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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

Casting off a Sun staffer at The Dock

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Watching the tide roll away

Ooo, I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Wastin’ time

— Otis Redding, December 1967

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then when an employee leaves the Sun and Brandon for what they hope are a brighter future and greener pastures elsewhere, there is a larger than normal gathering of friends, and co-workers, past and present.

It’s a time-honoured tradition both to say goodbye to the guy or gal, and also to show some camaraderie among those who toil each day in the Sungeon — the Sun’s vintage office on Rosser Avenue has a nickname developed over the years that’s known across the country — as we work in a difficult business that has had increasing challenges in recent years.

While the Sun itself is doing just fine, thank you — two recent postings for full-time jobs here were met with dozens and dozens of applications from across North America — journalism is a tough gig to begin with.

Nevermind the horror stories we hear regularly about larger papers struggling to stay afloat in the increasingly fractured media world. So when Sun staff gather to bid farewell to one of their own, we’re also celebrating our craft and showing a bit of team spirit. Or, as with this recent event, a lot of pride and spirit.

•••

Columnist Jeffrey Simpson had an interesting piece in The Globe and Mail recently about how the Harper government “has the media all figured out” and has the systems in place to handle information and manage its messaging.

And in addition to that, government advertising rolls on and on. The Economic Action Plan, a response to the 2008 recession, is still being advertised, even though the recession is long over.

Simpson says it all has to do with the watering down of the once formidable mainstream print media, which is now faced with dwindling staff who are forced to multitask to compete with all other media on the Internet.

You see, print used to be the big dog. And when we bit, it hurt.

But when the Internet came along, many big papers did something many now regret — they gave their content away for free, thinking the web was a promotional tool that could be used to drive folks to the print product.

It was a poorly thought out take on the whole medium-is-the-message thing. And guess what? People just lapped up the free online info and didn’t buy as many hard copies of the paper. It’s also just a true fact that it’s not possible to make as much ad revenue online as it is in print. And trained reporters, photographers and editors cost money.

We’ve always had an online paywall here at the Sun for most of our locally produced material. During the day we do “give away” routine announcements, press releases and some spot news that will be expanded upon in the next day’s paper.

This while across the world, newspapers — now generically called media organizations — are erecting paywalls for their precious and expensive internally produced content. Too bad the horse is way down the lane, if only that barn door had been kept shut in the first place.

And government knows once flush press galleries are stretched thin. Government knows reporters have little time to dig beyond what’s being fed to them by the official information machines paid for by taxpayers.

The government also knows that the average Canadian — especially young Canadians — have the attention spans of over-caffeinated gnats.

This comes from getting their “news” from Twitter, Facebook, local online bulletin boards or late-night talk shows. They get whatever info they think they need from their screens, usually not from dirty old newspapers.

Well, except in some markets such as Brandon. There are still some success stories in print and we’re one of them. Did you know that the last available NADbank numbers for this market show our print and online editions having a combined 88 per cent total weekly readership in Brandon alone? And that’s not taking into account our many rural readers in Westman. Those numbers are among the best in the country for a market our size.

But in other places — mostly big cities — the story isn’t as happy. And newspapers are looking for new ways to compete.

Sadly, often that means cutting expenses.

And that can mean losing human beings. All too often, talented and eager college-trained reporters find themselves out of work because of the pile of free info on the Internet and bloggers who aggregate (steal) others’ work. But I digress.

The Manitoba government also understands that a lot of folks don’t have time to fully appreciate a newspaper every day. Especially in a big city where there could be two, three or four dailies and where information is often dispersed unchallenged and unchecked by radio or TV reporters, or through social media.

In fact, the Progressive Conservative Opposition revealed last week that the NDP has 192 marketing and communications staff across government agencies and crown corporations.

The Tories said the cost to employ these people is $12.5 million per year “to make sure Manitobans get the message the NDP government wants.” Fifteen of these communicators earn a salary of more than $100,000.

The Tories say that the current number of 192 is a 60 per cent increase over the 119 communications specialists employed in 1999 (the last year they were in power).

In a release, Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said: “This government has a spending problem and instead of addressing it they have hired more and more people to massage the message. This is unacceptable and an insult to hard-working Manitobans.”

As a sidenote, that champion of hard-working Manitobans is said to have just purchased the Sifton Residence — on a prime section of riverfront property on upscale Wellington Crescent — and “one of Winnipeg’s finest examples of residential architecture in the arts and crafts tradition,” says a real estate website.

His office said they’d get back to me when asked to confirm the purchase — which would also be outside of the MLA’s Fort Whyte constituency and which comes with annual property taxes of $38,000. But they didn’t in time yesterday, so I’ll suggest that even the fact that such a rumour exists of a Pallister’s Palace at a time when Manitoba has the second-highest poverty rate in the country is pretty poor optics.

But then the Tories did note that while the Big Orange NDP machine has 192 spinners, Little Blue has all but one.

•••

However, things should look up for the Tories in the public relations area soon as they double their staff.

Yup, the goodbye the other night at The Dock on Princess — a lovingly remastered version of the old Clancy’s Eatery and Drinkery — we were saying salut and so long to our political writer, Keith Borkowsky.

And what’s he up to now? Well, he’s going to be working for Pallister and the Tory caucus as a communications officer (spin doctor) in the Manitoba legislature.

Bork’s in for a tough time in Tory Town. Some folks say the knives are already out for Pallister, as he hasn’t gone out of his way to be buddy-buddy with those who didn’t support his coronation last summer.

And finding enough media who give a damn any more under the dome isn’t easy either. They’re just too busy tweeting, shooting video, doing radio/TV hits, filing webbies or covering six stories a day when the average used to be one or two fully developed, researched and finely honed pieces.

Unless the Tories have some juicy, ready-to-devour news for the Winnipeg media, their press conferences could be pretty lonely affairs. How do I know?

Years ago, I did exactly what Bork did. And it was even tough then getting the Tories some mention in the media.

I had a farewell bash in a pub as I left The Winnipeg Sun to go work as a press secretary to cabinet (a.k.a. ‘fancy’ spin doctor) for former premier Gary Filmon and the Tories in the late-’90s.

After an election loss (damn you, Gary Doer!) and a short while working for the Tories in Opposition, I eventually made my way back to the media and ended up in newsroom management. And eventually made my way out here to a job and community I truly enjoy.

So I wish Borkowsky well in his new career.

It’s about as stressful and, at times, precarious as working in journalism.

Trust me, I know.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 1, 2012

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I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Watching the tide roll away

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Watching the tide roll away

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