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LEGITIMATE JOURNALISM: NEVER MORE IMPORTANT, NEVER MORE THREATENED

by Tim Spelliscy

Last year at this time I surprised many colleagues, close friends and even members of my own family by announcing that I had decided to retire from the television news business after a career of almost 42 years.  I knew that my interest in the industry was on the decline and I wanted to leave before I became the grumpy old man in the corner office who comes to work every day because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This business requires a 24/7 commitment. There’s no such thing as a quiet evening or weekend. I tried to stay unplugged while on vacation but that wasn’t realistic. The news business isn’t just a big part of your life, it takes over your life. I realized the next twenty or thirty years of my life had to be very different.  I also felt it was important for my team to hear from a new voice with new ideas. I wanted someone else to have a chance to take their career to the next level. I was very much aware of my personal “best before” date and I wanted to leave gracefully on my own terms.

Lessons in Leadership

I’ve now had a few months to reflect on a career that I really enjoyed and a business that was very rewarding.  I learned important lessons along the way that translated to these three commitments I made as a leader in the news business.

  1. To be a mentor,
  2. To be supportive of others in their careers, and
  3. To be patient.

I realize now how lucky I was to have so many mentors during my career. They were experienced journalists and broadcasters who were generous with their time and provided some excellent advice. I’ve tried to give back by mentoring young journalists who have asked for my guidance and I hope I made a difference for a few of them.

There were a few other colleagues, very few I should add, who tried to slow me down. They told me my ambition was greater than my talent and my dreams were out of reach. I never paid much attention to those opinions. I tried very hard later in my career to be a positive influence on anyone trying to move to a better position or a bigger market. I made lots of mistakes over four decades but, luckily, I worked for many people who gave me a second and even a third chance when I screwed up. These were very effective leaders who also taught me to be a little slower to judge others and to be a kinder person.

Journalism in Canada Today

There are some serious concerns about the current state of journalism in Canada – and other parts of the world. Conventional media organizations are dealing with declining revenues and that means fewer resources. It’s a troubling trend. We’re also seeing the pressure that social media is creating for journalism. There are no deadlines anymore. Everything must be immediate. The concept of getting it right is sometimes overtaken by the push to get it first. Good fact-checking doesn’t happen as often as it should. However, we still need better story tellers, better writers, and better spellers. There are some outstanding young journalists that require improvement in these areas. On the other hand, it’s my view that today’s journalists are better educated and more thorough than I was in the early days of my career. They’re also not intimidated by the powerful people who try to influence news coverage.

There’s actually a lot to like about journalism today.  The industry is going through a lot of change, but it’s always been in change mode so that’s nothing new. I was around when we used film, manual typewriters, and the control room monitors were black and white. I’ve dealt with a landslide of change and survived. There’s no need for panic, everything is going to be fine.

The Future is Local

I’m very optimistic about the future of journalism although I admit it’s possible I’m totally out of touch with reality. Perhaps coming soon there will be a be a time of “correction”, and large numbers of readers, listeners, and viewers will return to conventional media sources. The reputation and credibility of organizations like Facebook is fading quickly along with the popularity of many other trendy news sources.

When you look back at the Calgary floods of 2013, the Fort McMurray wildfires, or the more recent Humboldt hockey tragedy, you realize that local media is an essential service. These are the things NETFLIX can’t and never will be able to do.  If we lose local TV news, radio coverage, and newspapers, we also lose culture, identity, and a piece of ourselves. It’s really up to people who are in the business to make sure that doesn’t happen. Those people should be watching local TV news, listening to local radio and reading the local papers. They should also be telling others how important it is to provide that support and to be proud of the quality of Canadian journalism because it’s very good.

A Calling That’s Vital to Democracy

Of course, the concern goes well beyond local coverage. We’re at a point in the history of North America where legitimate journalism has never been more important and more threatened. We need to hold the people in positions of power across the continent accountable and that’s becoming a much more challenging task.

I view journalism as a vocation or a calling. Today that calling is vital to the preservation of democracy. I’m not trying to be high and mighty about my chosen profession. This is simply the way I see the condition of our society in 2018.

While I am confident of a very good future for all my friends and former colleagues working in journalism today I don’t take it for granted. As Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Tim Spelliscy retired in 2017 as Station Manager and Director of News Global Edmonton. 

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