Kady O’Malley needs a BlackBerry. Brow furrowed, she hurries into a large West Block room with rectangular windows and a view of a statue of Queen Victoria. She’s supposed to live-blog a government operations committee meeting, but a botched software update has thrown a wrench into the works. Fellow reporter David Akin gallantly offers his smartphone. O’Malley hesitates. She knows the sacrifice her colleague would be making if he surrendered such an essential means of communication in the middle of the news day. And so her live-blog—an innovation she brought to Parliament Hill at Maclean’s and now does for Inside Politics on CBC.ca—is on the verge of, in internet patois, epic fail.
A journalist who won’t be covering the committee comes to the rescue, much to Akin’s and O’Malley’s relief. The meeting begins and O’Malley’s face is stoney as her fingers fly over the tiny keys. It’s more than a phone for her; it’s a prosthesis. She’s so dedicated to the gadget that she’s been known to carry two of them at a time and even named her dog BlackBerry.
In an Ottawa where BlackBerrys are unholstered and placed on tables like guns in a spaghetti western, the ubiquity of smartphones has changed how the news is produced, consumed and digested. The handheld digital age established a new level of speed and interaction in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery: today’s 140-character quip can evolve into tomorrow’s A1 story. The desire for constant updates has expanded as more and more Canadian readers ingest information in new ways, whether on their computers, tablets or phones. The rising Twitter culture on the Hill and the desire to break news on that platform, regardless of its relevance to average readers, has evolved the scoop. And this shift is either making journalism more integral to democracy than it’s ever been—or the animals have taken over the farm.
Granted, the Hill has always been obsessed with speed. Blogging and breaking news online were commonplace a few years ago, just as 24-hour cable news accelerated the cycle three decades ago. There is something different, however, about having instant internet access, everywhere, all the time, in the palm of everyone’s hand—reporters, politicians and flacks alike. For political junkies who get their fix online, the “news cycle” is no longer cyclical; it’s a constant stream of fact, rumour and opinion, slurried together and pumped out at high speed.
Criticisms of the press gallery haven’t changed much over the years: it’s a bubble full of cozy insiders; reporters chase scandals instead of digging into relevant issues; and journalists and politicians are constantly drinking each others’ bathwater. Some critics argue that the increased speed just amplifies the same old problems. Others fret that online coverage leaves Luddite readers out of the political loop, though their experience is changing too because Canadians don’t have to be on Twitter to have their news landscape radically reshaped by the media elite who are. There are also valid concerns about the consequences, such as the loss of verification, editing and analysis. But the new standard of always-on journalism has the potential to change the equation for the better, too. Social media throw a spotlight on previously obscure political happenings that never would have warranted an inch of newsprint, making reporters more accountable and how they do their job more transparent.
Viewers and readers can now hold reporters to account more easily than they ever could in the domesticated confines of the letters page. “I respectfully disagree with @RosieBarton’s characterization of Canada’s Senate,” Joseph Uranowski, then a political science student from the University of Toronto, tweeted in May, during one of many discussions about Senate reform. Instead of ignoring the dissent, the CBC reporter replied: “Fair enough! But they are unelected!” Then, Brian G. Rice, president of a Liberal riding association in Mission, B.C., chimed in: “But the Senate is appointed by those who are elected. Having two systems to select the two houses is not a bad thing, IMHO.” With this exchange, Rosemary Barton was acting as something more than a broadcast journalist: she was one influential node in a network of commentary, connecting a student in Toronto and a party operative in a B.C. riverside community. It’s a phenomenon thatGuardian editor Alan Rusbridger has named the “mutualization” of journalism—a continuous collaboration between reporter and reader, who follow a story together as it evolves. The pace isn’t just faster; it’s dissolving the walls between the press gallery and the public. Like its print counterpart on crack, digital reporting is an odd mix of frivolity and policy. The public’s preference is for the chocolate journalism they love to loathe, not the spinach they claim to crave but often fail to digest. So readers will follow a scandal religiously, all the while bemoaning its existence. But this is nothing new. What the appetite for constant updates has bred is a new type of journalist: the perpetual reporter.
On April 9, 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a press conference to announce Helena Guergis had resigned as minister of state for the Status of Women—and he was kicking her out of caucus to boot. The resignation came after months of salacious gossip and increasing speculation about Guergis and her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer.
The story had become front-page news a day earlier, when the Toronto Star reported a claim that Jaffer had “opened up the Prime Minister’s office” to a Toronto businessman, Nazim Gillani (an allegation the former MP has refuted and sparked legal action by Gillani). Guergis was already embattled by Jaffer’s arrest for impaired driving and cocaine possession the previous September (charges have since been dropped), and her own bizarre temper tantrum in the Charlottetown airport. The Star story seemed to be the last straw for Harper. Though the RCMP eventually cleared Guergis of wrongdoing, her once-sterling political credentials were irreparably tarnished. The scandal broke in a traditional manner, but it quickly took on a new life online, demonstrating how a story that may have fizzled out in the past can gain momentum in the digital domain, and how the internet fuels both serious political discourse and cheap sensationalism.
The Star piece included one irresistible phrase: Jaffer and his business associate had spent their infamous evening in the presence of three “busty hookers.” And so at 9:20 a.m. on April 8, Kathy Vey, editor-in-chief ofOpenFile, tweeted, “Waiting for #bustyhookers to start trending on Twitter after great @TorontoStar digging by Kevin Donovan.” That “hashtag” is a way for Twitter users to follow and contribute to a series of related messages, which can build traffic and followers. Click on #bustyhookers, and bam—every tweet on that topic in the past week appears in real time. Hashtags emerge, grow in popularity (the “trending” that Vey correctly predicted), and evolve naturally as more people use them. As a shorthand for the whole sordid affair, #bustyhookers clicked.
Not all reporters jumped on the hashtag so quickly, though. Joanna Smith of the Star avoided it, despite the traffic it was sure to draw, because she was working on the follow-up story. Jennifer Ditchburn of The Canadian Press used the tag, but she worried it may have been considered evidence of perceived bias.
Some reporters took advantage of the trending topic as a way of pointing to a more serious issue, while others just delighted in the fun—this was, after all, the sexiest story to hit the Hill since Julie Couillard’s cleavage. “#Bustyhookers aside, how many other former MPs, staffers, hangerson etc are out there peddling access to gov’t grants? Or is Rahim the 1?,” wondered Andrew Coyne, national editor for Maclean’s, in one of the more serious-minded tweets. But the Star’s Susan Delacourt later quipped, “Every political news story more fun with #bustyhookers. Ie., who’s in the running for GG? #bustyhookers New PMO Dcomm? #bustyhookers.”
For months following her resignation, Guergis still couldn’t shake the spotlight, even as other big news stories came and went: the G20 summit in Toronto, the resignation of the chief of Statistics Canada over the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, and the ordered release of Afghan detainee documents that reportedly imply the Canadian military regularly handed over prisoners to Afghan authorities knowing they were likely to be tortured.
Delacourt suggests the obsession with Guergis (and similar stories) stems from readers’ preference for a soap-opera mix of sex, drugs and scandal, but she doesn’t believe that necessarily means journalists should be covering it. Plus it was perfect for Twitter because, with just 140 characters to work with, simplicity rules. Issues such as MP expenses or the right to free speech are complex. They require the time and attention that the accelerated news cycle seldom allows, and they are difficult to summarize in so few words while being catchy enough for time-starved readers to click on. That’s why she laments the shrinking political coverage on TV and in newspapers and magazines. True political junkies may have to dig for esoteric policy pieces on the web, but offline, they may be hard-pressed to find them at all.
Today, at least four Hill reporters are here for a parliamentary committee on the Jaffer affair. An hour and a half in, O’Malley has live-blogged well over 2,500 words; Akin has tweeted a few tidbits; and Ditchburn has already filed a quick hit that Stephen Wicary, TheGlobe and Mail’s online political editor, has posted to hispaper’s website. All three jump on the admission of Jaffer’s business card into evidence—it’s for a position he hasn’t held for almost a year. The pack mentality on the Hill isn’t new, neither is the demand to be on the hottest story, but the internet has only made the wolves more ravenous. “The idea is to ensure that we have a headline for every story that’s out there,” says Wicary, whether it’s a blog post, something from the wires or a full-fledged piece. Some in the press gallery are now glorified 140-character wire reporters who sum up their tweets at the end of the day.
But it doesn’t matter whether they’re tweeting from an iPhone or live-blogging from a BlackBerry or even sometimes filing from a now seemingly antiquated laptop the way Ditchburn does. What matters is that a story, especially an online one, is no longer static. It’s a work in progress. Watching Twitter is part of Wicary’s job. In May, he monitored the site on behalf of his many colleagues who had yet to make the jump. By November, a majority of the bureau had started tweeting—following the influential, vocal and prominent group that already was.
Some reporters, including Delacourt, just needed a little convincing. She detailed her conversion over a breakfast consisting of a ham and cheese croissant and a chai latte at the Bridgehead, a favourite coffee shop among those who work on the Hill. When Parliament recessed in June 2009, Delacourt took advantage of the relative calm to experiment with the social phenomenon. That summer, three notable stories that spread over Twitter turned Delacourt onto the burgeoning platform: the communion wafer Harper never actually stuffed in his pocket, the party logo on promotional stimulus cheques Conservative MPs handed out and Diane Ablonczy’s apparent demotion for funding Toronto’s Pride Parade. She realized that Twitter provides leads, alerts her to breaking stories and allows her to publish tidbits that won’t make it to print. And it lightens the mood. “It’s the land of smart remarks,” she says. “It’s most fun when it’s people start throwing stuff around back and forth and trying to be funny.”
According to Brad Lavigne, national director of the NDP, the parties pay close attention to reporters on Twitter and in blogs. He flags the occasional tweet as indicating bias, but mostly he finds it banal. “A lot of it is just incessant banter that is absolutely useless,” he says. “I follow these people and I like them, I have a beer with them. I respect them for what they do, but this vehicle, this tool, it helps illustrate how incessant this fucking town is. That you’re in a bubble.”
The days of two-martini lunches with ministerial aides and MPs may be over, but Delacourt insists that handheld devices have allowed the gallery to work better and smarter. Sometimes e-mail is more efficient, and tweets or texts can be icebreakers, as opposed to storymakers. And it’s not as though face-to-face interviews and phone conversations don’t happen for important issues or stories. When reporters all attend an event—Jean Chrétien’s portrait unveiling, say, or even Question Period— they shoot jokes, information and insight to each other and the public over Twitter. Everything is faster, but it’s also more transparent. Reporters can adapt, or be swept past.
“It used to be survival of the fittest,” says Peter C. Newman, veteran of Canadian political reporting, “and now it’s survival of the fastest.” He says that circular storytelling was a part of the gallery before he got there, and it’s much the same as it always was: reporters chase what’s hot instead of what’s relevant. The country’s survived this long, but he worries about the emphasis on speed. Newman says live-blogging is like “publishing your notes for a story.” There’s no time to process the information and place it in context for readers. “The Hill is very, very competitive,” he says, “but the competition is not so much for the truth, but for speed.”
Despite such elegies for the glory days, speed doesn’t have to detract from quality. Yes, Twitter allows too few characters for context, but not all continuous reporting lacks depth. When O’Malley live-blogs, 10 years of policy knowledge and political history unfurl, providing instant context and analysis. Her work is stream-of-consciousness, fluid, but loaded with insight.
Still, the criticism that live-blogs are more like rough notes often rings true. For all but insiders, O’Malley’s work can be dense and hard to follow. Yet, because it’s online, it’s meant for those who seek it out. As Delacourt puts it, the number of people reading a live-blog isn’t that important; it’s that there’s a reporter in an obscure committee meeting, holding MPs accountable, that counts.
David Akin really is everywhere,” says Wicary of his colleague’s unnerving ability to cover and know about everything at once. If anyone can rival O’Malley in her ubiquity and Hill knowledge, it’s Akin. “We always joke that David Akin doesn’t sleep,” says Laura Payton, a Sun Media reporter (Akin became her boss as national bureau chief just weeks later). His day often starts at 6 a.m. when he gets up to read the news before posting a podcast of headlines to his blog using the AudioBoo app on his iPhone and laptop, and often ends late at night with another post. Akin laughs about his sleep habits, admitting the key is to get up early and make digital reporting work for you, as he’s been doing since he was a tech reporter in the ’90s. “Be at one with your machines and away you go.”
Those machines make Akin one of the fastest reporters on the Hill, but sometimes being the quickest can create unwanted casualties. In February 2009, Akin killed a Canadian folk singer with one tweet: “Gordon Lightfoot has died, sources close to the singer say.” The news spread quickly, jumping from Twitter to news websites to radio. Then it was corrected. Lightfoot lives! The episode remains a rallying cry for Twitter refuseniks (as was, more recently, Bill Cosby’s greatly exaggerated death). But the mistake was corrected in less than half an hour—a shorter time than it took most people to find out that Princess Diana had actually died, just 13 years ago.
Though Akin has come in for some friendly ribbing from colleagues over the incident, they don’t tease him too much because he has been practising his perpetual reporting gospel longer than almost anyone on the Hill, and doing it with impressive results. In the committee meeting, as O’Malley continues her live-blog, Akin posts a few tweets, once to note the name of the witness testifying, and once to add that a scanned copy of Jaffer’s business card that had been entered into evidence revealed his title as “National Caucus Chair.” Later that night, Akin posted a link to a copy of the business card on his long-running blog, “David Akin’s on the Hill.”
His update is just 82 words, but it includes the scanned image and an excerpt from a transcript from the committee meeting, providing further context. It’s the perfect example of what Akin preaches: a few minutes to post some relevant development, cite your sources, show your work.
Having just completed an appearance on CBC News Network’s Power and Politics, O’Malley scans Twitter on her BlackBerry as she waits for Wicary to join her for after-work drinks on a Sparks Street patio. When he arrives, she smiles and says, “The internet thinks I should be on TV more.”
“The internet says a lot of things,” he jokes.
“Did you see the show?”
“What did you guys have on that story?”
“Pretty much the same as you.”
They drift into Hill jargon, all acronyms and last names. Though friendly, their first instinct is to size up the other bureau: who knows what, who knew first and who was the source. Competition is still the heart of the Hill, and breaking news, getting the scoop and being the best are still powerful motivators, no matter the pace. Reporters report more, more often, and interact with more readers than ever before. Coverage now flourishes in niches that appeal to tiny, if obsessive, audiences. Like the partisan papers of the early days of the press, no matter how small the audience, any increase in information can only enhance the collective discourse. There might be fewer column inches of political coverage in the morning paper, but a deeper and more intimate look at Parliament awaits online. The Hill is still a bubble that will never pop—but at least the public has a better view inside.
Kady O’Malley lives that bubble. It’s what makes her so good. She is the ultimate political reporter: knowledgeable, smart, fast, unabashed. And, apparently, always on. Thumbing through her BlackBerry as they chat, she snaps her head up from the tiny screen, looks at Wicary and grins. “Have you seen the new polling numbers?”