Members' Update: May 2017

Letter from our President and CEO

I don’t think there are many surprises left in the journalism profession these days, but you can never be too sure. Over the email transom last month came news – or at least it was news to me – that the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies was offering courses in “brand journalism.”

And I quote:

“Brand journalism applies the perspectives, skills and techniques of a reporter to the promotion of a brand. More and more organizations use journalistic techniques to tell their brand stories and engage larger audiences. In the second course of the Certificate in Brand Journalism & Multimedia Storytelling, you’ll learn the art and science of brand journalism….”

The pitch goes on to single out key skills the course can provide a student including “effective storytelling techniques” and learning to “recognize the strategic importance of digital brand journalism in marketing”.

If you thought this was an atomic upgrading of the old-fashioned, humble and often disputatious notion of “advertorial” journalism, you would get an A+. It is a sign, too, of some of the transitional game playing going on within the broadest concepts of journalism and journalism education. Simultaneously, the people deploying brands are going through transitions as well. One of the great taboos in virtually all advertising was to avoid political messages for fear of alienating the very people advertisers were trying to appeal to. In our new Trumpian era, many brands are taking to preaching about society and citizenship, both directly and indirectly (Coca Cola, for example, or Starbucks or Airbnb).  All this would seem to present something of a challenge for an organization like the National NewsMedia Council, which tries to deal with dispute resolution and ethical standards in the straight-forward, non-advertorial media. But perhaps not, as I shall try to explain...

But first a digression. Your observer here knows “brand” journalism because it is as old as journalism. In my particular case, my introduction to it was somewhat covert. It was at the old Toronto Telegram (or 'Tely') in the early 1970s and largely confined to the real estate and travel sections, although not unknown in the entertainment pages. I will refrain from a broad brush here and just report my own experience with covert advertorial. I got an unwanted and irritating assignment, out of the blue, during my first full year of a professional life in journalism. The assignment was to go out to a new housing development in the outskirts of Toronto and write a story on a significant housing development. I was to interview the director of communications of the project and visit a model, decorated (but unoccupied) home. Although it wasn’t in the memo, I was told there was excitement in management because the company was taking two full pages of ads for three Saturday editions of the Telys in a row and, well…there was more than a wink-wink here.

I was 24, a child of Watergate reportage and utterly outraged and four months into the job. I went up to the duty editor, whose name was Tim Porter, and flung the assignment sheet back on his desk. “I don’t do crap like this,” I replied, head full of steam. He read the note, looked up at me, looked back at the note, and said: “Of course you don’t. I’ll take it back if you like and reassign it to a professional journalist. Sorry for making the mistake of thinking that’s what you were.” Then he proceeded to go back to the copy he was editing.

I stood motionless in front of his desk, a bit like a dumb ox. I actually couldn’t move I was so angry. Eventually, he looked up at me and said: “Is there anything else?” I asked what he meant by the dig at my professionalism. “Oh,”  he said, “nothing in particular. I just know that a professional journalist knows that there is no assignment which can’t be handled professionally. This is obviously news to you.”

I must have stood there for another eternity, but eventually, as he continued to ignore me, I reached down, snatched the assignment paper and slunk back to my desk. I had a plan. I booked a visit to the development for myself and a Tely photographer, made arrangements for a tour and an interview and after I had done everything “professionally” I went back to some of the non-model homes that were already occupied and started asking the owners how they liked their new homes. It turned out there were problems. And such problems! Faulty wiring, leaks, badly poured concrete in the basement: there was a little list before I completed my “professional” inquiries. I put it all in my story, along with some choice quotes from people who were prepared to have their names used because they were so cheesed off at the shoddy work.

The story never ran, with or without a byline. No one ever got back to me to explain why, or castigate me, except Tim who sent me a note simply saying, as I recall: “nice to learn you are a professional journalist after all”. The Tely ran a page of display pictures with cutlines supplied, I assumed, by the developer.

An officially branded “Brand Journalist” will not, I suspect, get away with that approach today, but for the NNC this is not such a conundrum as it might seem. If there is an article or a special section of brand or advertorial journalism printed in a members’ newspaper or digital platform, and there are perceived errors of facts complained about by a member of the public, then we would certainly examine the complaint. Actually, if it’s a member’s paper or platform, we would have no choice. We would have to decide if it was worthy of the Council’s deliberations. We would not be able to engage the member’s editors about the complaint, however, because the editor would never have had any responsibility for the piece. But we would pass it along to the publisher, thereby putting the onus on answering the complaint on him or her.

If we can resolve the complaint appropriately, we won’t hesitate from taking it on. Of course, a certain kind of advertorial complaint may be more appropriately lodged with Advertising Standards Canada, which is what we might suggest to a complainant. Or maybe it is a simple misunderstanding of humour and we would try to explain it that way, respecting whatever it was that caused the complainant to complain. Whatever. If something is carried in a member’s outlet we will make a recommendation about its validity and direction for resolution, one way or another. That’s what we do here. You could say it’s our brand.


- John Fraser


We welcome new members of the National NewsMedia Council who have recently signed on. We are updating our website so that all individual members are noted, whether they are part of a larger group or not, along with links to their Internet websites.

As one of our members recently told us in an email:

"You just made my membership one of the best values I’ve gotten this year"

Our new members this month include:

Digital-only Publications:

• HuffPost Canada

• ByBlacks

Campus-based Publications:

• The Ryerson Review of Journalism

• The Ryersonian 


The Complaints Desk

How does the NNC resolve complaints? It uses a non-adversarial approach and a process based on transparency and accountability.

In practice, that means that complaints must be signed and in writing, and that the complainant and news media organization are copied on all responses. Staff assist both parties, and rely on generally accepted journalistic standards to resolve the complaint through corrective action, education, or other appropriate steps.

In cases where resolution cannot be reached, staff make a draft recommendation to the Council for adjudication. Directors use their public service and the news industry experience as they consider the complaint and recommendation in light of the news organization’s code of conduct and generally-accepted journalistic standards.

Typically, the NNC considers the news media, not the journalist, to be accountable in case of a complaint. This is in line with the practice of many members of the Association of Independent Press Councils of Europe, and flows from the principle that a news organization is responsible for the content it publishes. This principle also means being responsible for third party material such as wire copy and syndicated features, and that a complaint about such material is a complaint against the news organization.

Both transparency and accountability underpin the hearing process, which encourages the complainant and the news organization to participate before a panel of at least three directors. Both parties are given opportunity to fully present their views. The Council and hearing panel have the authority to determine the focus of the hearing regardless of the issues set out in the complaint, and have ruled that hearing decisions are final and not subject to review or reconsideration.

Complaints by the figures: Between February and April 2017 the NNC received 39 complaints. Nine are still in progress (including four about same article), three were abandoned, two were dismissed with reservations, one was declined due to corrective action taken, nine were dismissed due to no breach, and 19 were declined for reasons including anonymous complaint, legal action taken, stale dated, no mandate, no specifics or no breach of journalistic standards.


- Pat Perkel, Executive Director and Complaints Co-Ordinator


37 Front Street File: BIG ideas begin their rollout

At a time that Canadian news media outlets are adapting to the ever-present challenges posed by the swaying tides of 'digital disruption', the NNC is actively charting a course towards a more stable and collaborative future. In the wake of the so-called 'fake news' epidemic, a key rallying point to achieving this vision, we believe, is for all reputable media outlets to coalesce around their most basic values: a commitment to factual accuracy and ethical behaviour in news gathering. 

Over the last month, the NNC's commitment to those values has been front and centre in our outreach and advocacy work. We hosted a panel at the annual Canadian Association of Journalists' conference on the subject of 'fake news' and were invited to speak at the Ontario Community Newspaper Association's Spring convention. Be sure to check in to our Medium channel for a full run-down of both events. We're happy to report that we've successfully recruited our first campus publication (two, actually!) - and we've been working with Journalists for Human Rights to craft an offer that we think will be hard to refuse. 

We've also signed a joint statement with our friends at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to support legislation to better protect journalistic sources. Finally, we've been busy updating our website. As you can see, here, we've launched our new 'members page', which, admittedly, is still in development but is much more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor. In the coming months, we will be rolling out many new features, too. So stay tuned! 


 - Brent Jolly, Director of Communications and Community Manager



By the paper’s own account, the “original Frontenac newspaper” sprang from the enterprising spirit of several North Frontenac residents who met in the basement of a small lakeside town’s Anglican rectory in November 1970. They had set out to survey their fellow, albeit widely dispersed, residents about the region. After tallying the results, they realized that the Land O’Lakes county lacked a sense of community. The fix? Local news.

According to Art Stinson, a former Carleton University professor, the intrepid locals began publishing what was then called the North Frontenac News, “a modest mimeographed sheet distributed for free pick-up in every local grocery store.” Since then, the Frontenac News has continued to cover local stories and how large-scale issues affect the community of small townships.   

Having turned down offers from multi-paper publishers to purchase the newspaper, the paper prides itself on its independence and continued efforts to “foster a sense of regional identity” in Ontario’s cottage country.

You can read the stories affecting the Frontenac community and get a more thorough account of the paper’s origins on their website.


- Cara Sabatini, Outreach Co-Ordinator


(Terrible pun alert!)

Springing into action

Over the last few months, the NNC has been industriously stockpiling the many wells of wisdom from the innumerable consultations we have been having with publishers, practitioners, and the public. Now, as the gusty, blustery vestiges of winter begin to recede (we hope!) the NNC is seeing these seeds begin to sprout. 

The biggest return we have seen over the last few weeks is finalizing an agreement with the renowned Poynter Institute. Together, we have developed a trial program that will allow NNC members to receive a 20 per cent discount on the award-winning webinars offered by Poynter/News U. We're doing this because the key platforms of the NNC go beyond the simple mandate to resolve complaints. We are also an organization that advocates for learning, training, and education. We believe that offering members access to these training modules, whether they live in Surrey, B.C. or St. John's, Newfoundland, helps to further our mission to promote strong, ethical journalism.   

To receive the special discount code to register for a Poynter seminar, or if you have suggestions on directions you think we should take on our ‘road ahead’, or partnerships you think would be interesting to form, please don’t hesitate to send me an email to:  

- Brent Jolly, Director of Communications and Community Manager


Information update

We have short NNC information blurbs to promote your membership and let readers know how to get in touch with us. We would appreciate if you include one, along with our organization's logo either in your printed publication or on your website. A high-resolution version can be downloaded on our website.       

{Your news organization) is a member of the National NewsMedia Council, which deals with complaints about news stories, opinion columns or photos. See the NNC website at or call 1-844-877-1163 for more information.


Have a complaint about news stories, opinion columns or photos? See the National NewsMedia Council website at or call 1-844-877-1163 for information.

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