Abbotsford News And The Historical Record (Pt 1)

By August 6, 2013Hot Topic, Mike Archer

By Mike Archer. What will future citizens or students of the history of Abbotsford make of current Abbotsford news and the impact current events have on the future? In the past, newspapers were the first source of information for researchers trying to figure how or why seminal events had occurred.

A case can be made for the argument that the last ten years represent the worst decade in our city’s history. It will be difficult to understand based on what the local, out-of-town, newspapers have had to say about it.

All of the stored copies of the newspapers of the day were (and still are) poured over in libraries for signs of the start of stories and the way stories and historical events were told and reacted to at the time that they happened.

Perhaps more importantly, old newspapers are studied to find the causes of events which have long lasting implications, or important clues to help avoid making mistakes again.

The curious thing about today’s financial, planning and infrastructure disasters in Abbotsford is that, if future historians or researchers were to restrict themselves to what the newspapers of the day (Abbotsford News, Abbotsford Times) have had to say about the whole fiasco over the last decade, it may not make much sense at all.

The Detroit Free Press was the only major media outlet to tell the story of Detroit’s slow, inexorable slide into bankruptcy because, unlike the larger national press or the television media which decided there was no money to be made telling that story, the Free Press, as a local news medium had (or felt it had) a vested interest in telling the City’s story, happy or sad.

Altruistic or philosophical objectives aside, the Detroit Free Press is a paid circulation newspaper which relies on the support of readers for its financial survival. Simply put; paid circulation is part of its bread and butter.

It had to do it’s job and report what was going on to its readers or give up being a newspaper.

Raymond Williams described modern journalism as telling the news in a profitable manner.

“At times freedom in our kind of society amounts to the freedom to say anything you wish, provided it can be said profitably.”

News that is either unprofitable or can’t be told in a profitable manner doesn’t seem to enter the narrative of newspapers which make no money from their readership. Flyer distribution newspapers, which do not charge for the circulation, are selling access to the living rooms of the community to multinational flyer companies.

Without competition for readers, which once brought editorial competition to the democratic equation in cities large enough to have two newspapers, the editorial vigour with which newspapers once stood up for the rights of their readers against those of the power structure seems to have withered now that everyone in town gets a newspaper whether they want one or not.

When one paper unashamedly took the side of the power structure, the other would cry foul and tell the other side of the story. In Abbotsford both newspapers (each of them chain-owned flyer delivery papers) almost seem intent on demonstrating that, whatever happens, they can both keep their mouths shut.

Former Mayor George Peary

Former Mayor George Peary

In Abbotsford, crucial municipal issues, which are having an enormous impact on the cost of living for average taxpayers (and will for years to come), like Plan A, George Peary’s Deal making taxpayers the financial back stoppers of the Abbotsford Heat, the Great Abbotsford Water Shortage/Surplus (which was neither), the disappearance of Abbotsford’s Development Cost Charges (DCCs) fund due, in part, to internal borrowing, the gradual shift of the cost of economic development onto taxpayers rather than developers, the YMCA tax deal

… all of these issues have either not been covered at all by the chain-owned newspapers or have only been reported when the issue was either impossible to ignore anymore or too embarrassing to leave unreported.

If either newspaper has taken sides on issues of importance it has always seemed that the newspapers in Abbotsford take the side of City Hall and the business elite.

Both papers thought Plan A was a good idea. Both newspapers told citizens to vote for George Peary’s $300,000,000 new water supply which we didn’t need. Both newspapers were noncommittal on the YMCA tax giveaway and only covered the mounting opposition when it became too loud to ignore.

Without putting to fine a point on, newspaper editors of both sexes used to have balls. They expressed opinions that mattered on subjects that were shaping their communities. It is very hard to do that if you are trying to please as many people and organizations as you possibly can.

Which is what the newspapers, which receive all of their revenue from advertising, seem intent on doing.

There are still many Abbotsford residents who haven’t a clue what has been happening with their tax dollars because they simply haven’t been told. Some of the older newspaper readers simply haven’t joined the rest of us on the internet. But for many citizens Abbotsford is a bedroom community, and, as a result, many Abbotsford taxpayers and residents simply rely on the glance they take at their community newspaper to see if there is anything major on the front page and leave it at that.

A growing number of people in cities like Abbotsford no longer read newspapers at all because they simply have no useful or interesting information in them other than the Canadian Tire flyer or the Safeway flyer.

Attempts to convert the baby boomers and their elders to electronic flyers or cellphone store flyers have failed but, when the under 30 crowd becomes the major buyers of groceries, watch for hand-delivered flyers to disappear as a means of selling food or merchandise.

For those who do still rely on chain newspapers for their local news, if you have basically been told, week-in and week-out, for over a decade that all is well and the men and women at City Hall are stand up folks, is it any wonder most people don’t have a clear understanding of the issues facing their City?

Not only does it come as a real shock to the community when a quiet little local website publishes a story about chicken manure being used to drive homeless people away and, as a result the whole world ends up talking about it, it will be hard for future historians to figure out, based on the Abbotsford news that is left behind by newspapers, how things like this could suddenly happen.

In a city with two newspapers that have both been telling the same basic story – everything’s fine, nothing to see here folks, move along …

Former Councillor, Plan A architect, and Chamber of Commerce Director Bruce Beck

Former Councillor, Plan A architect, and Chamber of Commerce Director Bruce Beck

While Abbotsford Today readers have been inundated with discussions of the mismanagement of their City by people like Bruce Beck, John Smith, Jay Teichroeb, Mark Taylor, Frank Pizzuto and many more, the newspapers have preferred to toe the party line and rely on the ‘authorized knowers of the power structure to tell them what is ‘actually’ happening … no matter what the “naysayers” over at Abbotsford Today were saying.

Councillor John Smith

Councillor John Smith

If future historians rely on the newspaper record of Abbotsford news over the last ten years to figure out what the hell happened to Abbotsford, it is going to seem like a real mystery. They will find eight or nine years of glowing reports of a wonderfully managed city, economic and population growth and endless good news.

Then, suddenly, they will come across a complete gutting of the senior bureaucratic staff in the planning, economic development, finance and bylaw departments in the putsch of 2013. If all they’ve been able to access are the newspaper records, no acceptable or sensible explanation for the ‘sudden’ revelation that the City of Abbotsford was badly mismanaged will make sense.

Abbotsford politicians and bureaucrats who were in way over their heads, rather than admit it or engage those who were telling them the truth, relied on the newspapers to try to convince the majority of people that all was well and that their detractors were wrong.

Dinsdale's The Three Wise Men

Dinsdale’s The Three Wise Men

What the hell are people supposed to think now that it turns out the detractors were right and we are in as much of a mess as the ‘naysayers’ said we would be if we believed Bruce Beck, John Smith, Jay Teichroeb, Mark Taylor, Frank Pizzuto …

More and more residents and taxpayers are slowly waking up from their newspaper-induced nap to realize that what has actually been going on for the last ten years is a steady and inexorable decline in housing starts, building permits, employment and business investment.

That has been combined with a steady and painful increase in taxes, water rates, costs of development born by local residents, a rise municipal long term debt combined with the complete disappearance of cash reserves.

All of this has been in order to pay for the vanity projects of a few misguided men and women who really didn’t have a clue what they were doing with our money and who were answering to the vocal interests of groups like the Chamber of Commerce, developers and the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) whose narrow self interest has, it turns out, nothing to do with the greater interests of the community whose taxes they have been gleefully spending.

In the process they re-shaped Abbotsford by letting our water, sewer and road infrastructure literally crumble beneath our feet and spending our money on wild gambles about which they were repeatedly and loudly warned.

Whose side were the newspapers on? Look at the historical record. On every issue that has caused significant damage to the financial viability of the City of Abbotsford and the pocket books of Abbotsford taxpayers both newspapers have sided with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and the business elite.

At some stage, just like the bureaucrats, politicians and heads of organizations like the Chamber and the ADBA are having to explain themselves to the community they have broken, the newspapers will, eventually, have to explain the fact that they never questioned a thing city bosses told them over the last decade but actually promoted their agenda and insulted and demeaned those in the community who were telling the truth and advising against the horrendous mistakes that have been made.

Like the Chamber of Commerce leadership, the newspapers have been on the wrong side of every political issue of any importance in Abbotsford for over a decade.

It is an incredible record of failure and one for which they will eventually be held to account. Hopefully it will happen before the historians start trying to piece together how a city’s power structure and its newspapers got so out of touch with the residents they were both claiming to serve.

The current Abbotsford news, as reported by the two chain-owned corporate newspapers, has very little to offer the historical record for those intent on figuring out what went wrong and what led to the long term mess for which the community is headed.

Journalism schools would do well to study what has happened in Abbotsford so that future journalists can learn what not to do if they hope to leave a mark that means anything in the historical record.

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