5 books to whet journalism students’ appetites

By Dan Rowe, Books Editor

By Dan Rowe, Books Editor

The best part of journalism school—better even than the hand-wringing about job prospects, better than CP style quizzes and better still than trying to get sources to return your call when you identify yourself as a student journalist—is the chance to debate journalism’s past, present and future with profs and classmates. Once you earn that hard-won job, you will be too busy doing journalism to read or even think deeply about capital-J journalism. Here, then, are five books that may or may not appear one of your syllabi, but that you should read anyway.

Dependency Road by Dallas Smythe

In your mass communications class, you will almost certainly encounter Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, as well you should. You are probably less likely to come across the work of Saskatoon-born political economist Dallas Smythe. This is an error of omission. His central contribution to our understanding of the media is the idea of the audience as commodity. In short, Smythe argues that the actual product of news and entertainment media is not the stories or shows that they produce but rather the audience—or, to use the vernacular of the present day, eyeballs and clicks that content attracts. Advertisers are interested only in programming that attracts either a large audience or a desirable audience (probably either the rich and/or spendthrift). As the relationship between journalists, the audience and advertisers is being re-made, Smythe’s work in this area is becoming as essential as that of McLuhan and Innis. And it has the added bonus of making us re-consider our role as media consumers.

Related and Recommended: The People’s Platform by Astra Taylor, a Winnipeg-born activist and documentarian, and almost anything by Evgeny Morozov.

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White News by Don Heider

Heider’s slim, accessible volume (published in 2000) researching the lack of diversity in local TV newsrooms and their coverage in otherwise diverse U.S. cities—Albuquerque and Honolulu—is a great eye-opener and can raise good questions about differences and similarities in Canadian newsrooms. It seems likely that the systemic problem of white men managing newsrooms and making decisions about the direction of coverage, while a more diverse cast appears on air, has not improved significantly since Heider did his ethnographic research. And the author’s wide-ranging recommendations for possibly ameliorating the situation are likely to generate debate.

Related and Recommended: Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson.

Loss of Faith by Kim Bolan

There is no substitute for intrepid, dogged reporting. And the Vancouver Sun’s Bolan (from whom I learned a great deal when I briefly shared a cubicle wall with her) is among the handful of the very best newspaper reporters in the country. Her book, Loss of Faith, is about her coverage over many years of the bombing of Air India Flight 182, from the act itself to the disastrous investigation and prosecution. Bolan’s reporting exemplifies the combination of bravery and skill to which every journalist should aspire. She also had more than 20 years to work on this story and develop sources, which is something that fewer journalists may be likely to enjoy in an age of short-term contracts, frequent layoffs and increased demands on their output.

Related and Recommended: Harvey Cashore’s The Truth Shows Up; Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town.

Ego and Ink by Chris Cobb

A couple weeks ago, Maclean’s writer Charlie Gillis noted in a tweet that members of the day-one staff of the National Post now head up The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, The Canadian Press and Maclean’s. Ego and Ink by Chris Cobb, a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen, is about the launch of the Post and the subsequent newspaper wars, which, back in 1998, were about preeminence in the country and Toronto, not for mere survival. The creation of the Post (as well as its eventual sale to Izzy Asper’s Canwest Global) is a seminal moment in Canadian journalism and media history. It also serves as a good entry point to the seemingly endless business deals between an ever dwindling number of media conglomerates that own and operate our major media outlets.

Related and Recommended: Marc Edge’s Asper Nation; Frank Magazine circa 1997-2000.

The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse

Crouse’s frequently assigned classic of life on the campaign trail, focusing on the reporters covering the 1972 U.S. presidential election, contains a lot of names (other than Hunter S. Thompson) that won’t mean much to young readers but remains very valuable. In some ways—chiefly, technological—it shows that campaign coverage has changed enormously. But in other ways—the focus on leaders, the so-called horserace and largely meaningless minutiae—very little has changed. Reading this book in conjunction with election coverage or a political reporting class should elicit new ideas about to retire a lot of old practices.

Related and Recommended: Director Peter Raymont’s NFB documentary History on the Run: The Media and the ’79 Election; Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab; Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes.

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