An open letter to Ontario Press Councils new boss

Earlier this year, Concordia journalism professor Brian Gabrial suggested Canada’s press councils have a choice: make big changes, or fade to black.
Press councils across Canada are declining because they lack relevance,
credibility and money, he warned. Yet the need for a watchdog over
journalism’s ethics has never been greater, and it’s time to choose
between accepting a slow death and taking some bold — and controversial
— moves.

The opportunity for change has arrived for the Ontario Press Council. Don McCurdy was recently elected to replace outgoing executive director Mel Sufrin, who has held the top spot for 23 years. The council is funded by the province’s newspapers and is tasked with reviewing complaints against them. McCurdy, the former executive and managing editor of the Waterloo Record, thinks the council should also promote a free press.

“Everyone is looking for a voice and they count on their newspapers to provide that. The best journalism in the country is still done by newspapers and it’s important that it’s done fairly and accurately — and with purpose,” McCurdy told the Toronto Star.

J-Source asked Gabrial to offer some advice to McCurdy. In an open letter (below), he provides a few
tips on how the new director can revitalize the organization. (You can also read McCurdy’s tips for
handling critique on J-Source).

November 9, 2010
Dear Don McCurdy,

Congratulations on accepting the challenge to reinvigorate the Ontario Press Council, a truly worthwhile organization.  While I don’t need to remind you of the big tasks ahead, I would like to offer this very short “to do” list for your consideration:

1.  Be new (not old media).  Recently you were quoted as saying “The council is looking to update itself in some ways.”   No better place to start than with a redesigned, user-friendly and interactive website.  While this means committing scarce resources ($), it will be worth it.  The last time someone updated the current website was in 2007!  It’s time.

 2.   Be visible.  Hit the education circuit.  Make yourself available to journalism ethics classes in programs around the province, including high schools.  It’s a very inexpensive way to get the Press Council some visibility and its message out to the community.

3.  Be available.  Help the Press Council become the “go to” source for Ontario’s journalists who have questions about their own ethical practice.  Not every journalist has an ombudsman with advice waiting in the wings.  The Press Council can fill that void, giving journalists, especially free-lancers and bloggers, an experienced hand to guide them.

That’s it!  

Because I believe that we need press councils more than ever, I wish you only the greatest success in your new role. 

Best regards,
Brian Gabrial
Department of Journalism, Concordia University