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Editor's letter: My boisterous encounter with Laureen Harper

Laureen Harper, honourary chairwoman of the NAC Gala in support of Canada's next generation of performing artists mingles with guest during a reception at the National Art Centre in Ottawa. File photo: April 10, 2009

Brigitte Bouvier/Special to the Globe and Mail

We don't have First Ladies (or First Gentlemen) in Canada, as Laureen Harper likes to tell people. If we did, she would surely break the mould.

Mrs. Harper is unlike any previous resident of 24 Sussex, and there have been plenty of trailblazers, from Margaret Trudeau to Mila Mulroney. The current Prime Minister's wife has her own unique way, which I first discovered when I met her early in her time in Ottawa. I had written a book, Timbit Nation , based on a trans-Canada hitch-hiking trip that I had taken to get a sense of the country at the turn of the century. She had read it (or some of it), and seized on the experience to describe her own summer drives from Ottawa to Calgary and back, two kids in tow, while "Stephen" stayed on the job. During the most tiring stretches, between Winnipeg and Kenora, Ont., she relied on potato chips and pop and singing along with the radio to fight boredom.

I wasn't surprised by the quintessentially Canadian road story. Who hasn't struggled with long-haul driving in this country? What sticks with me and delights is that the Prime Minister's wife would detail such tales so boisterously in the receiving line of a National Arts Centre gala.

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That's Laureen, as they say in Ottawa.

At Stornoway, the Opposition leader's official residence where they previously lived, she maintained a fire pit in the backyard so she could have friends by on Friday evenings to drink beer and play music. Other tales abound about her motorcycle and, of course, her pets.

You will understand Mrs. Harper much more after reading this weekend's feature interview by reporter Kathryn Blaze Carlson. You can also enjoy this photo gallery, available to Globe Unlimited subscribers first on Friday before non-subscribers get a look on Saturday.

I learned from the fascinating and human story that our 2006 encounter was her first major outing from 24 Sussex.

"I had never bought a fancy dress and been to anything like that in my life," she told Kathryn. "It was a star-struck evening."

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Concerned Canadians

Among the visitors to our editorial board this week were two of the more compelling Canadians we've had of late: Bob McLeod, premier of the North West Territories; and Jack Diamond, the legendary Toronto architect. They could scarcely be more different, or more passionate about their distinct parts of the country.

First, Premier McLeod. Visiting Toronto for the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference, he was clearly humbled by the collapse of mining investment in the north. In 2007, at the height of the mania over a commodities super cycle, there was $200-million in spending on exploration. He expects that to be $48-million this year.

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Mr. McLeod is turning some of his hopes to China and the rest of Asia (where else?). It's not just for money, but people.

His biggest challenge: Getting his territory's population to 100,000, about double its current level, within a decade. Although, he admits, it may take two. He's not looking to fill the far north with immigrants from Asia, though he'd be happy to see more. For now, he'll settle for Asian tourists, such as the 100 who came last year from China, thanks in part to increased flights to Yellowknife (eight a day now from Edmonton) and a drop in air fares by as much as two-thirds.

Mr. Diamond is worried about the reverse: too much capital and too many people in downtown Toronto, drawn to the proposed casino for the city. He would rather keep such facilities outside Toronto and see the Canadian National Exhibition grounds developed as green space for everyone to enjoy. He calls it a "people's park."

It's not clear how that would be financed. As Mr. McLeod could have told Mr. Diamond, governments just don't have the capital, at least not for now. Look at this week's Alberta budget, and brace yourself for the upcoming federal budget.

Troubled times

It wasn't a pretty week for our industry. The Toronto Star's parent company, Torstar Corp., was the latest to announce punishing financial results. It also initiated more staffing cuts. The Sun media chain announced it would freeze journalists' pay.

Speaking on CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Torstar chairman John Honderich referred to the evisceration of reliable revenue sources such as careers advertising ($75-million a year gone poof) and the need to charge for online content to replace the lost monies. He cited The Globe's subscription model as a sign of hopeful change for others and an absolute necessity to sustain The Star's newsroom.

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We are encouraged by the early success of our digital model – thanks to you. And while we have a long way to go, we see a market-driven demand for good journalism.

The future of journalism

How else will serious journalism continue?

That was a topic of discussion last weekend at a gathering I attended with editors and media executives from 15 countries at Ditchley Park near Oxford, England. Among the 40 or so guests was Jill Abramson of The New York Times, Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde, André Pratte of La Presse and Andrew Knight, veteran British editor and media executive.

The mood was hardly bullish, although there was much conviction that the independent probing and questioning of all that matters to our society is essential for human progress and will continue. How is another matter.

My take-aways:

  • There is more journalism than ever, and more is being paid for directly.
  • Credibility is under siege for all the traditional “estates” of our society, which risks becoming a massive crisis a half-decade from now when millennials are the dominant consumer group for news media. If the reading public does not see professional media as being any different from other digital sources of information, we’re all in trouble. No trust, no journalism.
  • Governments have gained an upper hand in blocking much of what journalists consider the basics of our craft, such as access to information and reasonable opportunities to challenge government. Many governments have also developed creative ways to go straight to the public, especially through social media. That used to be called propaganda.
  • The age of the specialist journalist is upon us. Specialists will become more important and build support teams around them, such as data miners. That approach is more expensive for many traditional media outlets, and will require other parts of newsrooms to be scaled back.
  • Too many news organizations seem wedded to their size and mandates. I was surprised by the number of editors who felt quality journalism couldn’t be done with fewer people over all – yet couldn’t explain why they needed the numbers they had, or why they continued to run sections that may not add much value to the overall level of knowledge for their readers.
  • Revenue is under pressure for all traditional media, and no longer can sustain the cost base.
  • The biggest challenge for some print companies is transforming advertising sales, which continue to be driven by print sales rather than rapidly evolving digital advertising models. (Newsrooms have adapted faster in many places.)
  • We need to become much more experimental, with products and content form – in print, customer service has become an obsession, possibly too late.
  • The surge of crowd-sourced journalism remains hotly contested as a serious pursuit, with many news organizations, under cost pressure, feeling it is not the best use of scarce resources to moderate and curate reader comments.

Enjoy the weekend,

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