Interview: Newsperson of the Year Ken Whyte

The winner of our first Canadian Newsperson of the Year poll,  Maclean’s editor and publisher Ken Whyte, spoke to Janice Neil about human rights challenges, the state of the news business in Canada and his mission to make Maclean’s a “distinct voice in the conversation.”

LISTEN to the full interview with Ken Whyte.

Whtye on journalists:

“I think most people who are in journalism have — it’s often beaten out of them — but they all have basic instincts for what’s interesting and what’s not. You just have to unleash them a bit.”

On the demise of traditional media:

“One of the things I notice is that the problems aren’t as bad in Canada as they are in the U.S. It doesn’t mean they won’t be very challenging in the next year or two and it’s possible we’ll see some casualties here, but I don’t think things are as bad here as they are in the U.S. I think relatively speaking we’ve got a healthier print environment, we’ve got a lot more two/three newspaper towns and we haven’t seen the double-digit declines in circulation and in advertising that they’re seeing and have been seeing for a year or two now in the U.S. I think some of that will come in ’09, but the problems are much worse in the U.S. Us and the U.K. are relatively healthier.”

On being the first J-Source Canadian Newsperson of the Year:

“I think there is something special but I think it’s not so much the year I had but an issue we were involved in. There was complaints brought to human rights commissions about some journalism we ran at Maclean’s magazine and there was a lot of interest about the complaints in the journalistic community and in the blogosphere in particular.

A lot of online journalists were very interested in what they perceived — what we perceived — as the human right’s commissions and the state encroaching on areas of editorial prerogative. I think they did a terrific job last year of defending press freedoms and they were the ones, I think, who were most active in promoting my candidacy for this award so I’d like to dedicate it to them.”

On solutions to battles with human rights commissions:

“I had some hopes early on that we might see a political solution to
it, that the federal government might take the lead and bring in
legislation to strike down that part of the Canadian Human Rights Act
that allows the commissions to interfere with journalistic expression
and free speech.

But from what I’m hearing in Ottawa, there’s no chance of that
happening. Really, the problem is more at the provincial level than at
the federal level. There’s not a political solution available. We’re
still investigating a legal solution. We think it might be possible,
even though we were successful in B.C., for us to bring a constitutional
challenge to the B.C. Human Rights Act. The major barrier to it at the
moment would probably be expense. It’s probably a $300,000 – $500,000
undertaking and this isn’t the best time to be taking on
extra-curricular expenditures in the print journalism business.”

On revitalizing Maclean’s:

“The major problem that newsweeklies have, and really this is not any different for dailies now, is you have to demonstrate your own relevance in a very consistent and regular way. You have to not simply be another voice in the conversation, but you have to be a distinct voice with something to say and perhaps a unique way of saying it.

We make every decision about every story we cover dependent on whether or not we are adding something to the conversation and to an interesting conversation – something that people really care about and they are interested in. Those may seems like simple things, but they’re not, in my experience, how a lot of news organizations work. But I think it’s imperative that we all work that way in the future and make sure that we are being as relevant as we can for our readers and as engaging as we can for our readers because they’ve got so many other choices.”

LISTEN to the full interview with Ken Whyte.