Members' Update: August-September 2017

Letter from our President and CEO

The National NewsMedia Council is heading into its third year since its quiet launch in September 2015, and what is becoming really clear -- contrary to many predictions -- is that our world and our work is expanding not contracting, even expanding rapidly in some areas. This was not expected as that launch was set against the biggest overall challenge ever faced by the Canadian print media. “Crisis” was the word we heard almost every day.

No one, in fact, could have predicted much of anything that has happened over the past two years and even we would admit that a robust revival of a media dispute resolution organization pales in comparison to some of the unexpected political events south of the border. Still, it’s our own revival and it says something important about an industry and institutions that are very important to Canadians. That makes its parameters interesting to dissect.

Perhaps the most salient thing we have learned, apart from the determined loyalty of our media membership and the remarkable wisdom and equanimity of our council members, was the importance and growth of partnerships. In different ways and for different reasons, we have established partnerships of one sort or another with fellow media groups, human rights organizations, academic institutions, other press councils and even journalistic self-help groups. We don’t necessarily all think the same thing at the same time, but there is a heartening unanimity about the importance of a responsible, ethically-centred media. Let me just focus on two of those partners: the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada and Journalists for Human Rights.

The National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada (NEPMCC) was founded in 1958 and not at all coincidentally parallels the growth of diversity in Canada which gathered steam throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The NNC has signed a memorandum of understanding with NEPMCC and its more than 800 members across the country. This was beneficial for both sides. It gives the NEPMCC access to our skill set in dispute resolution and a sense of belonging as it shares overall membership with our own 800-plus members. For the NNC, the chance to share the excitement for the future of journalism in Canada, along with all the equally shared hazards and challenges, seems to us obvious. The NEPMCC also gives us a heads-up on how to handle tricky issues that come up from time to time with coverage of the ethnic communities across the country. This link also helps considerably to reinforce our commitment to diversity.

Journalists for Human Rights was started in 2002 specifically to engage Canadians in the cause of supporting media in countries where human rights needs support. It began in a small way under the leadership of founder Ben Peterson and then started expanding mightily under his successor, Rachel Pulfer. Now the organization promotes ethically based reporting focussing on human rights issues not only in international locales, but also has found a real cause in fighting for useful and better-taught skills and practices in Indigenous communities throughout Canada.

At the NNC, where a big part of our founding mandate is to promote education about journalism amongst the reading public, we are also developing a very ambitious programme to expand into campus newspapers in both universities and community colleges. One of those ways is to give a new annual award, partnered with Journalists for Human Rights and the Ottawa Community Foundation (which holds the endowment funds we inherited from the old Ontario Press Council), to a campus newspaper and writer adjudged to have produced the best article on human rights over the previous year. You will hear much more about this academic initiative in general in the next issue of our Newsletter, but this is a good example of how partnerships work for all sides. 

- 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:

• Castanet

• New Canadian Media

The NNC is also excited to welcome three new members to our board of directors. 

• Doug Cudmore joins us as a new professional member representing The Toronto Star. He replaces Mary Vallis, who has recently left the publication to become a journalism professor at Toronto's Centennial College.

• Jeff Elgie joins the NNC as a professional member representing Village Media. 

• David Estok joins the NNC as a professional member representing the University of Toronto


Global Views, Local Actions

This summer, I had the remarkable opportunity to meet with Kobus Van Rooyen of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.

Prof. Van Rooyen has a formidable history in the area of journalism standards. He was chair of South Africa’s Publications Appeal Board during the tumultuous apartheid years of 1980 to 1990, and presided over the demise of censorship as South Africa transitioned to democracy. His is an amazing story of the transformation from information control and repression to constitutional protection of freedom of speech – in spite of strong public views for and against that change.

Van Rooyen later headed South Africa’s Press Council, and had an influential hand in drafting the new Films and Publications Act. He is now chair of the Complaints and Compliance Committee of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, the communications and broadcasting regulator. Readers of ICASA decisions like this one may be surprised by the decision’s reliance on South Africa’s constitution and case law.

Some months ago, I also had the pleasure of meeting Prof. David Weisbrot, outgoing chair of the Australian Press Council. The APC, like the NNC, counts magazines, digital-only piblications, wire services, and newspapers among its members. The difference is that that APC has a binding statement of principles that it uses to assess complaints against members. Complaints to the APC must conform to the options available in that code, and decisions like this one are tested against those principles.

The NNC operates on the premise of freedom of speech, recognizing that Canadian law around libel and inciting hate are limits that apply to all. The NNC does not rely only on case law or a binding statement of principles when it considers complaints. Instead, it upholds “widely accepted” journalistic standards including factual accuracy, freedom from bias, and opportunity to respond.

In considering complaints, the NNC’s task is to keep those journalistic values and ethics at the centre of the discussion. We start by giving an attentive ear to both sides, and often find a remedy through educating the public about news literacy. We frequently explain that being outspoken from an editorial point of view is acceptable – but mixing fact and opinion in news stories is not acceptable.

The NNC’s decision to use a cascading system that applies a news organization’s own code of practice along with widely accepted standards and ethics is, in our view, the best way to make sure that each complaint is considered on its own merits, in a way that builds understanding of the media and encourages the public and news media industry to stay engaged with each other – and that builds trust.


 - Pat Perkel, Executive Director and Complaints Co-Ordinator


The Complaints Desk:

 By the Numbers

From April to September, 29 complaints were registered with the NNC, two were subsequently abandoned by the complainant, 10 were declined, and two were upheld. Among those that were dismissed, the majority alleged bias in reporting, columns, or selection of letters to the editor.

Want to be the first to read our decisions? You can sign up for our roundup of decisions - distributed every Thursday evening by clicking here.


37 Front Street File: Diversity Amidst Disruption 

More than 20 year ago, Steve Jobs revealed to the world the now iconic marketing campaign 'Think Different'. Originally meant as an antidote to a struggling company, the catchphrase inevitably struck a chord with the public and helped to transform Apple from a laggard to a leader in technological innovation and digital culture. As a young lad coming of age during this intense period of so-called 'disruption', this high-end marketing speak worked its wonders on me. It became more than a catchphrase. It became an appeal, a mantra of sorts, that appealed to my inner-most nerd. As contemptible as it may sound for a journalist to admit, it was a pithy directive that helped shape my view of the world. 

Why is this little confession relevant? Well, I believe it's an important footnote to how I see my role with the National NewsMedia Council of Canada. In the thirteen months since I joined the NNC as its director of communications and community manager, I've been grappling with the idea of how press councils can continue to maintain their historic role as an impartial, and credible institutions devoted to dispute resolution; as relative seas of calm, and thoughtful reflection within a fast-paced, often chaotic, digital world. 

Undertaking this transformation has not being easy. Its little secret that when provincial press councils merged into a national body in 2015 many nay-sayers were keen to opine that our organization already had one foot in the grave. Only two plus years into this venture, I'm extremely happy to be a part of a wonderful team that is challenging the traditional orthodoxy of what a (small) institution can accomplish. 

Don't believe me? Let me fill you in on what we've been up to over the last couple of months and you can judge for yourself. We do, after all, believe in the sanctity of facts.

First, we are taking unprecedented steps to address the ongoing concerns over diversity. As John Fraser discussed in his CEO column, we are working with the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada to help provide us with guidance on issues of race and ethnicity when dealing with complaints from the public. We have also welcomed New Canadian Media, and their burgeoning collective of journalists, as members. As the demographics of Canada continually change, the NNC believes that the future success of Canada's media system rests on the fair and substantive exchange of ideas curated from diverse viewpoints and experiences. As our societal norms change, so too must our journalism. 

Second, the NNC has taken strong steps towards supporting young journalists in Canada. To that end, we are providing funding for two travel bursaries for students to join us and attend the upcoming Connected150 conference taking place at the University of Ottawa. We are also re-launching the Fraser MacDougall Award this year, in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights. This award will be given to an outstanding story, published in campus media, that addresses human rights issues. We are also looking forward to attending the upcoming Canadian University Press conference in January 2018. By that time, we hope our current campus outreach programme, now in its roll-out phase, will begin to yield positive results. We've also been welcomed by the University of Toronto (Scarborough) to do a seminar on ethics with their first-year media studies students.

Third, on the research front, the NNC has been active in addressing the growing public and industry concerns around the practice of de-indexing. Over the course of the summer we have devoted many hours to design a short survey that will be sent to members in the coming weeks. By the same token, we have been working with a young lawyer to research the 'Right to Be Forgotten', and its potential impacts on publishers. We are looking forward to sharing key themes with our members soon. Moreover, we are also working with April Lindgren at Ryerson University to undertake a study on the changing dynamics of Canadian newsrooms

Lastly, we hope you have noticed our shiny, new website. We are especially proud that this site provides our members, and the public, with a continually-growing digital library of guides and resources. As you might have also seen in your inbox, we have also created a new, simplified way to disseminate NNC decisions. We are also looking forward to launching our first podcast this autumn. Our theme for this season is 'True Confessions'. Our first episode will be a feature interview with Jesse Brown from Canadaland, which you will certainly want to hear!  

In many ways, we have been exceptionally fortunate (in the most ultimate back-handed of ways) that President Trump has embraced such polarizing rhetoric with regard to the mainstream media. It has made our fundamental raison d'être all the more salient. While the ongoing challenges that confront the Canadian media system are nothing short of daunting, our efforts to promote factual journalism will be unwavering. 


 - Brent Jolly, Director of Communications and Community Manager


Could the expansion of two Toronto-based outlets mark an auspicious trend for Canada's niche news frontier? 

As the last summer moon faded from the skies, two Toronto-based digital media organizations broke ground for national expansion by setting up shop in Montreal. While one platform covers classical music and the other sports, what they share is a hyperlocal lens and increased popularity throughout the country.

Toronto’s sleek sports start-up, The Athletic, has launched in six Canadian cities—surpassing the number of American cities covered by the niche news network. Focusing mainly on hockey, the subscription-based platform will continue to serve up smart sports news from Toronto, and most recently, from their new, fully staffed Montreal office as they grow their teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

An ambitious plan for any journalism outfit, The Athletic editor-in-chief James Mirtle cites increased subscribers throughout the country as the reason for expansion. Mirtle is an experienced sports journalist with 12 years at the Globe and Mail under his belt, but had only been at The Athletic for three months when he pitched Canadian expansion to the company’s San Francisco-based founders. After looking at the subscriber list and Google Analytics, explains Mirtle, “It was pretty clear to me that Canadians were getting on board in a really big way.”

Ludwig Van publisher Michael Vincent cites similar reasons for expansion. Formerly Musical Toronto, the niche news site has offered thoughtful coverage of the city’s classical music beat for several years. As its audience grew, Vincent’s phone received a steady string of calls from people who wished they had a Musical Toronto in their city.

“That sort of sparked the idea of a network of sites that would provide hyperlocal content in each city and really represent their unique voices,” says Vincent.

The blog turned niche news network added the Montreal music scene to its repertoire as of September 14, re-branding as Ludwig Van Toronto and launching Ludwig Van Montreal, as they set their sights on further expansion.

For both outfits, success in the national market hinges on their hyperlocal, niche approach. It’s a trend that some academics have been watching closely. King’s University professor Kelly Toughill believes the industry is moving towards more niche products rather than trying to package all types of content together. Toughill told CBC News last February, “Finding ways to serve people's particular interests is really where business models are working.”

“For a long time, I believed that paywalls were the wrong way to go and that scale was the way to go,” says Mirtle. The seasoned journalist discussed his past experience with content that relies on ads: “It was kind of a race to the bottom where everyone was trying to get as many clicks as possible, but getting a click and writing a quality story—the goals weren’t aligned with good journalism. So something had to change, and hopefully this is it.”

Instead of paywalls, Ludwig Van has taken a more creative approach to funding by opening an in-house ad agency, aptly named “Ludwig Van Creative.” Vincent says it aims to help advertisers find new ways of connecting with their audiences.

“When we started, I was told what we’re doing wouldn’t gather a large audience and we wouldn’t be able to sell advertising or make any money at it,” says Vincent. “But we started small and those warnings have all been proven wrong for us. We’re a small niche, and if we can do it in classical music, you can imagine what else can be done in even more popular forms of entertainment or news or whatever it is.”

Although Ludwig Van and The Athletic part ways on subject matter and business model, both platforms emerged from the ebb of their respective print sections.

Ludwig Van’s launch comes on the heels of the Globe and Mail’s decision to decrease its arts coverage. “I think there’s only something like two full-time critics left in Canada, and we used to have over 15 over ten years ago,” says Vincent, whose own freelance work has waned in recent years. “We’re here to fill that void.”

Mirtle saw a similar trend in sports. “The number of hockey writers in Canada has been falling at a dramatic rate for the past five years to the point that the coverage of the teams has really been severely impacted.” Mirtle says that there’s not only a need for coverage but for different coverage. “Personally, for a living, I want to keep doing this for my job, but as a sports fan my whole life, I like reading good, smart content.”

He’s not alone. Backed by venture capital and more than 10,000 Toronto subscribers, The Athletic sees itself as “the sports section for the next generation.” With most of their subscribers under the age of 40, Mirtle is optimistic about The Athletic’s future—and for the industry in general. “My advice is that this is possible. It is possible to innovate in journalism. It is possible to create something different and good enough that you can sell it. And I think that’s the mindset that we need to take instead of giving things away for free.”

Vincent offers up a similar dose of optimism: “I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this [niche] stuff. As long as the journalism is ethical and conventions are followed, there’s going to be readers who follow us alongside traditional media.”


- Cara Sabatini, Outreach Co-Ordinator


Looking for an autumn tune-up? 

We can help with that

A gentle reminder that, if you're looking to hone some new digital skills, or want to think broadly about the state of the industry, the NNC can help. We've got an agreement with the renowned Poynter Institute for discounts on many of their excellent NewsU webinars.

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, please send an email to:  




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, opinion, or photos? See the National NewsMedia Council website at or call 1-844-877-1163 for information.

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