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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: When the PM’s beard makes the news

Apparently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s facial hair is newsworthy. — Reuters file photo

As news stories proliferate about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s beard, it’s hard not to recognize that we’re just coming out of the holiday news doldrums.

With the exception of major international conflict stories this year, the holidays held up to the usual standard for news — policymakers and newsmakers vanish for the duration, and the news they drive slows to a crawl.

Inevitably, news organizations fall back on year- or decade-in-review stories, and soft features proliferate. “The 10 most sought-after toys this year,” or “10 holiday snacks your guests will beg you to give them the recipes for” make their traditional and timeworn appearances.

Woe betide the skeleton crews left working in newsrooms during the holiday season. Hands shoot up around the news meeting table for even the thinnest gruel, like “Thrifty husband reuses same wrapping paper for wife’s present for 27 years,” and the inevitable follow, “‘Wrapping paper wife’ files for divorce.”

And Trudeau came back from his Christmas holidays with a beard.

As the Canadian Press noted, “Trudeau is the first prime minister to sport a full beard since Mackenzie Bowell, who served from 1894 to 1896.”

But there’s more: “His new beard is neatly trimmed and flecked liberally with grey. It seems to match Trudeau’s stated intention to take a lower profile, more businesslike approach to his second mandate, keeping the focus on concrete bread-and-butter initiatives and shifting the spotlight to his team of cabinet ministers.”

As this is being written, it hasn’t happened yet. But look to some outlet to half-humourously start photoshopping beards onto the past prime ministers who didn’t sport them in office.

And Trudeau came back from his Christmas holidays with a beard.

I’d argue, though, that the coverage of Trudeau’s face has less to do with the slim pickings of the holiday season and more to do with the innate confusion that the news media has fallen into over how to succeed in the new digital world.

We’re hopelessly befuddled about what people want, and how to deliver it, and as we flail about, we’re also managing to damage our reputations for delivering news.

Even efforts that seem like they should be successes have strange outcomes, like the CBC’s move into opinion columns. Moving into opinion writing seems like a natural fit for a news organization, but if you look at the roughly 900 filed CRTC interventions over CBC’s latest licence renewal, you’ll find scores of people complaining that including opinion pieces is eroding trust in the impartiality of the public broadcaster’s news.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world where we compete for internet clicks with news stories that are really just entertainment. How many boxes of macaroni and cheese can this reporter eat? Here’s social media footage of a cat that’s learned to ring his owner’s doorbell when he wants to come in. Here are the last 16 prime ministers before Justin Trudeau (not including Kim Campbell) decked out in a variety of novel facial hair.

There have always been stories that have been designed to capture attention, rather than to enlighten; when I worked in television, management called them “Hey Martha” stories (because somewhere, someone would call out to their spouse to come and see the video). They tried to include at least one in every newscast, often right at the end to give the anchors something they could banter back and forth about if they were forced to fill out the last scattered second of the news.

But now, we run far more than just one story.

And there are risks.

Even presidents sometimes learn that, when they’ve built reputations as carnival barkers, the fight to be taken seriously by a majority of the population is an uphill battle.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky


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