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The decision was a year in the making: If a viable woman ran for the Toronto mayoralty in 2010, Women’s Post would promote her. And when that woman turned out to be Sarah Thomson, the magazine’s owner (and, until recently, publisher and CEO), the plan didn’t change at all. First, she teased her intentions in the “Publisher’s Journal” column. Then, after a November 2009 blog post on womenspost.ca by “Schreecher” trashed the male front-runner and implored a female “entrepreneur, a business owner to step into the race,” Thomson—an uncanny match for that description—popped up in the comments, noting that though she hadn’t officially announced it, she planned to run. Finally, she appeared on the cover of the February/March issue; the sell line read: “Toronto’s next mayor…”

Thomson defends her bold move by explaining that she paid for the cover story as a campaign expense—though, as both publisher and advertiser, she was essentially paying herself. She may not doubt the ethics of her decision, but others do. To be trusted, says David Swick, a journalism ethics instructor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, journalists should be free to criticize all parties and open to changing views, but when electioneering masquerades as reporting, that trust can be broken permanently. A democracy, after all, requires groups with distinct and different powers. Journalists’ power, he says, “is to tell the truth, to criticize everybody, to speak loudly and be transparent about why we’re doing so. Isn’t this power enough?” Sometimes, apparently, it isn’t. But when political candidates use their media positions to advance their campaigns, they discredit themselves and their publications.

For journalists, the desire to change teams is understandable. “You’re dealing with politicians, some of whom you think are idiots, or are not working hard enough, or who are hiding issues,” Swick says. “I think it’s a natural instinct to want to get in there and get your hands dirty and do it yourself.” And there’s plenty of historical precedent—even Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was a newspaper owner and writer. Ralph Klein, former premier of Alberta, was once a political reporter, as was former Quebec premier René Lévesque. Former Global TV news anchor Peter Kent left journalism to run for Parliament (he lost a 2006 bid but won in 2008). Adam Vaughan quit his job as a political reporter for Citytv in 2006 to run for the Toronto City Council seat he now holds. And Ben Chin, a TV news veteran, lost a provincial by-election in 2006 and has stayed away from journalism ever since (the campaign came in between stints as a senior advisor in the premier’s office).

John Tory went the other way. A former Toronto mayoral candidate who later became provincial opposition leader, Tory now hosts the daily Live Drive program on Newstalk 1010. He believes there’s an acceptable grace period for journalists to remove themselves from their duties if they want to run for office. Although his radio show briefly became an issue last fall before he announced he wouldn’t run for mayor again, he says that as long as he was transparent about his plans—and the station acted quickly to replace him if he decided to run—listeners would have been satisfied.

And speed is indeed a factor in maintaining the public’s trust. The Toronto Star broke the story that Toronto Sun city hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy would run in a provincial by-election last summer, two days before she planned to take an unpaid leave of absence from her paper. Vaughan left Citytv when he started to seriously consider a campaign, weeks before he officially announced his candidacy. He feels he handled the transition appropriately, though he admits he had fielded suggestions that he run for office many times before. “If I stepped aside every time I’d been approached to think about it,” he says, “I’d have never been a journalist to begin with.”

Politically, Vaughan has no problem with what Thomson did, as long as the expenses were properly registered. “During the campaign, we all become publishers to a certain degree,” he says. “I think the decision she made has a more dramatic impact on the legitimacy of the paper she’s publishing than on her campaign.” When Vaughan left Citytv, Steve Hurlbut, then the network’s vice-president, told the National Postthe reporter might be rehired if he lost the election, but not as a political journalist. “You’re on either side of the fence, you can’t walk down the middle.”

Others have no problem going back home. The Globe and Mail‘s Michael Valpy ran as an NDP candidate in the 2000 federal election, taking temporary leave from the paper to do so. Five days after he lost, his byline returned, attached to a lengthy diary of his campaign. He still covers politics. Though, in a recent column on Adam Giambrone, who was briefly a mayoral hopeful, the paper included a statement disclosing Valpy’s past candidacy, on which Giambrone had worked.

Levy, too, reappeared in the Sun three days after losing. She says a conflict of interest never occurred to her when she decided to run: she covered city hall and rarely referred to provincial politics. Although she’s aWomen’s Post reader who has profiled the publisher, Levy was surprised to see Thomson on the cover of her own magazine. But, the columnist says, “She owns it. She has a right to use it.”

According to municipal guidelines, at least. The Canadian Society of Magazine Editors, however, frowns on this sort of manoeuvring, and has established principles on the mixing of advertising and editorial. CSME president Bob Sexton wrote about the Women’s Post matter in a comment on thestar.com: “The cover is considered an editorial page, just like any other editorial page in the magazine, so, therefore, placing an ad on the cover contravenes the industry guidelines.”

Though Thomson says she’s “pretty much stepped down” from Women’s Post and claims to have relinquished her publisher and CEO titles, she remains the owner. Her campaign also rents office space from the magazine, and campaign manager Wendy Stewart handled the request to speak with editor-in-chief Adam Mazerall for this article. Mazerall, who answers the phone, “Women’s Post and campaign office,” says the editorial team thought about what to do if more than one woman ran, “but as no other woman has entered the race, it is a moot point.”

Thomson says another female candidate might have received editorial play, but there was only space for one cover. “It’s no longer Women’s Post, it’s Sarah’s Post,” says Vaughan. “And that’s fine. She’s entitled to that. But that undermines the credibility of the magazine.”

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About the author

Jordan Ginsberg was the Online Editor for the Spring 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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