Issues First, Journalism Second
Spacing magazine's Spacing Votes blogged the Toronto civic election daily. The catch? Other than seasoned commentator John Lorinc, Matthew Blackett's “army of young guns” had little journalistic training
he Monday evening at Revival is growing old. It must be hot on the crowded platform, where the mayor and his interrogators exist in close quarters beneath stage lights and a Spacing sign. David Miller is taking a swig from his water bottle between questions, the sound of TTC chimes signals when his airtime is up, when someone in the vast dimness of the audience shouts, “I love you, David!”
A beat, then laughter. That’s not an issue Miller’s going to get into tonight, one week before today’s (November 13) election. He responds with an easy confidence at the podium that was missing from Jane Pitfield when she stood in the same spot a scant hour ago. It should be noted, however, that Pitfield’s supporters are noticeably outnumbered among the 450 spectators that have turned up for the candidates’ Q&A with the panel of Spacing and Eye Weekly editors and writers. The main topic at tonight’s Political Party? co-sponsored by the two magazines ? is public space, and the discussion has moved briskly through parks and housing projects and along subway lines, sidewalks and bike paths.
To publish online a daily chronicle of Toronto’s 2006 civic election, up to and including election day today, might seem ambitious for a magazine that comes out three times a year and is read by young, idealistic urbanites. But despite the challenge, Spacing creative director Matthew Blackett’s original plan was simple and to the point. “About a year ago,” he says, “we realized our print issue would come out around the election. It was a good time for us to get political.”
And get noticed. Even majornewsoutlets perked up during “the Pitfield thing,” as Blackett calls it. “It was in the news for five days,” he says. “It had a long life cycle.” The commotion started when a post on mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield’s blog was found to be almost identical to a paragraph published the day before by Spacing Votes, written by columnist John Lorinc. The blogosphere churned the incident in “a big toxicsoup,” as Lorinc puts it, and the drama ended with the sound of Spacing’s phone ringing, heralding a call from Pitfield herself. “She asked me three times if her apology was sufficient,” Blackett says. “It was an acknowledgement that they had messed up – it’s rare that politicians apologize.”
The bias against rightward-leaning politicians like Pitfield is unmistakable at Spacing Votes, but Blackett is nothing if not candid. He concedes the magazine is “at odds with her” on a number of issues, including transit and public advertising. He says Spacing has “a certain point of view – I don’t think that should be a surprise to anyone who reads the magazine.”
In Spacing‘s case-in name of expanded coverage-many someones are involved. Spacing Votes is a digital exercise in democracy carried out not by a single writer, but an entire team of bloggers. “I think there are 15,” Blackett hazards. “Some haven’t done much, some have done a lot.” His hesitation in knowing the exact number might be a symptom of stress. In addition to producing the magazine, the blog and a public debate, he also teaches journalism at Humber College and moonlights as a graphic designer. Blackett jokingly says he plans to sleep for a week after Election Day, but for now “we’re election junkies. I hope we do this for the provincial election next year. We shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hold politicians and candidates to account.”
Blackett’s test group of full-time interns have held politicians accountable, at least to readers of Spacing. Although the work is unpaid, the band of bloggers ? dubbed an “army of young guns” by Eye Weekly‘s city editor Edward Keenan ? was culled from about 50 applicants who answered the call on Spacing Wire. Journalism experience wasn’t necessary, but a passion for issues about public space and its uses was. Students of architecture, urban planning and environmental studies act as beat reporters, armed with knowledge and commitment to different issues. The blog functions as both a discussion forum and a virtual training ground. “We just don’t have the time to give a crash course in transit development,” Blackett says. “It’s harder to learn these things than it is to get good writing.”
“We’re definitely an experiment,” says Karen MacKenzie, the blog’s managing editor. “I love the immediacy and the interactiveness.” MacKenzie is currently studying journalism, but of all the Spacing Votes recruits only Lorinc has covered city hall professionally. The veteran Toronto Life urban affairs columnist says the blog is a good way for younger writers to hone their skills, and a chance for them and the public to voice their opinions. “It opens up a space to talk about certain issues that are top of mind to people who may not find them satisfactorily expressed in mainstream media.”
Although there’s no statistical way to measure the blog’s influence, if any, on the election, site traffic has risen to 40,000 visitors per week. “In September it was about 25,000,” says Blackett. “We can see that people are coming.” He frames the issues for “young people who read our magazine who don’t know what’s going on at city hall.”
The blog has attracted candidates as well as voters. Gary Pickering, running for school board trustee in Ward 12, became a regular reader after following a link from Who Runs This Town, a non-profit site encouraging electoral participation. “It’s free publicity for me and other candidates who can’t afford to buy advertising,” he says. “I can put my own ideas forward, but also see what the public is thinking.”
Tammy Thorne, a Spacing blogger who balances her bike activism with an administrative job, says that she’s received positive feedback about her cycling posts from cyclists and city councilors. “I was feeling a bit insecure at first because I wasn’t sure how journalistic it was supposed to be,” she says. “I found it challenging but also fun to write something personal.”
Julia Lo, an urban studies major at the University of Toronto, is another who answered the call for interns. “I like how Spacing magazine brings the stuff that I’m doing in school to Toronto, in a theory-in-practice kind of way.” She blogs once or twice a week ? sometimes posts are kept waiting because with this many writers, the blog may suffer from oversaturation ? and compares the experience to writing for The Varsity, “except a bit less formal. I guess it’s less pressure than having something in print.”
Lorinc might be inclined to disagree, especially during the morning he spent writing at Starbucks when the Internet connection disappeared and he lost his work. “It’s not without its frustrations,” he says of blogging. “Two hours’ work down the drain.” Lorinc was a stranger to the art of the blog before Blackett approached him to contribute to Spacing Votes. “I’ve never done anything online before,” says Lorinc. “I don’t read blogs, for the most part. They’re an interesting sort of discourse, but I’m really a mainstream journalist. I come from the print world, where there are lots of layers between what I write and what gets out.”
Other print publications are offering daily election blogs, including one of the largest. Marc Weisblott, formerly of The Toronto Star‘s Paved.ca, is filing an election column called Campaign Bubble for The Globe and Mail. He genially refers to Blackett as a “big geek” when it comes to politics, but says nobody really competes in the blogosphere. “It’s more like everyone’s there to complement each other. If you’re a media junkie you read a lot,” he says. “You click around, consuming from everywhere.
“When it comes to online journalism, no one is going to read your one site,” Weisblott continues, “So it becomes about being the site that people go to first, not about obliterating everyone else like the six o’clock news on TV. It still is a challenging thing for mainstream media to wrap their heads around. It used to be about dominating the reader with information, now it’s about sharing it.”
And Blackett is encouraged that Spacing Votes has been shared by voters of different stripes. “There are tons of people who just hate Miller and say what a poor job they think he’s done,” he says. “We’re attracting those readers as well ? it’s not all just a bunch of lefties and progressives. I’m happy because there’s a discussion.”
by Andrea Lau
Andrea Lau was the Heads of Research for the Summer 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.