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Observations on the evolution of The Telegram

Last week, a media person asked if The Telegram was paying me to write this blog. I said that, yes, I was receiving regular freelance rates.

"Then you're in their camp," was the matter-of-fact reply, suggesting that there would now be an inherent bias toward The Telegram (the blog was hosted independently at blogspot for three months before moving here). Here is exactly what I said on this subject , when I announced the move back on May 25:

Is there a downside? Are there strings attached? Does this mean I start sucking up to The Telegram?

No, no and no.

I asked these questions of The Telegram and the reply (to paraphrase) was, Your blog is a good read, and that's what we want just keep on doing what you're doing.' I asked them what happens when I criticize something in their newspaper, as I inevitably will, and the reply was, That's fine, we have broad shoulders. We can take it.' They are giving me the same latitude extended to any other columnist which is pretty much unlimited except my content appears online, not in print. So I am satisfied with that.

The odd person might suggest that I am now biased toward The Telegram, because they are paying me to write for them. This is patent nonsense, of course. Firstly, my reputation is not for sale at any price. Secondly, this would mean by extension that all columnists are biased toward the paper in which they appear, a notion that no thinking person including the columnists themselves should accept. Furthermore, I have administrative access to my portion of the site and will do all posting myself, which enables full control over what gets posted and when.

So what do I think, in general, about The Telegram? That's a good question, and one that requires some historical context. After all, I've been watching the paper closely for almost 20 years, since my days at The Sunday Express, when they were the competition.

Back then, The Telegram was not a good newspaper. It was terrible, in fact. There were major issues with quality control, the body text being so full of typo's that they spilled over into the headlines. The editorials were weak and inconsistent. Most importantly, the paper was not breaking many stories, and was left every week to follow the lead of The Sunday Express.

Some people blamed the paper's troubles on editors Bill Callahan and Freddy Jackson. There may have been some truth in that, but I don't think they could have done a whole lot to turn things around. Reporters who worked there told me they were understaffed, overworked and demoralized, the result of penny-pinching by Thomson Newspapers, the owner at the time.

The Telegram of today is vastly different from that era; it is a study in contrasts. Everything about the paper is better. The Telegram devotes most of its energies to covering the live news of the day its primary purpose and something it does quite well but it also manages to break stories. The writing and editing are quite good, and quality control is high (typo's are rare now). The editorial page is lively, offers a variety of voices and is usually well-written.

I attribute much of the paper's improvement to the influence of editor Russell Wangersky. Yes, he is a former Sunday Express colleague and a friend of mine but Wangersky also has integrity, journalistic depth, a keen intellect and exceptionally strong writing skills.

Wangersky's early columns were a departure for editorial writing, beginning with flowery descriptions of the natural environment, transitioning seamlessly to the issue of the day, then circling back to the meadow for the conclusion. It was a unique approach that won awards for writing, but also wore thin with a lot of people, myself included. I caught myself skipping the introduction on many occasions to search out the nugget of insight in the middle, then glancing at the conclusion to make sure I didn't miss anything. Sounds crass maybe, but that's how I consume my information in a hurry. These days, Russell's columns are focused more on the issues and less on the descriptive language, which is fine with me.

Incidentally, Russell's literary debut a collection of short stories entitled "The Hour of Bad Decisions" has received rave reviews and several prestigious award nominations. This should come as no surprise to those who followed his evolution as a writer in the pages of The Telegram.

A local editor who competes with The Telegram regularly refers to the paper as being "Quebec-owned", the inference being that this somehow diminishes the quality or integrity of the newspaper. The fact is that owners large and small can have a negative impact on any publication, but it is the job of the editor and publisher to stand up to outside interference. In this regard, I think The Telegram owes an apology to no one. You will not see any interference from or pandering to the owner, as you sometimes do in other local publications.

There was a time and not that long ago when the printing quality of the Telegram was terrible. The registration for full and spot colour reproduction was away off, resulting in messy photographs and ads that must have driven advertisers up the wall. But there have been upgrades and overhauls to the press in recent years, resulting in a noticeable improvement in colour precision. However, it still needs work. The paper that I receive in Conception Bay South frequently has colour registration issues, while the same edition in St. John's looks fine. (I suspect we are getting the first issues off the press.)

The page layout is clean and acceptable even good at times though not nearly as dazzling as The Independent. The only thing I don't like about the Telegram's layout is their occasional decision to put a soft feature on the top of page one, covering 50 to 70 per cent of the page. I may be old school' on this, but I think the top of page one is where you put the most important stories of the day. Most recently, they covered the page with a retrospective on the 35th anniversary of Paul Henderson's winning goal in the Canada-Russia hockey series. Perhaps some readers like this sort of thing on page one, but I just find it confusing. What, no news today?' In my view, you can start such features over a couple of columns on page one, but don't cover the whole page with it.

Those points aside, I do think The Telegram is a good daily paper. It carries an agenda for no one, which is how it should be. I trust it to feed me my news, straight up and untainted by the political and personal views of the reporters. When I disagree with something I say so in this blog, and have done so on at least two occasions, here and here.

If I didn't have any time for The Telegram I wouldn't host this blog at their site, but I am definitely not in their camp'.

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  • Sheena
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I agree the Telegram has come a long way. The reporting is professional, and the editorial page is engaging.

    But seriously, you have to admit, the printing is still terrible. All bleedy and hazy. No other paper in the city looks like that. They need to stop using whatever printer they're using. Also, the cut outs at the top of the front page look wretched. The might as well use scissors.

    And the random wank kills me - like space-filling pictures of little girls eating ice cream or a poll that asks if whether or not readers like bake apples.

    And don't even get me started on the bloody labels. Ooh this week we have a story that has "people" in it or is "social" in nature. Thanks for guiding me Tely!

    Meanwhile, the Independent has the best layout and photography by far. It's always top notch. They also have the most compelling news and arts writers (she says with a slight bias, since she freelances there semi-regularly).

    But the editorial page is the same every week: Cleary on Newfoundland getting gypped, or a guest columnist parroting the same ideas.

    And there are editorial decisions I disagree with - like running an in-photo feature on one party leader spilling from the front, in the week before a provincial election. That's irresponsible. And Scrunchions! Man, I can't stand Scrunchions! Cleary, seriously, get a Livejournal or something. What a waste of a page.

    The best paper in town though, I think, is The Scope. They've only gotten better and better since starting up, and they fill a niche nobody else does. Especially not Current.

    Also, that rag at MUN, the Muse I think it's called, is OK I guess ;)