By Mike Archer. This is Part 4 in a series on the way news is reported in Abbotsford and its effect on the historical record. 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 out how or why seminal events had occurred.
A case can be made 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, corporate newspapers have had to say about it and what they have not told their readers.
When I first worked at the Abbotsford Times in advertising sales I asked a customer how their full colour, full page ad on the back of the newspaper had worked over the weekend. I thought it was a fairly obvious question but was later told not to ask that kind of question.
My customer told me the ad had worked well because he figured four or five people had come in over the weekend in response to the ad.
Now I had come to the Fraser Valley from Bracebridge, Ontario, a town of 10,000 and if a customer had purchased the back page of the Bracebridge Examiner (paid circ 5,500) in full colour and had only four or five people show up for the sale I would have had trouble collecting the $700 the ad had cost.
Here I was, a few years later, and a customer was pleased that their $900 back page ad in a 45,000 circulation, free distribution paper in a city of 130,000 people had brought in four or five people.
Free newspapers and the decline of influence
It was the first clue to what I began to learn was the folly of the free-distribution circulation model for the newspaper industry, unless all you were interested in was receiving the latest Canadian Tire flyer, or, from the newspaper’s point of view, the revenue from that door-to-door delivery.
In most markets in the North America, the weekend flyer papers aren’t very well read and serve little purpose other than as containers for the grocery store flyers.
In the Lower Mainland that’s the only kind of newspaper we have.
But what about journalism?
The paid circulation newspapers which the rest of the continent still reads in small towns are having a difficult time in the new media world but they are supported by subscriptions and newsstand sales and they are still taken seriously for their journalism.
The suburban flyer-wrap papers in bedroom communities like Abbotsford have lost a great deal of the importance they once had in the political life of the community. When they were paid-circulation papers (people actually used to pay for the privilege of reading local newspapers like the Abbotsford News) local newspapers could actually sway public opinion, influence the result of elections and make or break political careers.
These days very few people pay attention to them even when they do try to exert influence over local events. I think the high water mark for the influence of newspapers in Abbotsford was the moment they should have realized they no longer had it – the Plan A referendum.
I was editor of the still-born Abbotsford Post and we were only weeks old when the referendum was held. We were the only major paper in town that published both sides of the debate (The Bugle also presented both sides of the issue). The Post devoted one page devoted to the ‘Yes’ side and one to the ‘No’ side.
Both chain newspapers seemed to be competing for the prize which would be awarded to the paper which provided the most embarrassing, subservient, pro-City Hall coverage. Whatever the prize, they both earned it. And yet, together they hardly influenced the decision at all.
Plan A – The High Water Mark
Despite a full court press with $120,000 worth of full page, full colour ads, news stories, columns, letters and editorials in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum and the use of taxpayer owned phone banks and municipal employees to ‘get out the vote’ on the night of the referendum, the ‘Yes’ side only won by a fraction of a percentage of the population. And only a small portion of the population even turned out
for the vote which had been hyped in the chain-owned corporate newspapers for months.
After the narrow victory, the politicians who funded the campaign with tax dollars, and the newspapers who pumped over 90,000 pro-Plan A editions a week out to every home in Abbotsford extolling the virtues of the plan celebrated a victory to which they should have paid much closer attention. It was no victory at all.
Think about it . . . with all of the distribution firepower at their disposal, they had only managed to convince a bare majority of a tiny portion of the population to support their half-a-billion dollar’s worth of projects, debts and expenditures.
Most of those who supported Plan A had already been co-opted through the political backrooms with promises of financing, jobs and other favours in return for their support. It has even been said that some of those who supported Plan A were threatened in order to gain their support.
Think about this for a moment … in a city of 130,000 people, two newspapers which delivered more than 90,000 copies a week into the community were only able to convince a small number of undecided people who to support Plan A. The opponents, armed with nothing but their ideas and word of mouth managed to bring enough people out and vote against Plan A that it was nearly defeated.
And the ‘Yes’ forces thought they had scored a major victory.
From my vantage point, just like my first customer at the Abbotsford Times, I felt the politicians who had paid for the outcome they had narrowly achieved hadn’t got their (our) money’s worth.
For $120,000 you would have expected a) more people to know about the issue and have turned out to vote , and, b) a bit more of a resounding victory than that evidenced by a fraction of a percentage point.
George Peary’s Water Shortage – Reality sets in
By 2011, when George Peary was betting his political career on the lie that Abbotsford was in desperate need of a new water supply, the power structure fell back on a strategy they thought had worked for Plan A and the corporate newspapers fell into line seeming to perform the same function they had during the Plan A referendum – that of cheerleader for the city.
This time more was at stake because the enormous unanticipated (by politicians and bureaucrats) costs of Plan A had wiped out the City’s capital reserves and were threatening the Development Cost Charge (DCC) funds while none of the promised economic growth of Plan A had materialized.
In fact, quite the opposite was happening and the City was in desperate need of cash. George Peary’s Deal to financially support the Calgary Flames was beginning to hurt the City’s finances.
Bureaucrats like Frank Pizzuto and Jay Teichroeb warned that economic development would come to an end by 2016 if Abbotsford didn’t get a new water supply; George Peary parroted their claims.
Both newspapers wrote editorials advising people to vote ‘Yes’ in the P3 Water Referendum.
75 percent of voters voted ‘No’
So much for the flyer-wrap newspapers’ ability to influence political outcomes in Abbotsford.
Not only was the newspapers’ position rejected by the overwhelming majority of voters, their mayoral candidate, incumbent George Peary, was turfed as well.
Declining Influence and Importance
One of the fascinating things for followers of history about the last decade in Abbotsford’s history is that the old newspapers have not recorded the failure of Plan A; the financial crisis at City Hall, the rise of internal borrowing to cover the costs of Plan A with anywhere near the exuberance with which they have reported the opposite point of view.
When the Abbotsford Chicken Manure Homeless Incident revealed Abbotsford’s political, bureaucratic and social power structure for the the backward 19th Century thinkers they seem to have been all along, Abbotsford’s old media was taken by surprise.
Not only was the story of the decade revealed and released to the world on a website they have refused to acknowledge, despite the fact it has been scooping them since 2008, the story also revealed, like nothing before it, a newspaper media which seemed more intent on protecting civil servants, politicians and the Salvation Army than it was in telling the full story about how the Sally Ann and City bureaucrats had deliberately poisoned homeless people.
The Abbotsford News even published an editorial blaming the whole incident on low level city workers. It didn’t fool anyone as subsequent revelations showed several senior staff were involved in the decision as was the Sally Ann.
Worldwide media from the BBC to Harper’s Magazine were quoting a website whose existence neither newspaper had acknowledged as the source of the story, and newspapers like the Vancouver Sun simply went over the heads of the local newspapers and quoted Abbotsford Today on the story showing the Sally Ann’s involvement.
Later revelations about emails between police chief Bob Rich and his senior staff showing a demeaning and derogatory attitude towards the homeless were either not reported by corporate media or, when they were, the explanations from the police went unchallenged.
Why the local newspapers had missed the story or failed to tell their readers about the years of abuse perpetrated by City authorities may never be known but the fact that they didn’t tell the community about the one story that has defined the City of Abbotsford in this decade tells volumes about the influence they actually have in a community which seems to have left them behind when it comes to issues of political, social or historical importance.
They do still seem to have the market cornered in terms of the price of lemons at Safeway, the cost of a tent at Canadian Tire and the latest thoughts of those at City Hall about the version of reality they wish people in the community were actually talking about, but their ability to sway the choices of voters or influence the citizens of Abbotsford seems to have diminished significantly since they decided to give their papers away for free.
Ross Douthat, who recently wrote about the moment the Washington Post (which recently sold for a paltry $750 M) lost its place in journalism, wrote in ‘How the Post Was Lost, NYT August 11, 2013‘
“. . . it’s possible to date the moment when that opportunity slipped away: it happened in 2006, when John Harris and Jim VandeHei left The Post to found Politico.
“Today, though, it’s Politico rather than The Post that dominates the D.C. conversation, Politico rather than The Post that’s the must-read for Beltway professionals and politics junkies everywhere, and Politico rather than The Post that matches the metabolism of the Internet.”
Some might argue that the corporate newspapers in Abbotsford long ago abandoned their roles as chroniclers of the historical record in favour of a more profitable version of reality which reflects the views of the political, economic and social elite and seeks to promote the city rather than inform it.
Taking care of business
I prefer to think they have just been taking care of business as a door-to-door flyer delivery service which sells access to the living rooms of Abbotsford to national and multinational companies. In that role they have done very well. I’d rather not think that journalists have let themselves be influenced and co-opted by the system which provides their paycheck into either ignoring or subverting their former role – the reason they went to journalism school – of telling the stories which matter to the people with whom they share the planet and revealing the truths their fellow citizens rely on them to reveal.
Whatever I want to believe, I think the historical record is going to be terribly confused by the information left behind by the journalists and newspapers of Abbotsford during the first decade and a half of the 21st Century.
The political changes, social and financial costs, the upheavals and the pain endured as a result of the mistakes of the last decade will be hard to explain based on the record left behind by today’s version of the newspapers of Abbotsford.
The wholesale admiration lavished on politicians like Simon Gibson, John Smith and Patricia Ross will confuse anyone attempting to understand how a community could have lost its way so badly under their leadership. The venom with which those who dared to question their mistakes were treated will stand out as a particularly odd reaction to citizens trying to avoid the drastic and painful results of a decade of terrible decisions.
What, they may ask, would have happened if the newspapers had dared to question or criticize those decisions.