Tag Archives: torontoist

All the news that’s fit to crib

Photo by Mark J Hunter
Photo by Mark J Hunter

One of the most important functions of newspapers, we are told, is that they produce professional content that no one else can. Investigating and breaking news stories is the most commonly referenced example. “If newspapers didn’t exist,” the argument goes, “bloggers wouldn’t have anything to write about.”

There is some truth to that statement: the vast majority of chatter in the blogosphere is reaction and commentary rather than original reporting. Even opinions and analysis are usually rehashed from professionals. Last month at the 2009 Interactive Exchange (IN09) Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of English Services for CBC, repeatedly insisted that blogs and web 2.0 websites do not create content, they only distribute content. “If old media dies,” Stursberg told conference attendees, weeks before announcing massive layoffs at his corporation, “I don’t know who’s going to make content.” (Paraphrased from memory.)

On the one hand, I agree that a professional news media is and has been a critical component of democracy. The fact that this model is breaking, and will probably break completely before a replacement is found, is of concern. But what also concerns me is the fact that old media appears to be going out of its way to hide and deny the positive contribution that new media is making. One specific event this past week helped to convince me of that. (More on that below.)

Listening to newspaper veterans speak you’d believe they have a monopoly on overturning rocks and introducing new information. That’s nothing more than a wishful delusion. The fact is that by its own criteria, the news media has been doing a bad job, and others have started to pick up the slack. One Canadian political example that comes to mind is the blog Buckets of Grewal, which played an important role in uncovering some key facts regarding the Grewal tapes scandal. (I’ve had a few much more humble achievements myself. For example, I’ve not seen anyone else report on the connections between a supposedly independent study about the Hummer and the Hummer’s manufacturer, nor do I know of any columnist who noticed some disturbing parallels in two news events separated by a few years.)

Instead of being honest about examples of bloggers contributing to the news industry, old media, and newspapers in particular, would rather bury those examples in favour of promoting the popular image of bloggers as parasites to media companies.

When I was on staff at Torontoist, a popular Toronto news, events, and culture blog, we accepted with a sense of inevitability that whenever we were lucky enough (or, dare I say, good enough) to get an exclusive story of any significance it would usually appear in Toronto’s newspapers the next day without credit. Proving that we were the source of many of these stories was almost impossible of course, but there was a definite pattern, and I’m told journalists at the Toronto Star sometimes confided privately that we were indeed being cribbed. And then there were some situations, including this January 2008 incident involving the Toronto Sun, where full sections of our writing happened to appear word-for-word in print without attribution. (In that case, the Sun ended up apologizing, kinda.)

This past week, my old Torontoist colleague Jonathan Goldsbie authored an excellent example of the kind light that bloggers can shine through the cracks that news stories pass through as they fall. Responding to a reader letter, Goldsbie decided to get to the bottom of a Virgin Radio bus ad that some found offensive. (And by “some,” I mean anyone who thinks it’s not particularly funny for advertisements shown in the transit system to make jokes about subway suicide.) Goldsbie did a lot of original research, connected dots that others had missed, and ultimately was the catalyst for having the ads pulled.

It’s a big story, and it was covered prominently in Toronto’s newspapers the next day. But while the Globe and Mail at least gave some small credit to Torontoist for bringing the ad to the TTC’s attention, the Toronto Star’s article was aloof and vague on the question of who actually broke and developed this story. And neither paper, in my opinion, gave Goldsbie and Torontoist the credit they deserved.

There’s a reason newspapers are behaving this way. Their industry is in free fall and they don’t know what to do about it or where the bottom is. No one does. So they’re afraid, and fear triggers “behaviors of escape and avoidance.” (Wikipedia)

That’s a reason, but not an excuse. The smart thing to do would be to embrace what may be early glimmers of the future of journalism. Unfortunately, there are indications that at least some papers are more comfortable clinging to the declining models of the past.

ps. Right before I hit publish on this post, John Dickerson of Slate magazine tweeted about another great example.

Mark J. Hunter photo from Flickr.

Heroes 2008: Peter Victor

Torontoist invited me to contribute to this year’s Heroes and Villains (“the people, places, and things that we’ve either fallen head over heels in love with or developed uncontrollable rage towards over the past twelve months”). Below is my hero entry. Interesting to read similar sentiments in The Toronto Star.

In the years leading up to the present economic collapse, economist Peter Schiff made numerous appearances on American news networks foretelling the coming maelstrom with uncomfortable accuracy. His prescience was roundly rewarded with mockery, not just from the other guests but also from the network hosts themselves. (Torontoist can’t help but feel a certain amount of empathy with Schiff. In last year’s Heroes and Villains, we wrote that “the subprime mortgage crisis, which began late last year but really picked up steam in the last few months, is not going away. In fact, it is a trigger incident that will continue to unravel the American economy into 2008, almost certainly leading to a recession and likely a depression.” That entry, for what it’s worth, received only 1.1% of the villain votes. It’s fine. We’re over it.)

Now that some of the worst-case economic predictions are playing out, smugly saying “I told you so”—while satisfying—isn’t particularly helpful. Many of the economic myths we’ve grown up with are being systematically dispelled, so simply rebuilding the economy as it was before this collapse is inadequate. Instead, we must re-imagine how our economy functions and what we expect it to do for us.

Enter Peter Victor, an economist at York University. For the last several years, Victor has been pursuing, in his words, “a topic which is anathema to most members” of his profession. Specifically, the idea that “people in rich countries can and should manage without economic growth,” not just because “it is implausible that the biosphere can support the nine billion people…who are expected to be on the Earth by mid-century at a standard of living remotely like that of current day North Americans,” and not just so that “people living in poorer countries can enjoy the benefits of economic growth where it really makes a difference,” but because “there is plenty of evidence to show that economic growth is doing very little to increase the happiness of most of us in rich countries.”

Victor’s timely new book Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster argues that government should shift its focus away from economic growth as its pre-eminent policy objective towards more effective measures of well being, and offers specific ideas on how to get there within a Canadian context.

Like Peter Schiff, Peter Victor will likely face strong opposition from some. Proposing to overhaul some of our most basic assumptions about how economies should function is no easy task. But that’s part of what makes it courageous, and perhaps just a little bit heroic.

Today’s AQHI Has Decreased From 3 To 4

Crossposted from Torontoist.

It’s been about a month now since Toronto (in conjunction with the province and the feds) launched the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) pilot project. And yet, very few Torontonians seem to understand what the AQHI actually means for their health and behaviour on any given day. Given that, a closer look is in order.

Unfortunately, just like Toronto’s air, the closer one looks the less clear things become. Listening to the radio in the morning, it’s easy to get the impression that the AQHI replaces the old Air Quality Index (AQI), which is where we used to get the binary “smog alert/no smog alert” announcements. Not so, Toronto Health tells Torontoist, “The Air Quality Index (smog alert) is a scale that measures the quality of the air based on single highest pollutant, whereas the new Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) measures the combined health risks/effects of multiple pollutants. In other words, the two indices are not comparable and cannot and should not be linked.”

Don’t worry, that doesn’t make a tonne of carbon sense to us either, but basically it means that it’s impossible to say, for example, “a 5 under the new system is equivalent to a smog alert under the old system.” Add to the confusion that, as Mike Smith points out in NOW, a high Air Quality rating actually means we’re experiencing low air quality. “One wonders,” speculates Smith, “if the rather more obvious name, the Pollution Index, was avoided because of its effects on tourism.”

Or perhaps its effects on reelection. The federal government, which is spearheading this initiative, has promised to create “clean air” (which many critics have suggested is a deliberate attempt to try and distract the public from its inaction on the climate crisis). Of course, it’s very hard to convince people the air is clean when they’re experiencing a “smog alert” every other day. Hearing that Air Quality is at a 4 or a 5 makes everything sound much cleaner. On Wednesday last week, for example, the AQHI was at a 3, even though there was a smog alert in effect. The smog alert went unreported by at least one major Toronto radio station, which instead just informed their listeners of the AQHI.

If you’re interested in the specifics of the AQHI 1-10+ scale, there’s a table on the government’s site. Apparently last Wednesday’s smog day represented “ideal conditions for outdoor activities.”

A list of all AQHI numbers reported to date does not appear to be available, but our observation has been that it’s tended to stay around 3-5 so far. Again, that makes some political sense. Just as the American government’s terrorism risk index can never fall below “elevated” (not only is it in the Republican party’s interest to keep its citizens afraid of an attack, it would be a disaster for this administration if an attack took place while the alert level was low), it’s politically disadvantageous for the AQHI to ever rise too high. There’s therefore reason to be at least a bit suspicious of what levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals our government has decided are “safe” for us to breathe.

On the other hand, some individuals are actually more “at risk” of respiratory problems than others, and they’ll hopefully find this new system useful in predicting when they’ll experience the most difficulty breathing. If the system works as it’s supposed to, it could help save lives by giving asthmatics, for example, more warning of when it’s safe for them to go outside.

That being said, ultimately Toronto Public Health says, “it is our intention that the AQHI will replace the existing Air Quality Index (smog alert) once it is fully implemented in Ontario.” A few years after that and maybe we’ll stop using the word “smog” altogether. Is our tinfoil hat on a bit too tight, or is possible that at least one motivation behind the AQHI is to eliminate smog though Orwellian “newspeak” methods, rather than real ones?

Positive First Steps in Toronto

Crossposted from Torontoist.

All of the controversy last week over city council’s non-decision regarding new taxes overshadowed another story with equal (if not more) importance. Just as a one-vote margin of defeat for a mayor is rare, so too is a unanimous vote for anything other than ceremonial or housekeeping motions. And yet, that’s exactly how Toronto’s climate change plan came to be adopted last Monday night, without a single dissenting voice. Given the importance of dealing with the climate crisis, the relative media-silence surrounding the city’s plan, and the fact that the wrong climate solutions can actually lead to even bigger problems, Toronto’s approach deserves a closer look.

First of all, it’s hard to find fault with the city’s objectives. The “Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan: Phase 1” [pdf highlights] sets emissions reduction targets from 1990 levels of 6% by 2012 (the Kyoto target), 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Those are very ambitious targets (Toronto calls them the “most ambitious in North America”) and they will not be easy to meet. They’re also the same targets that most climatologists agree are necessary in order to avoid the worst of climate change. To put those numbers in context, in 1990—chosen as a base year because it was the founding year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—Toronto’s emissions were approximately 22 million tonnes of eCO2 (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. Since then, Canada’s emissions have risen by 30%, which now puts Toronto’s emissions at around 28.6 million tonnes. In other words, what we’re really talking about is getting our emissions down to 20.7 million tonnes by 2012, 15.4 million tonnes by 2020, and 4.4 million tonnes by 2080.

The report’s many recommendations are broken down into twelve categories. Basically, here’s what the city hopes to accomplish.

The Live Green Toronto strategy is designed to provide incentives for individuals and communities, primarily to reduce their own energy consumption, but also to take other action to reduce their impact on our life support systems (sometimes referred to as “the environment”) such as installing green roofs and retrofitting old buildings. The details are vague and presumably yet to be worked out, but there’s a suggestion that the incentives would be in the form of loans to be repaid by the energy savings of new projects. This is also the section that contains the call to “investigate banning the use of two stroke engines” like the ones in some leaf blowers.

The most encouraging ideas in the Green Business Toronto section are the promotion of local food production and an eco-roofs program which would help businesses save money by reducing their air conditioning use, while also reducing the amount of unfiltered water that ends up in storm sewers (and, ultimately, our watershed). There’s also a call to “develop a business plan for a model green-industry business park,” which seems too ambiguous to get excited about just yet.

The city plans to Become the Renewable Energy Capital of Canada by installing small-scale renewable energy systems (including solar, wind, geothermal, and biogas) on 1500 city buildings and landfill sites. Other ideas include making it a legal right for homeowners to install renewable energy generation on their properties, and expanding deep lake water cooling capacity by 20%.

Given last week’s discouraging TTC news, it’s particularly hard to read the plan’s Sustainable Transportation strategy without rolling your eyes. The ideas are there (implement the bike plan, implement the transit city plan, create a new plan to make all the old plans work with each other), but we’ve heard it before. Some (slightly) newer ideas, on the other hand, include shifting taxis and limos to hybrids by 2015 (though you have to wonder why it would take that long) and investigating “a road pricing regime,” which we’re pretty sure is code for tolls.

At 17%, Toronto has a decent amount of tree canopy, but Doubling the Tree Canopy to 34% is still a neat idea that would pay real dividends. Remarkably, this section of the summary report uses 89 words to explain that this will be accomplished by planting more trees.

By the time we get to the Building Partnerships for Change section, things are starting to sound particularly fluffy. Build partnerships with business…invite stakeholders to participate…discuss forming research partnerships…you get the idea. Needs to be done, boring to read about.

Inspiring Action is the name of the plan’s public awareness strategy. The one idea here is to organize a charette to get Torontonians’ input on how to use the internets to spread the word.

Preparing for Climate Change deals with adaptation, which is where things necessarily get a bit more somber. In short, there is a certain level of climate change that we can no longer avoid, so even while we do everything we can to prevent things from getting even worse, we have to deal with the reality of what we’re already done. The city will plan for “response mechanisms [to] meet identified environmental changes, including health related impacts.”

All these ideas are well and good, but they’re pretty useless without Regular Monitoring and Reporting. The city will set benchmarks for progress and report on if they’re being met or not. (But who will report on the reporters?)

Filed under “lead by example” is the Greening City Operations strategy. Toronto will connect City Hall, Toronto Police Headquarters, and Union Station to the deep lake cooling system, phase out the use of incandescent heat light bulbs and improve on the existing Green Fleet Plan (which seeks to improve fuel efficiency in city vehicles).

Program Funding for all of this will add up to approximately $85 million, and be targeted towards a number of specific funds and projects.

Finally, Planning for a Sustainable Energy Future tackles community energy planning (as opposed to just renewable energy generation and individual building retrofits as mentioned above).

Ok, so there are a lot of words there. The big question, of course, is will these strategies and tactics accomplish the stated objectives? While we haven’t crunched the numbers, it seems clear that there are enough good ideas here, if properly executed, to meet and probably exceed the initial Kyoto target of 6% reductions by 2012. That’s a good start, and assuming we hold the feet of every single councilor who voted for this (i.e., all of them) to the fire to make sure it gets done, we can feel proud of this plan. In that case, our positive example—proof that emissions can be reduced in smart ways that don’t destroy the economy—will make it harder and harder for the federal government to ignore both the threat of the climate crisis and the great opportunity that its solutions present.

On the other hand, this is only the beginning. There will be many phases to go after “phase 1” is done. And just like any weight-loss program, the last pounds (er, tonnes) are the hardest to lose. We can’t buy into the marketing hype that tries to convince us that getting down to just 4.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 43 years will be easy, especially since Toronto’s population is projected to grow dramatically in that time. But it is possible, and it is necessary.