,” he said.

“(The Catalyst) is a large space, we want it to be used, we want it to be welcoming, from undergraduates doing research straight up to the most senior research chairs. I think, really, the biggest challenge is to live up to the opportunity that we have here.”         

By Rhianna Jackson-Kelso

As funding and resources dwindle, the future of investigative journalism in Canada rests in the hands of student journalists, say experts in the field.

Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, and Patti Sonntag, director of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, stressed in a recent talk moderated by Ryerson professor Lisa Taylor (co-hosted by the Centre for Free Expression and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre), that journalists must adapt to industry hardships by learning how to pool resources. Despite the ability of investigative journalism to uncover matters of substantial public interest, its costly nature and the lack of certainty that an investigation will culminate in a story makes it particularly vulnerable to budget cuts.

“If you’re an accountant working for a major media organization, it’s very simple … to determine which is the first thing to go,” says Cribb. “And so the state of investigative journalism in this country is dire.”

Increasingly, Canadian news organizations have been combating financial hardships by working together on investigative projects, like the recent CBC News/Toronto Star joint investigation into Ticketmaster’s secret scalper program. While inter-organization competition and protectiveness over information has historically been the norm, collaboration is becoming more common.

“Our absolutely world class university systems can form the backbone of reporting in Canada.”

“In the United States and other countries, collaboration is becoming the backbone of regional reporting in many areas,” says Sonntag, referencing the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, collaborative projects undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “The question that we have been asking is why isn’t this catching on in Canada?”

Canada, with its low population density and resulting weaker concentration of news organizations, struggles to match the collaborative efforts arising in other countries, says Sonntag. She also referenced the growing “culture of silence” in Canada, where communities underrepresented by news organizations are increasingly not having their problems aired.

But Cribb and Sonntag, who both teach journalism classes in addition to their professional work, say this has a solution: student journalism.

“Our absolutely world class university systems can form the backbone of reporting in Canada,” says Sonntag. “If [journalism schools] work together with news organizations, we can form a network that can support regional reporting and democratic processes that are so vital.”

Patti Sonntag, director of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, and Robert Cribb, investigative reporter at the Toronto Star.


New reporting network leads to award-winning investigation

Cribb, who teaches an investigative reporting class at the Ryerson School of Journalism, spoke about how his years working with students on investigative projects gave him the idea to found the National Student Investigative Reporting Network (NSIRN), in 2016:

“At the end of term we would have this remarkable body of work on matters of vital public importance, and then I would grade them and then we would throw them away,” he says. “It made no sense.”

NSIRN, at which Cribb and Sonntag are co-directors, takes the form of a 13-week course, where students from across Canada partner with media organizations to report on a problem of national importance. The network’s first project, “The Price of Oil,” was an award-winning collaboration between more than 50 journalists, editors, students and teachers that probed into issues surrounding government oversight of the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan and Ontario. According to NSIRN’s website, the project marked the largest journalistic collaboration ever undertaken in Canada, and Cribb and Sonntag say this is just the beginning.

“At the end of term we would have this remarkable body of work on matters of vital public importance, and then I would grade them and then we would throw them away.”

“This is a national resource, this network of universities that we have,” says Sonntag, stressing that the project is intended to incorporate participation from the public. NSIRN is forming a national editorial board which will take pitches each January from schools, media organizations and members of the public about which issues should be investigated next, says Sonntag.

While collaboration has its downsides – Cribb cites navigating the feelings and opinions of 50 passionate journalists a major learning curve, and Sonntag stresses the importance of having a team dedicated to facilitating the collaboration – Cribb and Sonntag say this model is the best way to ensure a strong, varied investigative journalism scene in Canada.

“What we don’t talk about is the human value of the work that we do,” says Cribb. “These [investigative] stories have a tremendous impact, and that can’t be lost.”

Staff reporter

July 20, 2018

Ryerson School of Journalism assistant professor Joyce Smith will be the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre’s new academic director starting August 2018.

Joyce Smith, a researcher and associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), says she is excited to promote student and public engagement with journalism research as the new academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre (RJRC). 

“We’re here to support the education of young journalists, but we’re also here to support the work done by journalists who are mid-career and further on. And, perhaps more importantly than ever given the state of journalism and fake news, [we’re here] to help the public understand the practice of journalism,” Smith said.

“The nature of journalism is public, so it is important that we act as that bridge between academics, practitioners, and the public.”

Smith will succeed founding director April Lindgren as of Aug. 1. Lindgren has led the RJRC since it was launched in 2011 in response to a 2005 report on Canadian News Media by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications. The committee had recommended the establishment of a “permanent, full-time research centre devoted to the study of the Canadian news media.” Today, the RJRC supports 14 researchers in their study of journalism issues ranging from source diversity to press freedom and the challenges faced by local news outlets. Lindgren will become the RSJ’s Velma Rogers Research Chair effective Aug. 1.

“It’s a really exciting time for journalism research,” says Smith. “One of the best things about the RJRC is that we’re not just doing critique for critique’s sake or research for research’s sake – the research is almost always aimed at trying to improve the practice of journalism.”

Promoting this research will include continued collaboration with other centres at Ryerson, she says. This year, the RJRC partnered with Ryerson’s Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change to host a public panel on how fashion journalism can drive social change by critically examining issues such as body image and representation, diversity and gender expression.

Smith’s own research focus is the representation of religion in news media. Appearing in the RJRC’s recently published online journal, The Future of Local News, is her academic article on the historical and current connections between local journalism and religious and secular charities.

Smith says she is particularly interested in promoting research into and opportunities for journalism supporting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. She will present a paper on the reporting of Indigenous spirituality during Canadian reconciliation inquiries at the 2018 conference for the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

“It’s a real luxury to have the time to analyze the patterns and the ecosystems journalists work and live in, since people actually doing daily journalism have different demands on their time,” she says.

Smith joined the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2001 after serving as features editor and a founding member of the breaking news team for the Her academic background includes a PhD dissertation analyzing the reporting of religion during the 1994 South African elections, as well as a Rockefeller Fellowship at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

She was the original director of the RSJ’s online journalism program, the interim director (2008-2009) and director (2010-2013) of the School’s Master of Journalism program, and continues to serve on the Ryerson University Research Ethics Board. Smith has also been a member of the board of directors for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

Staff reporter

July 19, 2018

The relationship between local charities and news, an app that tracks the diversity of local news sources, and the use of crowd-sourcing to track changes to local news organizations are among the ideas discussed in a new publication from Ryerson Journalism Research Centre (RJRC).

The groundbreaking online multimedia journal published in early June combines academic papers, videos and a podcast to explore the decline of local news.

“We wanted to create content that will draw in readers who may otherwise get turned off by seeing a long academic article that some people find boring or difficult to read,” says Jaigris Hodson, an assistant professor at Royal Roads University in British Columbia and co-editor of the publication.

The Future of Local News brings together nine peer-reviewed papers by academics who attended Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference the RJRC organized in Toronto in June 2017.

“The collection explores the most crucial parts of traditional news production and distribution models, while building on the best of what we are learning about technological disruption,” Hodson and co-editor Asmaa Malik, an assistant professor at Ryerson University, write in the publication’s “Letter From the Editors.”

“It considers the role of local news in Canada and around the world and asks what role policy, financing models and new technologies might play in forging a new path forward.”

The impact of digital technology on local news research and local news itself is a topic explored in a number of the papers, including a piece by Malik and Ryerson associate professor Gavin Adamson. Their article outlines how an algorithmic tool they are developing can be used to track the diversity of sources in local digital news stories.

Hodson says the editorial team also had the benefits of digitization in mind when deciding how to publish The Future of Local News.

“We talked about going the traditional route and publishing it in a major print journal, perhaps as a special issue,” she says. “That would have been the safe way to go, but we were passionate about making this research accessible to a broader audience…By publishing online, we thought that we could create a variety of voices and issues and get them out much more widely and accessibly in both their language and presentation.”

Hodson says that she hopes the journal will reach individuals in communities who “may not yet understand why they need to support their local news,” as well as entrepreneurs who can help find creative solutions to the problems presented. Above all, she says it’s her duty as an academic to making this research accessible to the public.

“Taxpayers support universities and support our research, so we should aim to make it as widely accessible as possible. People need information about what our researchers are doing. That kind of thing can change the world.”

You can read, watch and listen to The Future of Local News by clicking here. Within the multimedia journal, you’ll find the following articles, video and podcast:

Giving begins at (the) home(page): Local news and charities
Joyce Smith, Ryerson University
From food, clothing and Christmas toy drives to raising money to send children to summer camp, Joyce Smith’s paper examine some of the ways in which “the worlds of local journalism and local charities have connected.” The paper dives into a short history of the news outlet’s relationship to forms of generosity and the alliances between news outlets and both religious and secular charities. It also examines how these relationships may change along with rapidly changing local news ecosystems.

Disrupting the local: Sense of place in hyperlocal media
Carrie Buchanan, John Carroll University
As part of an ongoing research project, Carrie Buchanan analyzed the content of three competing hyperlocal and community news outlets in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio to see how each “differ in the sense of place they project” about the same community. The three outlets examined were The Heights Observer, a citizen journalism publication run by community volunteers; The Sun Press, a community weekly newspaper staffed by professional journalists; and, which is part of a national network of hyperlocal websites. Buchanan’s content analyses of these outlets found that The Heights Observer was the only outlet to name more local than non-local places, and that it was the only outlet where the five most-named places were actually located within the publication’s stated coverage area.

Southern voices telling Northern stories: The importance of local media in coverage of the Crystal Serenity cruise
Tyler Nagel, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
Alycia Mutual, University of Northern British Columbia
What’s the value of local media? This video explores what community journalism looks like in an area that isn’t well covered by mainstream media. It uses a case study of the 2016 visits by the Crystal Serenity cruise – the largest cruise ship to transit the Northwest Passage – to three small arctic Canadian communities. Researchers Tyler Nagel and Alycia Mutual analyzed the content of articles written about the cruise from local northern media sources, mainstream southern media sources and the CBC.

Assessing news media infrastructure: A state-level analysis
Philip M Napoli, Duke University
Ian Dunham, Rutgers University
This paper analyzes the number of local news-producing outlets and the number of affiliated news workers (i.e. the news media infrastructure) in each U.S. state. The comparative analysis reveals that two regions of the country (the Mountain West and a cluster of states in the Northeast) have significantly less robust news media infrastructures than would be expected, and therefore “may be where local journalism is most in need of support.”

Shattering the myth? Audiences’ relationship to local media and local news revisited
Lenka Waschkova Cisarova, Masaryk University
Jakub Macek, Masaryk University
Alena Mackova, Masaryk University
This paper explores the “myth of the local,” i.e. the presumption that audiences are highly interested in local news in their communities. This myth focuses on U.K. and U.S. audiences but may not be applicable to other countries, say researchers from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. This paper uses a quantitative survey and interviews population to examine the Czech population’s interest in and relationship to local news.

Death by natural causes or premeditated murder? BC chains eliminate competition by buying, trading, and closing newspapers
Marc Edge, University of Malta/University of Canada West
Between 2010 and 2014 the British Columbia newspaper chains Black Press and Glacier Media exchanged 33 publications, of which 24 have since been closed or merged. Many of these outlets were closed after the companies swapped titles, which points to the possibility of a  “trade-and-close strategy” form of collusion meant to improve their bottom line. Marc Edge’s paper uses this case study to probe “Canada’s antitrust laws in dealing with newspaper mergers and takeovers.”

Is no election news good news? A case study and comparison of Nanaimo, B.C. Twitter feeds and The Nanaimo Daily News during the 2015 Canadian election
Jaigris Hodson, Royal Roads University
“What happens in Canadian communities that are underserved by national media outlets when local news outlets close down?” In this academic podcast, Jaigris Hodson examines how The Nanaimo Daily News’ failure to use social media to cover and engage with readers during the 2015 election may have foretold the publication’s closure in 2016. Using this case study and a study of how little local political issues in Nanaimo were discussed via Twitter during the election, Hodson counters the argument that social media can easily bridge the hole in local communities left by the loss of local news outlets.

Geospatial tools for the visualization and analysis of local news distribution
Claus Rinner, Ryerson University
April Lindgren, Ryerson University
Andrew Komaromy, Ryerson University
Just as computer mapping software has become a standard feature in today’s newsrooms, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to analyze and visualize the geographic distribution of news itself. Using sample data of geographic references from local news items published in the Toronto Star, this paper demonstrates how GIS can identify concentrations and gaps in local news coverage.

Towards an algorithmic journalism assessment tool: Accounting for source diversity in local digital news
Gavin Adamson, Ryerson University
“To whom do journalists speak? Who do they quote? From whose point of view are stories told, and whose voices get the most prominence?” These are some of the questions that led to the creation of JeRI (the Journalism Representation Index), software that can identify, quantify and categorize the sources quoted in news stories. In this paper, Gavin Adamson and Asmaa Malik detail the development of this algorithmic tool and how they tested whether JeRI can make same  the simple judgments about sourcing as humans.

The Local News Map: Transparency, credibility, and critical cartography
April Lindgren, Ryerson University
Jon Corbett, University of British Columbia
The Local News Map is a “crowd-sourced web-based mapping tool that invites the public to contribute information about local newsroom startups, closings, and service reductions/increases.” Researchers April Lindgren and Jon Corbett discuss how the  data collected acts as a “straightforward tracking device” of changes to local media. They also note, however, that maps are not neutral and go on to evaluate The Local News Map’s strengths, limitations and biases.