Tag Archives: Guelph Mercury Tribune

The slow death of newspapers and magazines results in a loss of editorial integrity burnished by technology.

By Gerry Barker

January 29, 2018

It was two years ago when the TorStar subsidiary, Metroland publishing, shut down the Guelph Mercury daily newspaper following more than 100 years of publishing. The newspaper staff was dismissed and within days the memory of the once fine small city newspaper faded to black.

Gone and forgotten

Remaining behind is the twice-weekly Guelph Tribune, a free circulation tabloid with an allocated news space ratio of about 20 per cent compared to advertising. That does not include a booming insert of advertising flyers.

At the time, the newspaper had an editorial staff of three including the editor. Doug Hallett was the chief reporter who covered the municipal political beat. He resigned last year and the Trib staff now consists of four editorial staff to cover the city of 131,000.

In an extensive review of the “Crisis in Canadian Journalism,” TorStar chairman and editorial veteran of the Toronto Star lamented how the newspaper industry was losing many reporters and editors. It was due in part to declining revenues and fierce competition from television and the social media.

I spent 23 years at the Star as a reporter, photographer, editor and assistant managing editor. It was the greatest experience of my life, working in the newsroom of the greatest newspaper that this country read daily.

The backbone of the Star editorial staff was the highly skilled and motivated reporters and editors. The saying in the business was that the Star was an editor’s paper while the Globe and Mail was a writer’s paper.

The inference is the demand by the Star’s publishers to first get the story, then make sure it’s accurate. The days I spent there were exciting and fulfilling.

The Toronto Star was the reliable crucible of Canada print journalism.

That was then and this is now

I am saddened to see the Star today dealing with diminishing advertising yet publishing great beats and investigative stories that are maintaining the high standards of editorial excellence and responsibility.

The greatest danger to the large urban newspapers in Canada is the growing presence of amateur reporters not knowing the importance of getting both sides of the story. The Internet is flooded with blogs and websites, few of which, the authors have any journalistic experience.

Journalism is frequently described as a craft. It is much more than that. It requires training, experience and dedication to participate in the production of a new product, meeting deadlines every day, six days a week.

Delivering in-depth news daily is the goal, something that is missing in today’s news gathering environment.

People want their news instantly. That’s why the cable news channels with their 24-7 political coverage are so popular. While newspapers are being forced to lay off reporters and editors, the vacuum is being filled with sloppy rubbish reporting in many cases.

TV news is now decided by stopwatch without the emphasis on filling the time slot rather than telling the full story.

That is very apparent in Guelph where the details of complex and important stories are ignored by the media.

I am a blogger

I must confess that I write a blog as many of you know and my motivation is simple. I pay taxes in Guelph. I know a story when I see it. Yet there is not one social media outlet, TV or newspaper in this city that makes any attempt to investigate the operations of the administration and its reasons for judgment and action.

The recent merger of Guelph Hydro and Alectra Utilities is an example of a failure to investigate what was behind this proposal. This is a story that has yet to end.

It’s because most media haven’t a clue, don’t spend the time checking out city PR handouts or spending any money to improve editorial coverage.

Leading the group is the Guelph Mercury Tribune. Ironically part of the TorStar-owned publications, that masquerades as “City News” pages in every edition. The content is produced by the city communications department and paid by the taxpayers.

This is one of the most deceitful abuses of news space to portray advertising as news and not identify the content as paid advertising.

Since we moved to Guelph 15 years ago, the City of Guelph has paid millions to Metroland Publishing for these faux news pages. Based on line rates of three years ago, the annual cost is estimated to be $500.000.

In my opinion, this is the main reason that the paper never investigates any city decision, criticizes council or the staff or questions operations.

Insuring content control

For the city, it’s like buying an insurance policy to protect its interests, at the public’s expense.

So the people are denied legitimate news coverage by the only newspaper left making Guelph a desert in the field of responsible journalism.

Guelph Speaks has consistently written reports that dig under this artificial news barrier that denies the people of the city the truth of many decisions by city council that has cost many millions of public dollars.

But you’ll rarely read about it in the Tribune. They paper only prints what they want you to read and believe.

So this is an enigma. The great Toronto Star struggles, maintaining its journalistic standards and integrity while the Tribune takes cash from the city to publish advertising under the guise of news.

When it comes to integrity, the Tribune’s interest lies only on the bottom line.

The irony is that the profits made by the Tribune go indirectly to help keep the Star afloat.

It remains too high a price to pay.

 

 

 

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Here are some thoughts: Monopoly is just not a board game

By Gerry Barker

Weekend edition July 8, 2017

I am a curious kind of guy. It goes with a lifetime of being a reporter.

As many viewers know, I am not a fan of the Guelph Mercury Tribune. The owner of the twice a week publication is TorStar Corporation through a subsidiary called Metroland Publishing.

This organization owns and manages some 52-community newspapers, big and small, across southern Ontario. Metroland’s goal is to deliver profits to the mother ship, the Toronto Star. The Star remains a great newspaper despite degradation of its ad base, major staff reductions and farming out its production facilities to Transcontinental, a major print production group.

There exists an editorial firewall between the Star and Metroland Publishing. Metroland’s chief goal is to sell advertising to create profits. There is nothing wrong with that provided that the editorial content is usually a ratio of 60 per cent compared to 40 per cent advertising.

But editors and reporters cost money. The larger papers in the Metroland group provide greater funding for editorial personnel than say, the Guelph Tribune. When you have your Tribune delivered on Tuesday and Thursday, the 60/40 ratio is in general terms, reversed. The Thursday edition containing usually 42 pages plus a boatload of flyers is a classic Metroland strategy.

Think about this. The Tribune is the only print newspaper in our city of 131,000. Metroland folded the Mercury daily 18 months ago. The Mercury building on Macdonnell Street has been sold leaving the city with only a memory. It left an enormous editorial vacuum that has not been filled by its sister paper.

The connection between the Tribune and the city allows the administration to have a virtual monopoly controlling the news. One of the reasons the Tribune is soft in its news coverage is the paid adverting it receives twice a week from the city called “City News.” The city communications department controls the content. It’s a department that has 13 staffers, more than twice the number of Tribune editorial employees.

Can you imagine the Toronto Star allowing this to occur? Allowing the city administration to control the editorial content of the paper? In Guelph, this has been going on for ten years. For much of that time the Mercury provided a counter balance in terms of news coverage.

I speak from personal experience. A year ago I supported Guelph resident Pat Fung’s financial analysis comparing the city’s operating and capital spending to peer Cities Including Kitchener and Cambridge. Mr. Fung is an experienced financial expert with Chartered Accountant and Certified Public Accountant credentials.

When he asked the Tribune to report on the results, he was told it would take too long to check the facts. He took that as a no. I suggested we take out an ad in the Tribune explaining the report and its impact on city finances. After accepting the copy for the ad, the day before publication I was informed that the paper would not run the ad as they considered it inflammatory. Funds donated by citizens are held in a trust account to be used to promote and ensure distribution of an updated Fung Report next year prior to the election.

That order preventing publication had to be a Metroland executive decision. Of course the information, thoroughly researched and confirmed, was highly critical of the city administration. But Metroland didn’t want it published because it reflected negatively on the cozy relationship between the Tribune and the administration.

That friends, is called a monopoly that includes censorship. The administration controls the message, not the newspaper management. Most news is rewrites of city press releases. There is no attempt to check the details or investigate the background of decisions made by council.

The latest example was the Tribune’s failure to investigate the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. scandal that has cost the city millions. This is a tough and complex story because of the manipulation of city-owned agencies, including Guelph Hydro to pursue an abortive attempt to create self-sufficiency of electric power.

How many millions are involved? It’s difficult to pin down but it appears to be more than $100 million pending disposition of assets and a large pair of senior unsecured debentures owed by GMHI. That debt amounts is $94.283 million.

The Tribune has not covered this major story for more than a year except for press releases provided by the city or statements made in open council.

Why do I bother telling viewers about this corporate management of information?

I believe it is vital for citizens to be informed, have access to public information and be free to criticize and comment without fear of retribution.

We are the real shareholders of the Corporation of the City of Guelph, and not the employees including the members of council who are elected to represent our interests.

 

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When it comes to the Tribune’s coverage of our city’s governance, you only get what you pay for

Commentary by Gerry Barker

Editor of Guelph Speaks

June 26,1017

Recently our twice-a-week paper published an editorial saying, the press will not be intimidated. Really, Tribune, look inwardly when you pontificate about press intimidation. Your newspaper is the print parrot for the city administration and its influence has been bought and paid for.

Your corporate owners give journalism a bad name. The Tribune organization is geared to sell advertising and fill in the gaps with soft material usually promoting self-serving causes, including that of the city administration. Yes sir, the Tribune will not be intimidated.

Guelph deserves a real newspaper not a pretender.

When the city pays the Tribune to promote its causes employing so-called “City News” pages that is a subservient example of the advertising department running the content of the newspaper. The tail wagging the dog, so to speak

The kicker is that the citizens are paying an estimated $400,000 a year to purchase space for “City News” content to subsidize the owners, Metroland Publishing, a division of TorStar.

Last year, the Tribune refused to even cover the deep, independent analysis of the city’s operational and capital budgets. When the author, Guelph resident Pat Fung, CPA, CA, revealed the high costs of overhead compared to peer cities, the Tribune refused to even print a story about it. The editor said the staff did not have the time to check the facts.

For the record, the “facts” were taken from the city’s own Financial Information Reports over a four-year period plus those of other cities and the BMA management consultant’s review of city operations.

There is nothing new about that excuse in order not to rile the city administration.

The paper then refused to accept an ad to detail the Fung report. At first accepted it, then refused to publish it.

Tribune readers were never informed of the Fung report details.

So the paper decided it didn’t want any support or commentary about this revealing report that affected citizens. Despite censoring the Fung Report, eventually it led to many key senior officials leaving the city.

This is how the only major print media in Guelph controls the message emanating from One Carden Street.

But you didn’t read in the Tribune why the management people were leaving the city.

Among them, City Solicitor Donna Jacques resigned. Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Ann Pappert, resigned May 26, 2016, ten days after co-signing a devastating report indicting of the Guelph Municipal Holdings Incorporated (GMHI), in which she acted as Chief Executive Officer for four years. Former Chief Financial Officer Al Horsman left in August 2015. Even the present CAO, Derrick Thomson resigned shortly after release of the 2015 Sunshine List but was reinstated following Ms. Pappert’s resignation.

But this developing story in which the top staff jobs were being vacated, along with a number of lower-level managers, received scant coverage in the Tribune.

This past week we learned of the audit performed on GMHI and Guelph Hydro by a top accounting firm, KPMG, revealing losses of $161.480 million. It included two senior unsecured debentures in which GMHI owes $103.450 million and has failed to pay the interest for two years on the greater of the two loans.

Yet the full report of the audit was carried on the city’s website for anyone to see.

Did Tribune readers learn about this in the week the news was released? As the saying goes, the Tribune doesn’t have time to check the facts. It was a professional audit covering 2015 and 2016.

Are Tribune readers informed of the multi-million losses by the city waste management department in the past eight years? Or why senior managers have left?

Did readers learn of the Rizzo Brothers deal to bring Detroit recyclables for processing in Guelph? Did they learn that an extra shift was hired to process the materials? Were they told that the deal collapsed and cost the city $1.5 million? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Has the Tribune revealed the number of homes in the city where garbage and recyclables are not picked up by the city? Our home is situated in Guelph Waste Management’s no pick-up zone. The delicious irony occurred this week when we received a colorful folder that explained how to sort our garbage, which bins to use and other useful information about pre-sorting and handling our waste. Trouble is, we were never issued bins.

For the 14 years we have lived in Guelph the city has refused to pick-up our waste. Our small community of homes must pay a private contractor to do the job. In all those years, council and staff have refused not only to service our street but also refuse to reduce that portion of our taxes that include waste services.

The Tribune ignores this travesty of responsibility that affects an estimated 6,000 condo and homes in the city not serviced by the waste management system.

Why doesn’t the Tribune write about the closed session meetings of council including one held December 10, 2015 in which four top managers were awarded $98,202 salary increases?

Three months later, the citizens were informed about these increases when the provincial Sunshine List was published showing the salaries of all public servants in Ontario earning more that $100,000 a year. This information is provided by the city but the citizens were not informed..

Did the Tribune interview citizens and, more particularly, members of council to investigate and report this story? Did the paper analyze the data in the Sunshine List pertaining to Guelph?

Why are the taxpayers being forced to pay for city advertising in the Tribune? What other newspaper has a deal like this? We are paying the paper to publicize the narrow interests of the city, not necessarily those of the citizens. Now put that together with the highly controlled news coverage of the paper that relies on city press releases and controlled interviews with employees.

The history of the failed GMHI program was barely covered in the Tribune, yet the investigation of the growing evidence of huge financial losses was presented starting in mid 2015.

Then along came the leak of some 53,000 confidential city emails to the lawyer representing the fired former Chief Building Inspector, Bruce Poole. The electronic news source, Guelph Today, broke the story on a Friday but we didn’t read about in the Tribune until the following Tuesday. The Tribune may have put the story up on its website but the newspaper readers did not see it until four days later

In fairness, the Tribune only publishes Tuesday and Thursday each week. When the Mercury daily was operating in theory, it would have published the story the next day’s Saturday edition.

So we are a city of 131,000 people without a daily newspaper just the ad-laden twice a week Tribune. Advertising is a form of news that is useful to many readers.

But when the owners of the Tribune do not use part of that advertising revenue to cover the real news, then Guelph does not have a progressive, responsible print media

The real danger is a newspaper should be a permanent record of the events in the municipality in which it has exclusive print coverage

By skipping complex and important events and relying on the municipality’s slanted communications that frequently leaves out important aspects of the city’s

administration. The nuances of news events are rarely explored and reported.

Sadly, the Guelph Mercury Tribune has reflected a narrow point of view that does not fulfill the news needs of the citizens. It does cheerfully accept their tax dollars to publish non-news devoid of substance or interest.

Final point, The City of Guelph has 13 employees in the communications department. That’s more than twice the number of editorial employees at the Tribune.

No wonder this is the paper we get. That brings up the old adage: “You only get what you pay for.”

 

 

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How a failing Guelph administration is protected by a Mayor defying criticism

By Gerry Barker

October 3, 2016

When Mayor Guthrie announced his intention to run for mayor in January 2014, he talked about “For a Better Guelph.” He also mentioned the “Guelph Factor” as part of the problems facing the city and his reason for running.

But then, he campaigned on holding property tax increases to two percent or the

Consumer Price Index (CPI) that in 2015 was 1.1 per cent. In 2015, his first year in office, the Guelph property tax increase was 3.96 per cent including the effect of the assessment increase on properties.

On December 10, the Mayor presided over a closed session of council that approved paying four senior staffers $137,894 in salary increases for 2015. As this was a closed session, the reasons for including the discussion and vote have yet to be made public.

The four senior managers, CAO Ann Pappert, DCAO’s Mark Amorosi, Derrick Thomson, and Al Horsman received excessive increases that became public with the publication of the Ontario Sunshine List last March. Mr. Horsman resigned in August 2015. Ms. Pappert resigned last May. Mr. Thomson also resigned in April to take another job but was brought back to take over the CAO position in June.

Is this the Mayor’s new interpretation of “A Better Guelph?”

Then along comes a Guelph resident, Pat Fung, CPA CA who examines the audited Financial Information Reports published by the city for the previous four years. He also examined the 2014 BMA consultant’s report of city operations.

This culminated in a detailed analysis of the city’s operational costs, compared with similar sized cities. It broke out the costs of the various departments and institutions of the city and compared them to the Ontario averages.

Mr. Fung, acting as a concerned citizen, sent each member of council a copy of his analysis August 18. Last Monday night, he made a five-minute presentation summarizing his findings. The council response was zero, although the large crowd in attendance applauded the presentation.. In fact, the Mayor shut him down when he directed a question to DCAO Amorosi.

The Mayor followed it up commenting: “I find it a bit disturbing that people would come in here and challenge our staff in this way.”

What does Mayor Guthrie mean when he adds, “in this way?” Are the people he represents not supposed to complain when accurate facts of financial mismanagement are exposed? Which “way” should the people react and respond?

Our Mayor seems to have drifted away from the people, who supported him, to go out of his way to protect the hired help. Does he seriously believe that there aren’t people in the city who clearly understand the gross mismanagement of the city that he promised to correct?

How does a credit rating reduce operational costs?

If the Mayor doesn’t understand the financial state of the city, how does he fulfill his promise of a “Better Guelph?” Does he believe that an AA+ credit rating by Standard and Poors (S&P) makes it all better?

You remember the S&P rating company. Between 2006 and 2008, it gave inflated credit ratings to mortgage-backed securities sold by most major U.S. and global banks. The S&P ratings nearly collapsed the global economy when millions of so-called investments were found to be worthless, except for the people who sold them using S&P credit ratings to support their validity.

Some Questions: The staff reported that S&P gave the city the AA+ credit rating in 2013 same as it is today. Did the city pay for this S&P report and how much did it cost? Why is there a three-year gap between the reports? How does this pat on the back credit rating affect operational costs of the City of Guelph? Answer: It has nothing to do with operational costs. Finally, when the city borrows money, it backs the debt with the assets of a $500 million corporation as collateral. This applies to most Ontario municipalities who borrow money. But then, Guelph already exceeds its debt ceiling as set by city councils.

Aren’t the city staff and some members of council applying the same tactic to misinform the citizens and lull them into not complaining? It appears that the Mayor has joined in that chorus of dumbing us all down.

Which brings us to the public financing of the Guelph Mercury Tribune

When Pat Fung took his report to the Tribune for publication, he was told they couldn’t run it because it was “too long and too political.” At no time did Editor Doug Coxson offer to have a reporter review Pat’s analysis to develop a news story.

By any interpretation, it is a news story and worthy of coverage.

I spoke with Pat and suggested we take out an advertisement in the paper to print the details of his report. I also agreed to raise the money for the ad.

I delivered the copy to the paper last Tuesday that the ad representative accepted and downloaded from UBS drive. I also presented a cheque for $2,083 to pay for the ad. On Wednesday morning, I checked to see a finished proof of the ad and was told there were “red flags” about the copy. And there had to be changes.

I asked if the ad was to run Thursday and was told no, not until the paper approves the copy. I requested the objections in writing and was told they would not comply but the ad rep would give a brief summary of the objections. These included lack of documentation, inflammatory content and details of who was placing the ad and contact numbers.

It was obvious, Metroland Publishing, the owners of the paper, had made a decision not to support the Fung analysis, either in the editorial section or a paid ad.

Now this deliberate blocking of free expression is going to be forwarded to the National Press Council for adjudication. The complaint will name the owners, TorStar Corporation, its subsidiary Metroland Publishing and The Guelph Mercury Tribune.

It’s astonishing, that in this day and age that a newspaper, enjoying a monopoly as the only paper in the City of Guelph, refuses to print a legitimate and accurate analysis without even attempting to review it or write a news story.

Instead, the paper published a news story with the heading: “Persistent city finance critic rebuffed at Guelph Council meeting.” Had the reporter read the Fung analysis? Did the editor even consider doing a news story about a citizen, trained and experienced in his profession, regarding the financial status of our city?

The answer my friends, is simple. The Mercury Tribune receives an estimated $350,000 to $500,000 a year from the city for publishing the “City News” pages in every edition of the twice-weekly newspaper. Those ads are paid by public funds so we have forcibly become partners with a newspaper. A newspaper that is biased favouring its city ads client and refuses to recognize its responsibilities to its readers who have legitimate causes and deserve space in the paper.

Citizens are victims in this unholy alliance between the city administration and this newspaper.

So much for democracy and free speech.

*            *            *            *

An important message from the editor

Dear Donor:

In the last three weeks, I solicited funds to pay for a full-page advertisement in the Guelph Tribune to reproduce the excellent analysis of the City of Guelph’s financial condition, compiled by Guelph resident, Pat Fung, CPA, CA.

I regret to inform you that the Guelph Tribune refused to publish Mr. Fung’s report as editorial comment using the excuse it was too long and too political. But then, the paper refused to allow citizen’s to purchase ad space to expose Mr. Fung’s details of the state of city finances.

I am personally embarrassed over these developments that I believe is nothing but planned suppression of the news that affects our community. I made a commitment to all donors to ensure that more residents would receive the Fung analysis. I can say now that it won’t happen, using the Tribune.

But, there is active planning to pressure the Tribune and extend the reach of www.guelphspeaks.ca, the only consistent critic of the city administration and supporter of the Fung Report.

We are appealing to the National Press Council to adjudicate a complaint that the newspaper, restricted fair comment by denying accommodating coverage of the Fung report on the news pages, but denied our attempt to publish the details in a paid advertisement. This is a clear violation of journalistic ethics and responsibility to the readership by suppressing information of vital public concern and interest.

We are not going to let up spreading details of Pat Fung’s analysis of the financial condition of our city. Doing this will require accumulating funds to inform residents of the details. Without access to the newspaper, we must seek other means of communication to express our points of view, both in print and social media using the Internet.

Accordingly, I will refund any donation made for this cause, if requested.

Please email gerrybarker76@gmail.com if you want your donation refunded. Please include your full address and email ID.

Remember why we are here. There will be an election in 2018. If we fail to plan and fund our point of view now, the outcome will not be attractive.

Next time we have to be sure. This is only the beginning of a long march to create real change.

Thanks again for your support and I hope we can count on you in the future.

Sincerely,

Gerry Barker

Editor, http://www.guelphspeaks.ca

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