Nation Building by the Column Inch

How a century-old news cooperative helped Canadians learn who they are

The Canadian Journalism Foundation, an organization that aims to promote excellence in journalism, has a slogan—“as journalism goes, so goes democracy.” It is a lofty ideal and, if it is true, the Canadian Press has surely done its bit for democracy in this country.

CP has been around for almost a century. While its website says “Many Canadians are familiar with THE CANADIAN PRESS credit on countless newspaper stories,” my guess is that most Canadians have never heard of CP. It has been described as one of the most overlooked institutions in Canadian life.

Modelled after Associated Press, the U.S. news wire service, CP was founded as a national not-for-profit cooperative in 1917 by a group of competing newspaper owners who wanted to reduce costs by exchanging news stories rather than hiring reporters all over the country.

When it was founded, Canadian Press had 117 member newspapers (the number of daily newspapers in Canada had peaked in 1913 at 138) with 43 editorial and administrative employees, 14 telegraph operators in seven Canadian bureaus and one in New York.

As Gene Allen’s scholarly Making National News: A History of Canadian Press shows, the way CP operated did much more than cut costs. This complex, nationwide news distribution system played an important role in nation building and the creation of a Canadian identity. And it also had a significant and positive impact on the quality of journalism in Canada.

Here is how the system worked: CP member newspaper editors sent local stories from their papers to central CP “filing editors.” The filing editor would read the dozens of stories and many thousands of words that came in from across the country, and would assess the newsworthiness and suitability of each for the various papers he (it was always a he) was responsible for. In what must have been a frenzy of journalistic productivity, he would then rewrite, shorten and send the stories out, bearing in mind wire capacity and different deadlines in different time zones. The member newspaper editors would choose which stories to run in their local papers. That way a Toronto newspaper could report on a Calgary news story without having a correspondent in Calgary. And all would have the benefit of a correspondent in Ottawa where CP hired its own reporters. The editorial decision making that went into determining which stories to select and send out effectively determined what Canadians knew about their government in Ottawa and about the far-flung regions of the country.

A 1943 magazine article describes the “job memo” one filing editor relied on to help him remember the kinds of stories to send to the papers he was responsible for:

Soo [Sault Ste Marie] wants steel and wolves in full … Kingston gets all drama and Welsh … Orange [Order] celebrations and cheese in full for Woodstock … cheese for Belleville … obits for Galt … odd stories for Peterborough … Brantford likes postwar plans but hates misplaced “todays”; items with morgue-picture possibilities for Welland … rubber for Sarnia.

In 1933, M.E. Nichols, the president of Canadian Press, spelled out how he saw CP’s contribution to nation building: “The Canadian Press through the daily newspapers it serves keeps the people of Canada in daily touch with each other. It makes known to the whole country simultaneously the goings on in every part of the Dominion … If that … does not promote national unity, national consciousness and national understanding, I confess to a warped judgment of the factors and forces that promote the building of a nation.”

 

WARTIME

 

When World War Two broke out, CP was determined to be the source of war news for Canadians. Staff was added in London and New York. The Canadian military developed a close working relationship with CP, viewed by government as useful in the war effort. In 1939 when Gillis Purcell went with the First Canadian Division to England as CP’s war correspondent, his was the only Canadian news organization accredited. Later on when Purcell joined the Canadian military as a public relations officer, CP topped up his military salary by $20 per week, allowing Purcell to assure himself that “it means that I am still in fact as well as heart a CP man.” This caused a few raised eyebrows within the CP membership and the top-up was dropped after a year. In journalism today such an arrangement would be unthinkable.

News about the war was less about the big picture and more about hometown news, letting Canadians see the names of their husbands, fathers and sons in the local paper. In 1942 Ross Munro sent this fulsome dispatch: “Lieutenant O.A. (Hoodley) Nickson of Toronto led the detachments … Sergeants in charge of different sections were Jack Stone, Roly Guiton and W. P. Hubbard, all of Toronto. Riflemen included Bob Catlow, Reg Barrett, Bill Ackerman, George Bolton, who drove a carrier, John Fleming, Robert Menzies.”

In keeping with the times, journalists covering the war tended to write uncritical reports of “our side’s” successes and little information or analysis about military failures or the horrors of war. This cheerleading approach backfired with the 1941 raid on Dieppe, which left CP with what Allen calls “a complicated legacy.” The Canadian reporters who went on the mission were subject to the usual censorship but additionally in this case, under instruction from Lord Mountbatten, were not allowed to file their stories before attending a military briefing the day after the event. Their delayed news reports were dramatic and gripping but failed to report the extent of the casualties, which “were of horrendous proportions. Almost two-thirds of the [5,000] Canadian soldiers who landed at Dieppe were killed, wounded, captured or missing in action, but it took almost a month for this information to be made public.”

Besides censorship there was another explanation for the journalistic lapses. In his landmark book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, Phillip Knightley explains that patriotism and strong personal beliefs in the just nature of that war caused journalists to stumble into the terrain of propaganda.

Some years after the war Purcell wrote a master’s thesis in which he acknowledged that CP had failed on the Dieppe story. Today, in the age of the internet and citizen journalism it would be impossible to contain news as devastating as Dieppe.

 

QUEBEC

 

During the 1960s the rise of Quebec nationalism and the quest for “Canadian identity” thrust CP into a complex debate that continues to this day. What does it mean to be a national institution?

The Quiet Revolution in Quebec might not have been so quiet if Canadian Press had been more attuned to the historic change unfolding there, although that is easier to see in hindsight than it was at the time.

CP, under pressure from its Quebec members, had begun offering a French service in 1951; the English CP Report was translated into French and transmitted. It is not clear if translation went from French to English as well, although it appears not, and there is a suggestion that the French-language papers did not bother sending much copy to CP. What is clear is that there was a distrust of CP among francophone journalists who saw it as an English institution. Some even refused to use its French name, La Presse canadienne, insisting on calling it “Canadian Press.” At CP, as with so many national institutions, the two solitudes prevailed.

At one point, in an astonishing act of obliviousness, CP hired a full-time staff writer to cover Quebec culture who did not speak or understand French. This decision could only have fuelled the demand by some members for a separate French-language news agency. The idea was seriously explored by CP and deemed financially unviable, but the complaint did result in CP signing a contract with Agence France-Presse for international news to serve the French-language members.

There had, however, been progress in Ottawa where, in 1959, a reporter was sent by CP “to report on federal affairs, in French, from the point of view of French Canada.” One far-sighted CP newspaper owner, John Bassett of the Toronto Telegram, argued that “Canada was a bilingual country, and CP as a national organization should be bilingual at the capital.”

When French president Charles de Gaulle visited Quebec City in 1967 and made his famous “vive le Quebec libre” speech, CP was caught in the controversy. Its coverage was criticized by Le Devoir’s eminent intellectual editor Claude Ryan because “it often seemed that CP did not grasp the real meaning of events.” Maurice Dagenais of La Presse accused CP of unbalanced coverage for failing to emphasize that de Gaulle also said “Vive le Canada” four times.

 

EVOLVING JOURNALISM STANDARDS

 

Journalism, as distinct from other professions, operates without government regulation or licence or even much self-regulation. This unencumbered state of existence, now at risk in light of various press controversies such as the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, is based on the underlying democratic principle of free speech.

Although unregulated, journalism operates within a powerful culture of deeply entrenched values and codes of conduct involving fairness, balance, verification and right of reply, which were once learned on the job and are now taught in journalism schools. It was not always thus.

In the heyday of “yellow journalism” in New York in the late 19th century, when William Randolph Hearst waged a circulation war against Joseph Pulitzer, sensational headlines, fake interviews, crime stories and purple prose were the order of the day. Here is David Remnick of The New Yorker introducing a collection of essays by A.J. Liebling: “One of the commonplaces of feature writing at the time was a tendency to embroider. That is, there was a lot of making things up or, at the very least, helping things along. What is now a hanging offense was then a risible demeanor. Details were embellished, colours heightened, dialogue faked.”

In the 1920s, half the daily newspapers in the United States maintained affiliations with political parties. Politicians provided financial support to newspapers with printing contracts, patronage jobs for editors and publishers, and direct contributions of money to start new papers or keep existing ones afloat.

In Canada, the early days of journalism may have been less bare-knuckled but Canadian newspapers also had political affiliations—the Toronto Star was Liberal, The Globe and Mail Tory and, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Calgary Herald, early in the 20th century, used the organizational apparatus of the Alberta Conservative Party to sell subscriptions. Allen reports that the Quebec newspaper Le Soleil put its motto, “Organe du parti liberal” on the front page until the 1950s.

Allen describes how Thomas Green, who worked in CP’s Ottawa bureau in the 1930s, attended the Conservative Party convention both as a reporter for CP and as a party delegate. Moreover, he was a member of the resolutions committee. At the convention, Green handed the resolutions to the CP telegraph operator before giving them to the convention chair! Now, that’s insider journalism.

And there is this description by the news editor in the Ottawa bureau in the 1940s of how political news was gathered by bureau chief R.K. Carnegie:

Once we’d heard a rumor there was a story in one of the government departments. McCook had worked on it, and Flaherty and Blackburn, and they got nowhere. About 11.45 Randall or I would go into Carnegie and say, “We hear that so and so … and can’t raise it.”

“Leave it with me, leave it with me, John,” he would say.

So we’d leave it with Andy, and at two o’clock Andy would come back from the Rideau Club, having had lunch with half the cabinet, and say, “John, I’ll write the story.” And he would.

Contrast that cozy relationship with the icy interaction between Ottawa politicians and the press today. While writing his book Harperland: The Politics of Control, veteran Ottawa columnist Lawrence Martin got nowhere in his quest for an interview with Stephen Harper. So he went after others close to the prime minister, including Harper’s campaign manager Doug Finley. Martin writes: “I worked through intermediaries to try and get to him. The word came back, ‘Tell Lawrence Martin to go piss up a river’.” Martin goes on to say: “Others—even old Tory senators whose jobs were safe—were terrified of what Mr. Harper might do to them if they uttered a word. They wouldn’t even talk off the record.”

Despite those examples from CP’s Ottawa bureau, the fact that CP was owned by media companies of varying political stripes meant that CP reporters developed a neutral—some said dull—news reporting style acceptable to all member papers. As early as 1927, an internal document titled “Instructions for Correspondents” set the tone: “The Canadian Press is a non–partisan organization, serving daily newspapers of every political stripe, and in politics wants records of fact without comment. Endeavour to keep all color and prejudice out of despatches.”

This approach laid the groundwork for the professionalization of journalism in Canada by setting standards that spread to other news organizations. CP published its first style guide in 1940, setting down rules about writing but also guidelines on standards of accuracy, journalistic sources and balance. Because member papers all across the country used CP stories daily, their editors and reporters were influenced by these standards.

The year 2010 marked the end of an era. Canadian Press was sold as a for-profit business to a consortium of three of its members, Torstar Corp, The Globe and Mail and La Presse. In the preceding years, facing the global financial crisis, the general decline of newspapers and changes in technology, many news organizations had pulled out of the cooperative and CP was at risk of going under.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The story of Canadian Press is a romantic tale of a great Canadian institution infused with high purpose and an uncanny knack for survival. It is a story of power struggles, financial crises and many strong-willed individuals. But this is not a romantic book. It is a detailed academic work drawing on a myriad of facts gleaned from archival documents, complete with nearly a hundred pages of citations, positing concepts such as “mediated publicness” and frequently reminding me of Emperor Joseph II’s famous complaint about Mozart’s music: “Too many notes!” The book may be of small interest to a general audience, but to those of us who follow with fascination the continuing evolution of journalism it is a landmark achievement not to be missed.

It is often said that Canadians do not know their own history. There is something quintessentially Canadian about the history of Canadian Press. It was a testing ground for all of our great challenges—Quebec nationalism, relations with the U.S. and regionalism. It lasted as a co-op for nearly a century without anyone much noticing. It is to historian Gene Allen’s great credit that he did notice.