KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Mary Campbell, who runs the Cape Breton Spectator, is the kind of journalist many civil servants and politicians dread, the kind that keeps on digging and keeps on asking questions and doesn’t take communication people’s non-responses for an answer.
Mary mostly covers the CBRM municipal beat, and the kind of stuff she routinely reveals makes you wonder what all is going on elsewhere in rural Nova Scotia.
We asked Mary about the state of journalism on the Island, what it’s like to run a small news organization in a relatively small town, and how she is doing journalism a bit differently.
This interview is the first in a series. There will be more interviews on journalism in Nova Scotia all through the summer.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you how the Cape Breton Spectator came to be.
Partly you’d have to say it’s genetic because my family ran a weekly newspaper in Sydney in the 60s and into the 70s called the Cape Breton Highlander. From the time I was a kid I knew that I was going to be a journalist. We used to play newspaper at home and I was the oldest so I always got to be the editor.
I’m sure I would have just gone to work for the Highlander but it had folded in 76. So I did the next best thing which was to go and work for Jim MacNeil at the Eastern Graphic in PEI for a couple of years. It was a really great little paper and I learned a lot.
And then I ended up traveling. I went from Montreal to Toronto, eventually to Prague and I usually managed to work at least partly in journalism. I was doing a lot of freelance stuff.
When I came home to Cape Breton it took me a while to transfer my attention back to my surroundings. Now I am so immersed in Cape Breton politics that I can’t imagine not paying attention to it, but it took some time before it dawned on me that I wasn’t getting the information I wanted.
Not to get into detail, but there was some reporting about the container terminal that really started to bug me. I kept seeing Post and CBC headlines saying that the Cape Breton container terminal was one step closer to becoming reality, and it was so obvious that this was nowhere near reality.
I started to question the quality of the local reporting, or the depth of the reporting. I understand that in journalism too few people are asked to do too much, and having to feed that daily news cycle you don’t have the time to go in depth and provide the context. Journalists of course try to offer some background, but never enough.
When I tried to figure out what was happening with that reporting I ended up spending four days at the library, reading every little thing that they had around port development, going back to the mid nineties. That gave me a rough chronology. It was crazy, there were things like pieces of land sold twice, and no explanation of how that came to be.
At the time I didn’t consider it my job yet, I wasn’t running the Spectator then. I was just personally curious about what was going on. I went to the library on my afternoons to do my research. I had three notebooks full of notes
So I positioned myself to become the journalist who provides the context. In a nutshell that is what I am doing. I look at what is being said on the surface, and then I try to figure out what the background of that story tells us. What I find is always complicated.
Can you talk a bit about the media landscape in Sydney and on the Island?
There’s good reporters everywhere. I know there are good reporters at the Cape Breton Post. My father worked at the Post, after the Highlander, and he watched the newsroom get smaller, and the workload get heavier. And it has only gotten worse since he retired in 2000. I don’t think it is getting better under Saltwire. Journalists are expected to do photography, do things for the online edition, get things ready in time for print, it is becoming a really difficult job. And the regional CBC stations have so few resources. I have great sympathy for them.
There is also a CTV reporter here. There’s weekly papers around the Island. There is the Inverness Oran, the Victoria Standard, and there is the Port Hawkesbury Strait Reporter. In modern terms we are actually still doing surprisingly well.
In terms of much of the reporting here, there is a tendency to take things seriously that are clearly not serious. It’s almost boosterism. It’s as if you are in some kind of a strange bubble where you’ve got people saying things about the port that no serious person would consider reasonable.
For instance, people made the argument that information can’t be made public for reasons of business secrecy. That doesn’t make any sense when you’re dealing with the municipality and as a citizen everyone has the right to know.
Or another example is how that guy who was first billed as a port promoter and then he decides he’s a port developer and the Post just starts giving him that title. It’s patently untrue because he’s never developed a port. It’s as simple as that.
How would you describe the kind of reporting you do?
Kind of the essence of what I decided to do what when I started the Spectator is what Tim Bousquet calls adversarial, or advocacy reporting, I’ve heard so many different terms for it.
My approach is that I’m going to do this research, and if you believe that I could do this research and not have an opinion then you don’t understand human nature. Of course I’m going to have an opinion and I’m going to share it with you, but I’m also going to show you everything that led me there. If I get information, I put it out there.
What kind of things are making this type of reporting difficult?
It is a constraint to have to pretend that you’re neutral because nobody ever is really neutral. Bias begins with what stories you cover and then it goes on in terms of who you decide you’re going to talk to about that story, and the parts you are going to include. You are shaping the story all along, and inevitably you are shaping it along the way you view it. You may as well be open about it.
There are constraints when you are supported by advertisers. There’s no question that if a publication depends heavily on advertising you’re going to tread lightly on your biggest advertisers. You’re not going to rock the boat unless there is something so egregious that there is no way to avoid it.
There is also the idea that it is rude to be critical. It is certainly negative. The word negative comes up all the time. If you are critical or questioning the word that is used is negative, and you are just dragging this province down, and you are the reason nothing ever happens here.
How is the Spectator doing as a business?
I am paying my bills, and this is my only source of income and I’m surviving on it. But I’m not at a point yet where I want to be. I want to be able to hire somebody to help with research and I want to be able to pay a couple of freelancers for their contributions, hire a photographer to do some stuff. I have done that, but not yet on a regular basis.
I think my ratio right now is about for every person who pays three people are reading it (after it has been released from the paywall). If they can’t afford $5 a month, I have no problem with that, that’s why we have a so called soft paywall. I put up a paywall for a week and after that it’s free. For five dollars you get everything for the month.
The thing about these startups is that you have to wear all the hats. I like journalism, and that’s where I tend to spend most of my time. There are also things like resetting people’s passwords and making sure there are no computer glitches with the way that the pages are loading.
And then there is marketing and I’m not good at it and I don’t really know how to do it and I don’t like it. But obviously that’s where I have to focus and pay attention.
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