In the last week lots has been written of the sale of the venerable Vancouver arts weekly , the Georgia Straight to Media Central. Some of it was disparaging and some of it was with cautionary hope that those remaining hardworking employees might keep their jobs.
I think that anybody who knows would know that a capable Editor like the Straight’s Charlie Smith would be over-qualified for anything in this city. Our local colleges and universities could not possibly hire anybody more to teach a profession that has no pulse.
Or you have the multi-faceted writer and arts editor Janet Smith who can write on paper copy and then quickly into a web page and do it on dance, arts, film or anything else that has to be done. Where would she find a place for such talent?
This downward slide into inconsequence was not sudden. Because I worked for many local, Canadian and other publications around the world as a freelancer I learned the ropes of what good journalism was and is. I was taught by the likes of Vancouver Magazine’s Malcolm Parry what are the ethical standards of a good periodical and what they must always be. Once when I came back with some photographs he looked at them and threw a camera lens at me and said,”Go back and do it again here you were making the motions.”
Parry and former Georgia Straight Charles Campbell saw talent (even raw talent) in those who could write and who perhaps did not have lofty schooling. They worked extensively and made good money without having gone to Carlton. I sometimes feel that the last of the professions left that do not need a degree or a certificate are writing, photography and prostitution.
I worked with many writers of both sexes and a few in-between. One of the best was one who knew where his profession was headed. Christopher Dafoe, a local arts reported for the Globe and Mail was the kind of writer who would sit in a room with the famous and say nothing. Somehow those he interviewed would feel safe to tell all. Dafoe would let me watch the interview so I could observe his subject’s (to be mine after the interview) expressions and quirks.
Dafoe saw what was coming and went to UBC to study law. Now he is a very good lawyer. Since he is a trial lawyer he must have learned to talk (ever so quietly as he does) and he must win many cases.
That downward slide began quite a few years before. Reporters would go to media junkets to Los Angeles and in a large hotel room they would face a famous actor or director. They would place their tape recorders on a central table and then ask questions. These recordings were then masked as exclusive personal interviews.
That, then suffered a further slide with what was called the phoner. A reporter or writer would call the famous person on the phone. Without too often revealing to the reader that it was indeed a phone interview the piece might begin, “Talking to Clint Eastwood from his kitchen I could hear his poodle barking.”
We will never know how many interviews were done as email interviews before the advent of Skype. Only Skype could positively prove you were talking or writing to the person you thought you might have been writing or talking to.
I remember sometime in the late 80s when local magazines did “service pieces”. These were masked editorials promoting, as an example, lighting fixtures.
I remember most vividly when a local publication published an article in which the writer quoted the people interviewed. The piece was run and then the magazine did have the guts to publish protest letters by the folks mentioned in the piece that they had never been interviewed. That piece was then nominated by the magazine for a local award!
My personal experience on this sort of shenanigan happened when I was given the job to photograph and write about front gardens. None of the words I wrote (none I repeat) appeared on a two-page spread with my name on it. The editor had taken the liberty of discarding what I had written and inserted what he then wrote.
By now many in Vancouver know how that sacrosanct feature of a magazine or newspaper has suffered in the last few years. Sometime the whole front page is hidden underneath a front-page ad. If in anger you peel it off you will find that the editorial is contained on the other side (the last page).
But the remaining last straw is the demise of that venerable feature of any reputable and or respectable publication. This is the masthead. At least two local weekly periodicals no longer list their contributors and in one case you have to look hard (on the net) to find out who the editor might be.
For a would-be writer/journalist of photographer what has disappeared is the ability to dream of an idea. To pitch it to an editor (perhaps in person) and then if it is a monthly to see that cover photograph,a cover article or an inside two-page spread a month later and if a weekly a couple of weeks later. That to me was better than skiing or se..
From from Vancouver Magazine writer and Associate Editor Les Wiseman I learned the importance of research, fact checking and if you did not know the subject you were going to write about you would consult various experts.
It was at Vancouver Magazine that I met urbane lawyer Ronald Stern, its publisher and publisher of many other publications who managed to know that like the separation of Church and State in journalism there was that one between the Editor’s office and his.
If you were a music critic you went to many concerts to get an idea of what was hot in our city. Now a critic will post a Facebook question,”Hey guys, know of any good musicians I can write about?”
After many years of having gone to dance performances it was often strange not to see local critics present. Many of us know that publications will state, “If we do a preview we will not do a review.”
As a photographer when I was assigned a job I would be sent a manuscript by courier, fax or by email. I knew that if I were asked by the subjects I was going to photograph to not tell them what had been written. In the last few years I was assigned to photograph people the writer had yet to interview.
Anybody who has written for Reader’s Digest would know that they had infamous fact checkers that made Albanian interrogators seem like nice guys. Those factcheckers have all turned themselves in.
For many years I dreamed a lot and saw many of those dreams published with real ink and paper. I remember when my Estonian friend Mati Laansoo called me up and asked me, “Do you think that woman at that bathroom/kitchen magazine might want to accept a story on croquet?” Indeed she did and I photographed it all with Kodak B+W Infrared Film. It was Laansoo who with his buddy Gary Marchant ate dog for lunch in the Philippines (told by Parry to keep the bill to certify their canine repast) and it ran in Vancouver Magazine. Hate mail arrived by the next day.
Of all the dreams I had that found reality, there is this one that involved writer John Lekich (who knows how to write about women and when not to wear a bow tie with a button-down shirt) and Charles Campbell, singly responsible as Editor of the Georgia Straight in keeping writers from soup kitchens.
And here is the essay by writer John Lekich on the above-mentioned Karen Campbell
As for the death of journalism I like to quote my friend, architect Abraham Rogatnick who when he was my age (77) told me, “Alex I am not long for this world and I am glad for it.”
Wherever he is I am sure he has found publications with mastheads and real covers.