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Report on Silver Linings

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All the good news that's fit to print: facts and arguments against the Globe's special sections

By last spring many in the industry knew that Confederation Life was in dire financial trouble. Only four years earlier the company had posted earnings above $100 million. But by 1992 those profits had dropped to $1.9 million, and last year the company lost $29 million.

Oddly, the Report on Insurance that ran in The Globe and Mail on May 10 last year ignored the problems at Confed Life. In fact, the company received only a passing reference in an article headed “Surviving Shakeout Becomes Top Goal.” The story focused on how the smallish but cash-rich Great West Life was bidding for control of giant Confederation Life. The writer concluded that “the Confederation Life-Great West Life relationship creates a relatively massive insurance company suited to a rapidly changing Canadian market.” Three months later, the 123-year-old company was pronounced dead.

According to Globe promotional material, the Report On supplements contain “timely surveys of many sectors of Canadian business and finance, as well as in-depth assessments of investment opportunities and developments in foreign markets.” And David Pyette, one of the two editors who oversee the sections, says they “are held to the same editorial standards as the rest of the paper.” But stories tend to be relentlessly upbeat, a tone that hardly characterizes most pieces in the paper.

Articles in the Report on the Maritimes have included such don’t worry, be happy headlines as “It’s Not All Fog in the Fishery” and “Living on Less and Liking It in the East.” Kimberly Noble, a Report on Business writer, recalls a piece she did for a mid-eighties Report on Alberta that reflected the economic slump the province was going through. After 10 inches of negative reporting, Noble optimistically said, “things are looking up…,” a line that became the lead when Ian Carmine cut the not-so-positive beginning.

It was Carmine, then editor of Report on Business, who launched the Report On sections in 1981. Trading on the prestige of ROB’s name, the supplements were added to attract more advertising to the Globe, and have been successful in that respect; they have grown from 12 to 16 sections a year to a projected 62 in 1995, with the ads sold at ROB’s top rate. As Noble explains, the special reports are a throwback to “the way the newspaper business was run, where you’re delivering a certain kind of reader to advertisers.”

Today’s Globe staff have little time or desire to contribute to the sections, and at best see them as a necessary revenue-generating evil. One staffer recalls how after he wrote something under protest for a Report on Insurance, he requested in writing that he never be asked again. This means that most of the articles in the sections are done by freelancers, who receive about $300 for each piece. Many of these reporters are generalists without specific knowledge of the subjects they cover, which may explain why some articles lack the depth normally expected of the Globe.

But the main reason for the overly positive slant in the special reports is the lack of editorial independence. Not only are ad reps given a list of stories slated for the sections, they actually suggest many of the topics, although Pyette says that not all these recommendations are accepted. For example, he once turned down a section about multilevel marketing, or what he calls a “Report on Pyramids.” But Pyette has approved “timely surveys” of such under examined topics as couriers, the multichannel universe, fine cars and ethnic marketing. Editorial staff also propose topics, though they may not have enough sales appeal. In the early nineties, Noble suggested as section on forest products, but advertisers balked at its environmental focus. In the end, few ads were sold, and the section was cut down to two pages.

The Northern Ireland report that ran on November 17, 1990, had the elements of a successful supplement: lots of ads and a positive focus. The article “Discover the True Ulster” captured the section’s sense of optimism about the area: “It hardly seems possible to reconcile the quiet, compelling beauty with the visions of violence projected by the media. Visitors respond to the setting and find out how pleasant and secure travel is.” One article that didn’t make the section was John Gray’s feature “Conscious of the Troubles,” which looked at how violence has affected the people there. Gray’s piece would have died had senior editors not liked it enough to put it into the Focus sections. In 1991, “Conscious of the Troubles” won Gray (and the Globe) a National Newspaper Award for feature writing.

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