Monday, November 09, 2015

Letter from Managua: Bright lights, poor country

If you’re in a window seat, you probably see the giant yellow trees of life before you land in Managua.
They’re hard to miss. About 21 metres tall - imagine a five-storey building - and 13 metres across, 17,000 bright yellow lights on each one. Some 134 and counting are scattered across Managua - in the centre of rotondas (roundabouts), in boulevards and in a dense array along Avenida Bolivar, the main street leading down to the lakefront.
‘Que bonita,’ we said to our taxi driver as we drove past the trees one night early in our stay a year ago. 
He grunted. A lot of people without electricity in their houses, he said, and the government is putting up pretty trees. Who’s paying the bills to keep the lights on? What do they cost? 
Good questions, and the first indication that the trees - pretty as they are - were not universally beloved.
The trees are a pet project of Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega. Murillo, who is also communications minister and the only spokesperson for the government, is interesting - educated in England and Switzerland, a revolutionary and a poet who appears in public draped in flowing scarves and a dizzying number of bracelets, necklaces and rings.
Murillo had the first eight metal trees put up in 2013 for the annual rally to celebrate the 1979 Sandinista victory and and the resignation of Antonio Somoza. The design is based Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting of the tree of life, a powerful image. 
Since then, Murillo has kept on planting the metal trees around around the city. The
Rotonda Hugo Chavez near our old house had three of them and a giant illuminated portrait of the late Venezuelan president, a benefactor of Nicaragua.
When we returned from Canada in September, a new copse of trees had appeared in different colours. The bright yellow has been joined by greens and blues and reds and purples. 
There is a small forest in the new waterfront park on Lake Managua, and the push is on to have more ready by December and La Purisma - celebrating the conception of Mary - and Christmas. On our way home from a play last week, we spotted the white-hot lights as welders assembled more trees in a field near the central square.(Why is there a field near the central square? A 1972 earthquake flattened the city and aid that was supposed to support rebuilding was stolen by the Somozas. Managua was rebuilt in a sprawling, decentralized way. Some 43 years after the earthquake, the old cathedral on the main square is still unsafe to enter.)
La Prensa, one of the two main newspapers, has been taking a critical look at the trees of life. The stories noted the cost, at $25,000 U.S. each, is now about $3.4 million. The electricity bill is about $1.1 million a year, La Prensa said. 
That’s a lot of money in a poor country. At least 30 per cent of Nicaraguans live in poverty. Probably more. About 22 per cent of the population didn’t have electricity in 2012, according to the World Bank.
La Prensa found experts to say what could have been done with the money spent on the electric trees - replant the region around Managua with real trees, or bring electricity to thousands of homes.
I understand politics in Canada. I figured out the politics of Honduras in about six months.
But Nicaragua is more complex. 
The media aren’t much help. The newspapers are anti-Ortega. La Prensa, in every story that mentions Ortega, refers to him as the “unconstitutional president.” (The constitution limited presidents to one term; that was changed to allow Ortega to continue to govern. He’s on his third term.) The TV stations are largely pro-government. 
There are big protests, especially about the government’s plan to let a Chinese billionaire build a canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. But a Cid Gallup poll last month found 66 per cent of Nicaraguans gave Ortega a positive approval rating. The opposition is divided and, from my perspective as a visitor, ineffectual.
And after 36 years, Daniel Ortega’s role as leader of the Sandinista revolution is still powerful. We rented a house in Leon earlier this year. There was a little red and black concrete monument, a couple of feet tall, that said our neighbourhood was called the Barrio 4 de Mayo, in honour of four young men dragged from their homes by Somoza’s National Guard and killed on May 4, 1979, barely two months before the revolution triumphed. 
Our neighbour told Jody how her two brothers were executed in the street, where children now played.
Maybe Ortega has disappointed. Maybe the trees are a wasteful extravagance. But many Nicaraguans remember how it used to be, in the days when death came in the night.

Murillo seemed unchastened by the media attention. More trees would be going up, bringing “beauty, colour and love” to Managua, she told the media.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clark scandal is about corruption and an attack on democracy, not just FOI

In my long-ago days running newspapers, we were preparing - once again - for a trip to the Labour Relations Board for some sort of hearing.
Our labour lawyer had come over from Vancouver as we sorted through the documents we were legally required to disclose to the union's lawyer in advance of the hearing.
The HR vice-president from Toronto who was 'helping' with negotiations and strategy came across a note she had scribbled on a scrap of paper - a few words, a thought during a meeting.
"I don't have to disclose that," she said. "It's practically a doodle."
And the lawyer, very pleasantly, told her that she did have to disclose and he wasn't going to stand for anything less than total adherence to the rules.
I'd always like him. I liked him more after that.
Which provides context for my Tyee column on the Liberal government's willingness to break the law to protect its own interests.
In the column, I write:
"The state has immense power, and politicians and their operatives are motivated to wield that power to protect their own interests. Citizens, ultimately, are protected by the rule of law. If the state's agents put themselves above the law, citizens have lost the most important thing standing between them and oppression."
That's what is at stake in this case.
You can read the column here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A good - and bleak - look at Postmedia's drift toward the rocks

The Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw has a good piece on Postmedia today, confirming the bleak future and lack of any real plan for Canada’s largest newspaper company.
No one can see an end to revenue declines that have come every quarter since Postmedia scooped up Canwest newspaper properties as they headed to bankruptcy, the article confirms.
And Postmedia management has no idea what to do about it and no vision for a sustainable future for the company, at least based on Bradshaw’s piece.
I especially liked CEO Paul Godfrey’s comments on the cuts that have damaged the quality of the newspapers and service to advertisers.
“We’ve said over the last five years, three or four times, God we can’t go any further [with cuts], we can’t go any further. And yet we always have been able to,” he said. But at what cost? “That’s the big question,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows when they’ve gone too far until they’ve gone too far.”
Candid, I suppose. But hardly suggesting management with a plan.
Godfrey also confirmed Postmedia’s attempt to build digital audiences and revenues with tablet and smartphone products hasn’t worked.
“Mr. Godfrey is pressing ahead with a “four-platform” revamp, which has built new apps for smartphones and tablets and redesigned print editions and websites at the Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette and Ottawa Citizen. The rollout has been on pause while the company retools some aspects – “We learned a lot; everything we did wasn’t great,” Mr. Godfrey said – but will resume soon with the Edmonton Journal and Windsor Star.  According to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, however, daily circulation of digital editions on phones and tablets at the Citizen and Gazette are about 11,000 for each paper, excluding copies used for education, compared with about 65,000 and 55,000 copies respectively for print.”
But “pressing ahead” hardly seems accurate. Godfrey announced that four-platform plan in the company’s 2012 annual report, promising "a laser focus on accelerating the transformation.”
Three years later, only three papers have implemented the plan, apparently without much success.
There are no magic solutions for newspapers. But Bradshaw’s piece paints a bleak picture of the future for Postmedia and its network of papers.
I’ve written about Postmedia’s woes and lack of direction before. Just search on Postmedia on the blog, or check out my recent piece for The Tyee here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Glacier Media, and more bad news for the future of newspapers

It’s a bad sign when even newspaper companies no longer like the business.
Glacier Media’s latest quarterly report, released last week, suggested the corporation has pretty much given up on a long-term future for its 30 newspapers across B.C.
Vancouver-based Glacier had been seen as a newspaper company (to the detriment of its share price). But it also has information services aimed at more specialized markets - real estate, agriculture, energy and mining, for example.
And that, management says, is where the corporation’s future lies. Newspapers are in decline. The company’s plan is to extract cash during their remaining time and invest it in businesses with growth prospects.
Glacier puts it fairly bluntly: “The Company’s objective is to grow its business information assets and the portion of cash flow generated by these operations, which have higher growth profiles and valuations, and harvest the cash flow from community media assets and reduce the related financial and operating exposure.”
Conventional wisdom has been that small community newspapers - the core of Glacier’s holdings - have a brighter future than urban dailies.
But the corporation no longer shares that optimism.
Newspapers do “generate significant cash flow and provide scale for the Company,” the quarterly report says. “Efforts will be made to restructure community media assets to create greater direct value and simplicity for Glacier, or monetize where appropriate value can be realized.” (Restructure usually means cuts. Monetize means sell, which raises some other interesting questions. )
It’s hard to argue with management’s conclusions.
Glacier’s newspaper revenue fell 9.8 per cent in the last quarter, continuing a long skid. And that is after the corporation swapped papers with Black Press in December to eliminate competition in parts of the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island and, theoretically, increase profitability.
Newspapers still provide about 65 per cent of the corporation’s revenues. (Hence the reference to providing “scale.” Glacier is a small company without the newspaper revenues.)
But the newspaper profit margins are shrinking. On an operating basis, the business information division produced earnings equal to 27 per cent of revenue; for newspapers the return is nine per cent. (Before joint administration costs, interest, taxes and depreciation.) 
This is the first time Glacier has reported the results of its two divisions separately, as it moves to redefine the corporation.
There was another first. Glacier bought the Victoria Times Colonist in 2011, as part of an $87-million deal that included two other small dailies and 20 weeklies. Postmedia’s community papers in the Lower Mainland were likely the prize that Glacier wanted.
The corporation has acknowledged, vaguely, that it is not the sole owner, describing “certain assets acquired from Postmedia” as “Joint Ventures and Associates.”
In the latest report, after the swap with Black Press, it specifically put the Times Colonist in that category, without saying who was the “associate” involved.
An informed bet would be that Glacier’s associate is David Radler, Conrad Black’s long-time business partner jailed for mail fraud. The corporation has partnered with Radler in newspaper properties in Alberta, the Okanagan and the U.S. He is still, apparently, taking a management or advisory role at the Times Colonist.
Which raise some interesting speculation about the plan to “monetize” its newspaper assets. The Times Colonist, as a daily newspaper in a mid-size city, never fit with Glacier’s focus. It’s even possible Postmedia forced Glacier to take the Victoria daily if it wanted the Lower Mainland community papers.
If Glacier wants out, Radler is the person most likely to take over.
Footnote: I have sat through this movie before. My stints as publisher in Peterborough and Victoria came as the Thomson Corporation made one last stab at bringing growth to its newspapers in Canada and the U.S. It decided, after four or five years of effort, that the future was bleak. It sold the newspapers and invested in high-value information services. Glacier is taking the same route.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why are people defending Evan Solomon? I'd fire him

I’m baffled by people arguing that CBC host Evan Solomon shouldn’t have been fired.
The conflict of interest seems obvious.
Solomon was inviting rich and powerful people on his TV and radio shows. He made a secret deal with a friend and art collector to try and get some of those people to buy some of the works from his collection in return for a 10-per-cent commission.
So how tough are the interview questions going to be? If Solomon wanted to persuade former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to spend thousands of dollars on paintings from his friend Bruce Bailey’s collection, is he going to risk alienating him during a 10-minute interview?
We’re not talking small change. Solomon pocketed $300,000 in barely 12 months on works sold to Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion (now Blackberry). Solomon’s access to Balsillie came because he was ostensibly trying to woo him as a guest on his interview show.
So he used his CBC position to make contact with Balsillie and, when they met for the first time, brought Bailey along as a guest. If Balsillie had appeared on the show - that never worked out - would Solomon have put his big commission cheques at risk with a tough interview?
And, more importantly, what would a reasonable viewer who learned of the secret deal think about Solomon’s independence or commitment to journalism?
Solomon has not spoken about the deal, or the firing. In a written statement, he claimed he had disclosed the arrangement to CBC management.
But that appears to be a half-truth. He signed the 10-per-cent deal with Bailey in August 2013, and kept it secret until this year, when he and Bailey got in a $1-million fight over the commissions owed and the truth was going to come out.
Personally, it seems sleazy to me to be steering people to buy art, supposedly as a friend, without revealing you’re getting secret payments if they buy. That’s a conflict worth declaring in personal life.
The whole affair also highlights - again - the palsiness of celebrity journalists and the powerful in a club with its own unwritten rules. (I’ve written about distance between journalists and the people they cover in The Tyee.)
There are good questions still to ask. Why did CBC only act when the Toronto Star reported the story, rather than investigating more thoroughly when Solomon belatedly revealed the arrangement?
And, as Bruce Livesay asks here, how come Solomon got a quick chop when Amanda Lang, also caught out in a serious conflict, was defended by CBC brass.
But Solomon betrayed the trust of the corporation and viewers by creating a clear conflict between his roles as journalist and commissioned art salesman. His credibility is gone.
I’d fire him.