Start a conversation with a Vancouverite reading a newspaper and you can almost guarantee he'll hold stronger opinions on the paper itself than any of the stories inside it. The sheer magnitude of loathing British Columbians hold for their province's two largest publications, Postmedia twins Sun and Province, is really a spectacle that has to be seen to believed; it's an topic of idle conversation so thoroughly integrated into the rhythm of daily living you'd almost think it involved rain in some way.
The roots of this contempt aren't particularly mysterious. Both papers creak along with almost audible rot, their drab layouts housing ever-fewer original stories and ever-more regurgitated wire copy, most of which -- as popular legend goes -- is dumbed down to some pitiful grade school level (exact estimates vary, but everyone agrees it's surely under 10).
Editorial commentary, likewise, remains the exclusive domain of a small clique of nebbish insiders, who, although tolerable for their historical perspective ("the Rita Johnston administration: could it happen again?"), rarely give the impression of being substantially engaged with the issues of the day, just deeply obsessed with the short term ups-and-downs of a provincial party system that's self-involved enough as it is.
All this would be moot if the "big two" were facing genuine competition from other B.C. outlets, but alas, bad role modelling seems to have its consequences.
So-called "SkyTrain dailies" 24 Hoursand Metro are slick and well-run, but ultimately hampered by their impossibly dense, commercial format (frequent full front-and-back page covers hawking phone plans or Caribbean vacations give new meaning to that famous quip about journalists filling the space between advertisements), while leading "indie" outlets the Georgia Straight and the Tyee vanished long ago down uninviting rabbit holes of leftist esoterica.
And you can't just hop the border, either -- Alberta's not much better. In writing Media Bites every week, I'm frequently taken aback at how precious little the leading press outlets in the country's fastest-growing province are actually contributing to our national dialogue on any number of issues. As a self-respecting westerner, this pains me to admit, but if you want thoughtful or challenging journalism these days, you simply gotta look East.
Gone are the days of the Alberta Report and the Western Standard, iconoclastic publications that, whether you liked their rough politics or not, were at least doing, edgy, interesting things capable of provoking real discussion (not that the Edmonton Journal's latest editorial lead, "New Rec Centres Will be Talk of the Town" isn't thought-provoking, too).
Anyway, all this is a long way of saying that the timing could not be more ripe for the Huffington Post's big western Canadian debut this week, an event I assure excites for reasons beyond mere brazen self interest.
After all, for anyone interested in the emergence of real, substantial alternatives -- in both reporting and editorializing -- to the stagnant status quo of the western establishment press, it's hard to deny that the web's where it's at. Not some preachy vanity blog launched by a gang of Commie grad students who never quite adjusted to losing control of the student paper, mind you, but a serious online media institution with a track record of providing the resources and attracting the diverse talent necessary to back lofty rhetoric with real substance. Not just another voice in the wilderness, but a threat to the ones already squawking.
The political backdrop accompanying this western release could not bode more auspicious either, considering the substantial partisan evolution both British Columbia and Alberta are undergoing at the moment. There are new parties, new players, and new premiers, though most remain far from properly vetted by a mainstream press that seems more invested in the narrative of change than its actual facts or outcomes. Unpredictable circumstances demand more than predictable journalism; the legislature shouldn't be the only thing realigning to new challenges.
In practical terms, this is surely the single most important promise HuffPo B.C. and Alberta can make; a fresh perspective on western news amid an era of drying tropes. Albertans are no longer rednecks, we're told. British Columbians are no longer mellow. The Liberals are no longer invincible in B.C. and the Alberta Tories are no longer conservative. So why put up with media that still sucks?
I'm aware of the irony, of course, in hearing a guy who's supposed to be so cynical of the press offer such glowing inaugural praise for what's sure to be (if not already is) one of its most powerful outlets. The difference, however, is that while the pointless fluff that traditionally passes for a "shake-up" of the Canadian media landscape -- a new publisher here, a cancelled Sunday edition there -- rarely brings much meaningful consequence for readers or newsmakers, the outcomes of this HuffPo expansion are considerably less ambiguous.
We know that westerners can produce some of this country's most independent and insightful reporting and commentary if given access to a like-minded forum, and we know that HuffPo, with its famously inclusive roster of contributors, more than fits that bill. We also know this thing's gonna be big, simply because this brand is rarely anything else, and we can only guess that the content will be provocative and stimulating, because that's what readers want.
What readers want. That may be the most revolutionary notion of all.
Apologies if it gives Vancouverites one less thing to whine about.