Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Voting season

CBRM council has cleared the way for online and telephone voting in October’s municipal elections, which the provincial government has declared will take place despite fears of a second wave of COVID-19 this fall.

No particular concerns were raised during the council debate on the issue — having used an online voting system before, municipal staff and officials alike seem quite blasé at the prospect of doing so again.

But the board of Springtide, the registered Canadian charity “dedicated to helping people everywhere learn how to lead change through politics with their integrity intact,” is less sanguine.

In an open letter to Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter this week, Springtide executive director Mark Coffin said the organization’s board had voted to withdraw from a contract with the department to “deliver the Local Decisions program for the 2020 municipal elections” over concerns about municipalities’ ability to conduct the elections “safely and fairly.”

Coffin noted that the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) had requested the elections be postponed (he cites NSFM President — and Yarmouth Mayor — Pam Mood’s letter to Porter on the subject.) But the minister refused the request and advised municipalities to instead consider alternatives to in-person voting, to enforce social distancing at polling stations and to encourage candidates to campaign virtually rather than canvassing door to door.

Coffin explores his concerns in detail in the letter, which you can read, but on Twitter he was more succinct:

Oh hey, a whole bunch of incumbent municipal councillors are about to start tinkering with local election rules in towns all across the province a few months before municipal elections during a pandemic. What could possibly go wrong?

Coffin said the decision to go ahead with the October elections seems to have been made without consultation with public health officials or “active election administrators” and pointed to New Brunswick and Saskatchewan where:

…election administrators are cautioning the lawmakers to whom they report about the challenges of running traditional elections, and the need for more time to develop safe alternatives.

(New Brunswick has postponed its municipal elections, scheduled for May 2020, to “May 2021 or sooner, depending upon how quickly the outbreak subsides.”)

Of particular interest to me are Coffin’s concerns about online voting:

There are serious election integrity issues with online voting that have yet to be adequately addressed in any voting context that I am familiar with.

The processes that have been developed over the course of decades to protect the integrity of an election using paper ballots are not easily transposed into an online system. Protecting the secrecy of the ballot, ensuring each vote is counted properly and transparently, and holding administrators accountable – all of that is virtually impossible to scrutinize or observe in an online election. It appears the majority of municipalities will outsource the trust once given to a circle of election workers and candidate’s scrutineers to a single corporation, and in some cases moving to an entirely online election.

I knew I couldn’t be the only one with misgivings about online voting.

 

#TourismStrong

ACOA is spending a bunch of money to support tourism in the Atlantic Provinces, beginning with funding for “destination development and marketing organizations” that will support “ten initiatives with nine destination development and marketing organizations,” including Destination Cape Breton Association which is receiving $645,000 to “Implement a destination marketing strategy for 2020-2021 for the Cape Breton tourism industry.”

That’s more money than ACOA is sending to any other such organization and more than it is sending to New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador organizations combined. (DCBA is also the only such organization in Nova Scotia to receive funding; for once we cannot say that Halifax is getting everything.)

I just hope DCBA comes up with something better than some of its past promotions — remember the Cape Breton-themed shipping container? The one set up in 2017 to promote Cape Breton in something called the “Inspiration Village” in Ottawa?” Then-DCBA CEO Mary Tulle assured us the container — which included a “working lobster trap” — would be seen by an estimated 11 million people. In the end, visitors to Inspiration Village tapped out at 340,000.

ACOA also announced $3.5 million for 22 projects across the province and, again, the single largest contribution is to a Cape Breton event — $1.2 million to Celtic Colours

The words “Celtic,” “Gaelic” and “Highland” occur in the list with a frequency even I, proud daughter of Gaels, find kind of embarrassing, although sometimes a name is just a name: there’s nothing inherently Scottish about buying a snow groomer to maintain trails, which is what Ceilidh Trails Groomers Association will do with its $54,241.

And the Highland Arts Theatre Association is certainly not a society dedicated to the production of Scottish drama (I actually had to google “Scottish playwrights” to help me imagine what such a thing would look like and came up with a list of names I didn’t recognize except for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Muriel Spark, both of whom are better known as novelists.) The HAT is getting $80,000 to “upgrade infrastructure and undertake training.”

Looking at the full list I realize why I received an email from Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway’s office about it — almost all the supported “projects” in Cape Breton are in his riding. I had tweeted, based on Kelloway’s messaging, that ACOA was contributing the “oddly precise” amount of $1,778,628 to projects “across Cape Breton and North Eastern Nova Scotia,” but, in fact, ACOA is contributing the oddly precise amount of $2,262,978 to projects across Cape Breton. (Kelloway claims “Celtic Colours” as a Cape Breton-Canso project which is surely debatable but honestly, I’m not in the mood to debate it — there are enough Celtic Colours to go around. Speaking of which, my cousin and I once cataloged everything we believed would constitute a “Celtic Colour” and the resulting palette was surprisingly bland: “porridge,” “peat” and “potato” are the ones that come to mind immediately.)

The Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS) received $100,000 for the delightfully vague purpose of “develop[ing] resources and tools to assist the tourism sector to manage and rebuild after COVID-19” and an additional $43,700 to expand something I didn’t know existed and really wish I hadn’t discovered, the “TourismStrong” digital hub. (This “strong” thing really has to go before it becomes the “Keep Calm and Carry On” of the 2020s.)

I was curious, as I suspect was everyone with a project that was not funded, as to how the recipients — deserving as they may be — were chosen and how funding amounts were determined. I’ve asked ACOA for some enlightenment as to the selection process and the funding formula, but as of press time, had not received a response.

Perhaps both can actually be determined by a close examination of the complete list of funding recipients. Let me know if you intuit anything:

ACOA Tourism Backgrounder NS

 

SaltWire

I have always disliked it when corporations refer to themselves as “families.” Corporations are not families — families do not exist to make money for their shareholders. Families, when the money gets tight, don’t send pink slips to the children. (“Although you have been an exemplary daughter, these are trying times and we find ourselves forced to make difficult decisions. We wish you every success in your future endeavors and will be happy to provide you with a reference.”)

And while I realize not all families stick together, I would point out that when a company describes itself as a “family” it doesn’t mean, “We are a deeply dysfunctional family you will join the navy to escape,” it means, “We’re like a 1950s television family only more diverse.”

I respond very badly when corporations say things like:

Please know these decisions deeply impact our SaltWire family.

the Addams Family

One big happy family.

Which is what Mark Lever, CEO of SaltWire, the corporation that owns 28 newspapers “and web-related properties” in Atlantic Canada, said in a March 24 letter to readers explaining why they had “temporarily” laid off 40% of their workers, or about 250 people, across the chain.

Lever didn’t express similar sentiments this week in announcing that 109 of those lay-offs had been made permanent because Lever didn’t announce this — that job fell to Ian Scott, chief operating officer and executive vice-president.

The Cape Breton Post, in a story about the firings, said 61 are in Nova Scotia, 25 are in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 23 in Prince Edward Island.

Just under half were laid off immediately. The rest were given notice they will be laid off in the future.

The article states:

SaltWire is continuing to provide health benefits for the employees not returning, as well as salary continuation for those with longer service.

Which sounds like a sweet deal but must surely be for a limited time only?

To be clear: I could care less about Mark Lever’s quixotic quest to become a 21st century Lord Beaverbrook and I don’t think Atlantic Canada needs a chain of newspapers. I think Atlantic Canadian communities need community newspapers. That’s why I started one.

My approach is highly idiosyncratic and not every reporter’s cup of tea but that’s the beauty of this brave new world of online journalism: you can take whatever approach you like.

And yes, it depends on people being willing to buy what you’re selling and encouraging people to pay for online news remains a work in progress, but I can’t begin to explain how much better it is to work for your readers than to work for a corporation. I work harder than I ever have in my career, but it’s hugely rewarding because I get to follow my nose and write about what catches my fancy. Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew;  sometimes I get two parts into a series of articles and realize, “This is incredibly boring;” sometimes what I think is a scoop turns out to be something everyone else on the island has known since 1997.

Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, 1952

Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, 1952. (Source: Hulton Archive)

But sometimes I go back and read something I’ve written (like that article I linked to above about Destination Cape Breton Association) and laugh out loud and think, “Nobody is going to get a piece like that anywhere but the Spectator.” Because I’m not beholden to advertisers. Because I’m not under the thumb of editors who are beholden to advertisers. Because I don’t belong to the Chamber of Commerce. Because I’m opinionated, but I own my opinions — and I’m open to changing my opinions — and it’s not reporters with opinions they acknowledge that are dangerous, it’s reporters with opinions they don’t even recognize as opinions that are dangerous. That’s Manufacturing Consent 101.

As I write (on Thursday), CNN is reporting that Google will begin paying some media outlets for content. This is a development worth watching, because loss of advertising revenues to Google and Facebook has been one of the biggest nails in print journalism’s coffin. The experiment begins not in North America but in Germany, Australia and Brazil:

“This program will help participating publishers monetize their content through an enhanced storytelling experience that lets people go deeper into more complex stories, stay informed and be exposed to a world of different issues and interests,” [Google VP Product Management for News Brad] of Bender said.

Google is talking to publishers in another handful of countries and expects to add to its list in the coming months. The publishers with the first deals include Australian companies Schwartz Media, The Conversation and Solstice Media; Brazil’s Diarios Associados and A Gazeta; and Germany’s Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit and Rheinische Post.

The focus is on “high-quality content,” which is interesting, because high-quality content is the first thing publishers like Lever jettison in the hunt for profitability. If Google is actually going to subsidize publications willing to put time and money into producing quality journalism, it could be a game changer — but SaltWire will likely have slashed and burned its way out of the game before it changes.

I don’t expect Google to come knocking anytime soon, but I do intend to continue going “deeper into more complex stories,” and I would love to be able to pay other reporters to do the same. To do that, I will need more subscribers. So if you’ve been reading the free content and appreciate the work and would like to see more of it, please, consider subscribing: you can do so for as little as $5 a month. I will use the additional funding to pay freelancers whom I will never — I vow — refer to as the Spectator “family.”

 

Summertime

The Spectator is going on summer hours and will be publishing bi-weekly throughout July and August. That means the next regular edition will be Wednesday, July 8 and Fast & Curious, rather than being a stand-alone on Fridays, will be incorporated into the bi-weekly publication.

Unless, of course, something happens that I feel the need to report on, in which case, I reserve the right to post whenever. (Did I mention I have an “idiosyncratic” approach to journalism?) In fact, I’ll be covering today’s COVID-19 update with the premier and Dr. Robert Strang.

I will also be publishing a special series of articles commemorating an upcoming CBRM anniversary — not amalgamation — about which, more to come.

I am looking forward to a break, especially since my two favorite summer activities — swimming and reading — do not require the wearing of a non-surgical face mask.

I wish you all an excellent summer — you deserve it.