Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Phil Villeneuve dances through Toronto

One of our more creative journalism grads from Centennial College has always danced to his own drummer. Now he's dancing into the headlines for his clandestine twirls at the Eaton Centre, the ROM and other Toronto locations.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chemical Spill in Scarborough multiplatform coverage by Centennial Students

A leak of sulphuric acid into the air over Scarborough, Ontario today happened just as I was about to teach a journalism class at the University of Toronto Scarborough/Centennial College joint program. It was supposed to be about feature writing. 

But that plan went out the window, after one of the students rushed over with her red laptop to tell me that a local Toronto TV station was reporting a chemical leak, which was just blocks from our campus at Morningside Avenue and the 401. 

We didn't know at the time if our campus would have to be evacuated, but it became clear that this was a real bit of breaking news, so I decided to throw out my lesson plan, and improvise: I turned the classroom into a multiplatform newsroom, and those 18 students were soon frantically scurrying around covering as many aspects as we could think of to this  developing story.

Three were tasked to be the main writers for the online story, which was regularly updated and published on a blog. 

The trio used Google docs to simultaneously collect information coming from other students in the class, write the copy and edit it online together, before publishing it. 
Two other students created a Twitter feed called ccjournchemleak. They updated the feed  as it was being researched and confirmed by the other students.

One student was sent to find a picture on the Internet we could use. Another created a Google map by going to My Maps and watching the online tutorial and following the instructions. 

View Chemtura Corporation in a larger map

Still another monitored the Toronto Fire Services website "active incidents" area for updates as to how many vehicles responded, the kinds of trucks and pumpers and ladder trucks. 

Over at the back of the class, we had one student monitor all the other media outlets including Twitter to make sure we had the latest info. And to try to find other sources or eye witnesses.

Two students who had arrived late because they'd been stuck in traffic at the very scene of the chemical spill, wrote eye witness accounts of what they'd seen, and one created a podcast which was then posted on YouTube and linked to the blog.

We had reporters calling the local city councillor for the ward to get a quote, and one contacted businesses nearby to find out how they were reacting or evacuating staff. A call to the Rouge Valley Hospital turned out to be the first anyone there had heard of the incident. 
A reporter called media relations of the Toronto Police although I told her not to expect a call back since they usually call the "big guys" first. 
A student did get a quote from Toronto EMS media relations checking for any injuries. Attempts were made to get information from the Workers Compensation board. They did find out how often employees are injured or miss work because of explosions in Canada. And they dug up why the sulphuric acid is dangerous to humans.

Some checked the TTC for service interruptions and rerouting, others checked with TDSB about what the public schools were doing. 

They checked GO and Via Rail since the site is beside a rail line. They compiled lists of important institutions nearby. 

They found financial background on the chemical company, revealing a previous chemical leak earlier this year in Elmira, Ontario. They learned of financial restructuring efforts under Chapter 11 in the US, and the fact the company made a chemical that gives the flavour to buttered popcorn. 
One student actually did reach a spokesman for the company, and managed to get a useable comment for the website. 

They used the newsroom telephones, their own cellphones, their online researching skills, and their interviewing skills. And in 90 minutes, they provided followers and readers (we did have some, okay maybe 10, including the CBC's Steven d'Sousa who called in with some info) with comprehensive coverage of the chemical spill.

I didn't send a reporter to the scene because the senior level journalism students next door  who work for the program's TorontoObserver.ca had sent two reporters already for their website, and I didn't want to step on any toes. Otherwise we would have had fresh video, as well. See the Observer coverage here: 

The level of adrenaline pumping through that classroom was palpable. They were tireless. They kept turning up new stuff that broadened the story as the minutes went by.

None have had any training in any of this. They have been in journalism school now for only nine weeks.

So there were some CP Stylebook errors and some words that should have been capitalized (or not). 

But I was impressed with their eagerness to tackle a real breaking story, the way real newsrooms do it, like at the Toronto Star or the Sun.

I myself learned to do a lot of these social media skills and digital journalism skills in May 2010, after attending a workshop run by Robb Montgomery of Visual Editors, where we actually did a simulated breaking news coverage of man-eating sea monsters being spotted in Toronto Harbour.  It was great training for today's real thing.

Now that I've had time to think about it, we could have done even more reporting and online storytelling by making graphics, and wordles and putting together a slideshow using Vuvox.
Oh well, next time.

I'm posting some of the comments that the students sent to me, when they were done, so you can see their thoughts on the experience.

First of all, today was one of the most exciting classes, if not the most. Having a team of people all working on different aspects of the same story was exhilarating. I enjoyed being able to use my experience in social media to create the Twitter feed (@ccjounchemleak) and combining everyone's information into one story. I saw the problems of using Twitter (not enough characters) and the advantages (speed, immediacy etc.) You were right in saying today was right up my alley. I love moving around from station to station seeing what everyone has found out and relaying that info around the room. It may not have been a huge story now that it is over with no injuries, yet it was a great learning experience.

In order to find pictures, we used Google Maps, and linked 
both a street view and satellite view for our portion of the coverage. To do 
this, we saved a map on my Gmail account, which we learned to 

do in a 3 minute tutorial video. 
 I think the experience was very exciting, spontaneous and 
active.  It was very fun to be apart of all the activity.  I 

personally learned something new from the task I was given, a skill I 
can now use for the future.

It was really fun and I was high on adrenaline. So much fun! We should totally do it again....

The timeliness of our report and the use of social media made the experience super exciting. The rush to publish a post and update it was a glimpse of what it's like to be in a newsroom when a story breaks. The team work was amazing.

Comments from the Dean of the School of Communications, Media and Design, Nate Horowitz:

Excellent coverage!


Comments from the web editor of the Town Crier online, Philip Alves, who also runs the Toronto Observer's web edition 

and teaches multiplatform journalism at Centennial

Holy smokes! Great stuff.

Kudos to you and the students!



Monday, October 18, 2010

First Canadian born Saint was a woman, Marguerite d'Youville, not Brother Andre

First Canadian- born saint article by Ellin Bessner, Canadian Press

With all the excitement this weekend about the Vatican naming Montreal's Brother Andre as a saint, it took  me back to the big journalistic scoop I had in March 1990, when I told Canadians that Canada would soon have the country's first locally-born Catholic saint. 

I was a Rome-based correspondent working for The Canadian Press, at the time. The late Canadian Cardinal Eduoard Gagnon was also based in Rome, as president of the Vatican's Pontifical Commission for the Family. He had been championing the case of Marguerite d'Youville, the founder of the Grey Nuns religious order.  He told me in an interview on tape, in early March, under embargo, that he had just presented the cardinals with proof of a 1978 medical miracle credited to the Grey Nuns founder.

Gagnon told me the Cardinals had decided it must have been a miracle that allowed a Hull woman, Lise Normand, 29,  to go into remission from leukemia after praying to Blessed Marie Marguerite d'Youville.

But Gagnon told me I couldn't break the story until after the Vatican had given him the go ahead to be quoted. When they did, on March 26, I filed my story. It was front page news in the Montreal Gazette March 27, 1990 and also played in papers across the country.

While there were eight other Canadian Catholic saints, including Rev. Jean de Brebeuf and seven Jesuit martyrs killed by the Iroquois or the Mohawk in the 1640s, and Marguerite Bourgeous, who founded the Congregation of Notre Dame, all were citizens of France.

St. Marguerite d'Youville was the first one born in Canada, in Varennes, Quebec in 1701. Now Brother Andre is the first male saint to be born in Canada.

Like they did for Brother Andre, the Vatican eventually held a special canonization ceremony at St. Peter's Square for Marguerite d'Youville, on December 9, 1990. Here is the Holy See's bio about her here. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Two success stories -- Centennial Journalism grads make good

Skills you learn in journalism school can take you to places you probably hadn't expected.

Graduate Mike Crisolago sent a lovely email last week to tell us he is working full time (with benefits!)  at Hostopia managing their photography and imaging needs, using skills he learned in photojournalism class.
Mike Crisolago (l), Michelle Nash, Meghan Housely at Centennial College.

A versatile student (that's him on the left during orientation at Centennial with Michelle Nash and Meghan Housley) with a background in theatre, Mike's piece about 20 books every tween and teen should read, was mentioned in the  New Yorker. Now that story he wrote, while on internship with Canadian Family, has been nominated for the Canadian Online  Publishing Awards.

His story is category 8 in the finalists. The award is announced October 20th. 
Go Mike!
In his spare time, Mike is freelancing for Canadian Family, and Quill and Quire, making slideshows, plus maintaining his own personal portfolio page, and he is doing his thing one year out of j-school.

Mike writes:

I just wanted to write to let you all know because none of the above would ever have come to pass without the education, guidance and support of the Centennial staff. So a huge THANK YOU to all of you! All the best for this school year! I hope the students at the school now appreciate the opportunities that are about to open to them.

Another email came this week from graduate Stephen Humphrey.

Stephen Humphrey

Sarah Peebles
Stephen graduated two years ago,  also from the Centennial post-graduate journalism program. A poet, writer and radio host, Stephen is now producing photography work and videos about bees-- not honey bees but solitary bees and wasps. Some of this work is being done in collaboration with a Toronto performance artist Sarah Peebles, who is making music using the sounds of bees and wasps. He's been watching and learning about bees at the Toronto Zoo as well as in the artist's studio, and Steve was a writer in residence at Guelph.

He also got stung in the face while photographing a beehive this summer!

Sarah Peebles' bee recording computer

 He writes:   I'm stretching what you taught me as far as I can right now. Thanks for opening my mind to possibilities. 

Check out his work at:

Leafcutter bee (Megachile relativa) builds a brood cell August 14, 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjsZ419lmMY&feature=related
Leafcutter bee (Megachile relativa) cleans house: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDM64FnDJK8
Preening Agepostemon bee: the sequel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xE0XkzAwwo
A tale of two resin bees in Toronto July 18, 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWqEvyKjsyw
Solitary bee June 17, 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiXW6PCARoA

You guys made my week!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rob Ford visit to National Post helps my students learn about journalism

Click Here to see the entire Live Tweet of Rob Ford's visit to the National Post

The visit of mayoralty candidate Rob Ford to the editorial board of the National Post today provided me with a real time demonstration for my journalism students. I was set to do a unit on quotes and attribution, and had prepared a power point and a bunch of handouts on the different kinds of quotes, and when you should use them.

Direct. Indirect. Partial.

But when I learned from my Twitter account last night that the Post would be live tweeting Ford's chat with the editorial board, I decided to risk an experiment with the class.

We would all follow the session as it happened, on our classroom Macs, and see how the journalist who was doing the Tweeting, would handle quotes. Everyone logged on at 1:45 and we waited and read the updates as Ford's session was supposed to start at 2. pm.

As a teacher, this was a risky exercise, and I admitted to the class up front that we would try it, and see how it went, but if it didn't work the way I'd hoped, then it was just an experiment, since I'd never tried this before. I don't think Twitter played such a vital role in the previous municipal election in Toronto in 2006, and so this opportunity to teach live as the Tweets happened, was a first for me as a teacher.
As it turned out, the students really liked it.
We started getting the tweets coming fast and furious, and because you only have 140 characters, we were getting short, juicy quotes from Ford.

Direct quotes like this one:
These nice short succinct quotes add flavour to the story, and keep the reader's interest to read the next part of the story. (Like skipping to the sex parts in a romance novel, after skimming over all the boring description and landscape views!) And if they are outrageous, or controversial, like Kanye West's outburst last year at the music awards "Immo let you finish, but first..." then you hang the quote on the person who said it and let them deal with the consequences.

But what do you do if the quote is convoluted or badly phrased or using bad grammar?

We discussed the different rules for this: ethically you can clean up a quote if it makes the speaker look better. But politicians - especially former US president George W Bush, had so many gaffes, that reporters didn't clean his mistakes up. Public figures are usually coached and have speech training and so the rules for making them look better, are different, then for ordinary interviewees. Here's what the Tweet said that Ford said.

Some students suggested that perhaps the Tweeter herself had made a mistake, just because of speed. We agreed that unless you were there, in person, and heard the way Ford said it out loud with your own ears, it wasn't fair to assume he had misspoken. Also, anyone who tries to transcribe an oral interview knows that people ramble orally they way they never would if it was a written email interview.

At some points, we got the reporter Mary Vallis deciding to paraphrase some of Ford's campaign messsage, rather then put in his speechifying. I suggested to the students that having to Tweet forces the journalist to focus, to only use the best and most important details and quotes, and is a very good exercise in using judgment and whittling out the unnecessary stuff from an hour long interview.

We got partial quotes with only a word or two in quotation marks:
This opened a discussion on whether putting a partial quote in, meant your tape recorder was broken, and you couldn't remember the whole quote, which sometimes happens. And also that sometimes, putting one word in quotes means the reporter insinuates they are skeptical of the source's claims. Sort of like "air quotes".

And finally, we discussed the Tweet about BlackBerrys. It is good colour and observation and shows a reporter's keen eye for detail, which all reporters should be on the lookout for. It adds colour and imagery to the eventual story and is a good habit to have.

Did the exercise work? After 40 minutes, I gave the class a break, but said they could stay and keep watching the Live Tweeting session if they wanted to. Except for a handful (including some who played HangMan or went to the washroom) most stayed at their computers to watch the Tweet session.

And some said it was really interesting, and fun.

Thank you Rob Ford, and The National Post, for coming into my classroom and spicing up my lesson on quotes! You made the class interactive and engaging! I even Tweeted to the National Post that we were following this session right in class. Kudos to Mary Vallis!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How the Canadian media covered (poorly?) the Vatican sex scandal

I'm quoted as one of the experts in the piece, which was just published today in the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Being a former Vatican correspondent for CBC and CP, and former Vatican Radio stringer here in Canada.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dead Birds and story ideas

We did a unit in journalism school today on where news comes from...and story ideas.
It was for the U T S C joint journalism program with Centennial College and this was week 2 of school for our new freshman (fresh person?) class.
Where does news come from, I asked them.
Everywhere, they replied.
And they are correct.

Case in point: on my way into school today, I noticed a bunch of tiny brown birds twittering and chirping at the bridge from the Centennial parking lot to the building's 4th floor.
When I went down into the security office, the guard was chatting with a building maintenance guy about this small brown box behind the counter.
There was an injured bird in it, and they'd called the Humane Society to come and take it away. Apparently, they find little dead birds on a frequent basis outside the campus cafeteria of the building at 755 Morningside because these little birds fly in a flock and hit the glass and crash.
The Morningside campus is built with lots of glass windows. They may be great to let students study with lots of natural light, but not so good for the wildlife in the area.
I think:  STORY!   STORY!   STORY!  STORY ! STORY!!!
I asked the security guard if I could see the bird, and take a picture with my Iphone since I thought perhaps one of the students in the senior year might do a story about this.
I went up stairs and excitedly revealed my findings to the senior students in the newsroom. Maybe they thought it was lame. But I persevered in my pitch: certainly it is worth a story in the Courier, the campus newspaper of Centennial College.
Birds + glass building = dead. Why?
Was the building built in a wildlife corridor? Did the architects not put stickers of scary crows or other predators on the windows, like they do at Toronto City hall and other downtown Bay Street buildings, to protect the birds, and scare them away? What about lights? Do the Centennial people turn the lights off at night, or lower the lights, in order not to attact birds? There is an agency in the city that works to help save birds from skyscrapers...perhaps our students should contact them.
In the end, some students went to get better pictures. Another said they could do a wider story about this issue in the next edition, about how it affects Scarborough as a whole.
So, from a bird in a box and an overheard conversation, comes a decent story idea.
I presented this whole chain of events to my freshman class today. Tomorrow, we go on a "story walk" where they will have to watch and see the neighbourhood around the school, and look for story ideas.
Why is this a good skill to have?
Because many journalists sit in the office and don't get out much to just "see with fresh eyes" and come up with story ideas. Editors are always looking for self starters--journalists who come up with new and different stories, so they, the editors, don't have to assign you all the time. And you, as a journalist, get to work on stuff that you are personally excited about. So everyone wins.

Now for the really wierd thing.
When I got home tonight, and looked on my back porch, there was a small black and yellow bird, dead, lying near my barbeque.
Maybe I am actually the cause of a rash of bird deaths occuring in Toronto today. They say journalists actually make up the news.....instead of reporting it. And no, I didn't bring the Centennial college bird home to show my kids. It really was a different, second fatality. I don't know if it hit our windows, or was left there by a cat.

Thanks to Angela Rotundo for the birdie pix.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The politics of Food - CHOMP Magazine...

Much satisfaction today reading a blog by a former student, Tevy Pilc, who's magazine won the Independent Publishers Association of Ontario award this spring of 2010 for the best student magazine -- produced and conceived and published by four students in my course at the University of Toronto's joint program in journalism with Centennial College.
It's called CHOMP magazine. I have written about it before.
But finding Tevy's blog about how proud he was of this magazine, was heartening, as we begin a new semester tomorrow with this magazine course at 8:30 a.m. It's deeply satisfying to know that as a teacher, I did have some small part to play in helping my journalism students develop and grow and create amazing stories. Way to go CHOMP!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Yes there are Journalism jobs in Canada 2010

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece for this blog about the recession and how it was affecting employment in the journalism industry. We had just seen CBC lay off 800 employees, cuts at the National Post (Monday's edition in the summer only online), and either centralizing or outsourcing by the Toronto Star and others of some layout and page design functions.

As we head into a new fall 2010 semester in journalism school, with new students coming in, and some  senior students beginning the final semester before going on an internship, my colleague Ted Fairhurst suggested we tackle the issue of jobs right on DAY 1.

So in researching for my presentation, (watch it here:) I searched on the usual media job websites, which all journalism students or prospective journalists should bookmark: Jeff Gaulin's job board, MediajobsearchCanada.com, milkman unlimited, workopolis, Rogers, monster.ca, CBC, CTVGLobemedia, Canwest, Metroland, The Sunmedia chain of papers, Canoe.ca and The university of Western Ontario's faculty of information, plus tvspy, j-source.ca and journalismnet.

I found about 450 job postings...before I stopped counting! So there are media jobs both in and around Toronto, as well as in the rest of Canada.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Liberia, Charles Taylor, Naomi Campbell and me

(Naomi Campbell testifying at the Hague war crimes trial. Photo courtesy of CBC.ca)

With the testimony of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, I've been remembering my time in Liberia, when I covered the civil war there.
Campbell admits she received diamonds as a gift from Taylor, who is thought to have supplied Sierra Leonian rebels with weapons to carry out their brutal war, in exchange for so called blood diamonds.

In 1991, I was a freelance journalist based in Rome. On assignment for the World Food Programme, they'd asked me to travel to West Africa and write about how their relief food aid was reaching between 600,000 and 900,000 people around Monrovia, and tens of thousands more Liberian refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire.

Landing in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for my first stop, in early June 2001, I remember stepping off the plane and feeling like I had stepped into an oven. It was my first experience with African heat and I wasn't prepared for it. Oh sure, I had the khaki jacket and I had all my tropical travel shots and carried the pills to ward off malaria. But I wasn't ready for the mosquitoes and other bugs at the Freetown hotel where my UN guide dropped me, and pledged to collect me the next morning to take me to tour the refugee camp.

I'll always remember that hotel for two things: the huge cockroach in the bathtub which scared me to death when I turned the lights on, and tossing and turning all night without a mosquito net, listening to Radio Canada International on my shortwave radio, and feeling so incredibly lonely.

The next day, with my face swollen from the mosquitoes, I must have looked a fright for my interviews. But my living conditions were better then in the camp.

A local UN office employee, James Legge, drove me out to see the Waterloo Refugee camp on the outskirts of Freetown, where thousands of Liberian refugees were living outside the capital. At the time, Sierra Leone hadn't itself been torn apart by its own civil war, which would begin soon enough.

Liberian refugees at the Waterloo Camp selling at makeshift market site. Ellin Bessner photo.

James Legge, WFP worker at Waterloo, Sierra Leone. Photo: Ellin Bessner

In Waterloo, now known as Kissy, I remember snapping this photo of a group of men who were in the midst of slaughtering a cow to supplement their UN rations.

Food distribution at Waterloo Refugee Camp/Ellin Bessner photo.

Before leaving Sierra Leone, I must have eaten dinner at restaurant which I think they called the White House. I was so careful not to drink local water, but I ate rice and chicken. The next morning, Imodium was the name of the game on the small, bathroom-less Red Cross relief flight from Freetown to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.


I arrived in Monrovia in June 1991, during a cease fire, a relatively calm period of what's now known as Liberia's first civil war, which started in 1989, when then-rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his uprising (supported by Libya and, some say, by the United States) against Liberia's unpopular president Samuel Doe. By 1990, Taylor's forces, the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) had conquered most of the country except for Monrovia, which was held by an Interim Government of National Unity.

See a 1990 ABC News report about the beginnings of the rebellion fought mainly by teenaged soldiers loyal to Charles Taylor:

A siege of Monrovia during the previous summer of 1990 had forced internally displaced Liberians and local residents to eat all the dogs, and all the animals in the zoo, then they cut down coconut palms and ate the hearts, and then they ate grass. With the cease fire, a relief corridor around the city was set up and reinforced by no-nonsense peacekeeping troops from several west African states, especially Nigeria, known as ECOMOG. This allowed NGOs and UN agencies in to the city, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, Catholic Relief Services, USAID and others.

Bullet holes in facades of buildings/Ellin Bessner photo.

There was no fighting when I arrived. But the Monrovia airport was just barely functioning. You could see the destruction of the city that had been carried out during the siege and the fighting: there were bullet holes everywhere, especially the hospitals and schools and government buildings.

There was garbage everywhere, abandoned cars, and while I didn't see this, some journalists reported seeing human bones lying in fields. The UN estimates that some 200,000 Liberians were killed in the fighting by the time the first war ended in 1996 and a further 700,000 fled the country to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

All international food aid to Monrovia had to come through the city's port, because Taylor's forces still controlled the rest of the country. So, UN officials asked a well-known local woman Dorothea Diggs, to find a way to distribute the rice and other commodities.

Dorothea Diggs, photo/Ellin Bessner

She created a group known as SELF, Special Emergency Life Food.

"We had to do something or we'd starve," Diggs told me in Monrovia during an interview.

She recruited local men to unload food shipments. They were paid in extra rice rations. But it wasn't enough for some: at first, in the warehouses, some men would wear two pairs of trousers and stuff their pockets and shoes with rice.

There were other troubles: early lists of residents eligible for food aid turned up "ghost houses" of imaginary clients, until SELF tightened up its procedures and began using computerized lists.

With rice worth $1 per cup in the local markets, the UN also used rice to encourage city wide clean ups.

"The city runs on rice," Richard Snellen told me at the time, in a story I wrote for "Africa Recovery", a publication of the United Nations Public Information department. Snellen was the WFP's emergency coordinator in Monrovia.

There was a sense of hope in the air then. Headlines in UN magazines included "Rebuilding after the war". Remembering my visit, I pulled out my old passport today.

It had its Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire immigration stamps. I did find an old black and green Liberian $5 dollar bill I'd pocketed as a souvenir.

It bears the face of J.J Roberts, Liberia's American-born first and founding president, a free black man who'd emigrated from Virginia to build a democratic Liberia in 1829. Wonder what he would have made of the supermodel's testimony?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

God, Guns and Oil - and Sarah Palin: journalism in Alaksa

I was on the Park Connection bus last month traveling between Denali National Park and Anchorage, Alaska when we passed through Wasilla.

Yes, that Wasilla.
The home town of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, who's also a former mayor, and now a much sought after speaker.
And yes, some gift shops in this state do sell t-shirts with the slogan "I can see Russia from my window".
For the record: you can't. Not from Wasilla, anyway.
What I did see were newspapers from north to south, Fairbanks to Juneau, where Palin's name, or her husband Todd's name, or Bristol Palin's name, are usually in the top stories. The Alaska Daily News website has a section called Palin Headlines, with a box of news about Palin. Today they discussed her comments about US President Obama not having "cojones" when he appeared recently on "The View".

There's an election underway in the U.S. now for Senate seats, and although Palin herself isn't running, just having her husband sit in the audience at candidate Joe Miller's campaign event, was enough to merit above the fold coverage, and, according to the Anchorage Daily News, an endorsement.

Many people may ridicule Sarah Palin, and comedians may joke about her lack of foreign policy experience, or her unorthodox way with words, or her non-traditional family despite her espoused family values. But here in Alaska, Palin is bigger news then the Pope.

In the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a story about a biography of Palin being written specially for children, was published just under the photo of rapper Jay-Z's concert in Ireland. The book, by Christian publishing house Zondervan, will tell tweens about Palin and her Christian values. According to the newspaper story, it won't mention anything about unwed daughter Bristol's baby, born when the girl was just 18.

We didn't stop at the Palin compound in Wasilla, as it would have meant an unscheduled detour for the rest of the passengers, but I understand better now why she is in favour of hunting. The only place in Alaska where I noticed obvious suppport for the right to bear arms, was in Wasilla. See the store in the photo, and photo I snapped of the window sticker on a car stopped next to us at the traffic light.

Supporting hunting isn't an opinion I would normally share. But carrying a gun? Maybe. After two weeks of hiking and camping in Alaska, and seeing moose and grizzlies and caribou, I might have been happier if our guide had had a weapon with him, rather then just two cans of bear guard.

This young grizzly bear was just outside my bus in Denali National Park. Shoot him? For sport? No. But to protect yourself? It's done here. And reported about in the news. They also quote the experts who often say never to shoot a charging grizzly, since it will hurt the bear, and probably make them madder. Bear attacks are big news here, too. A police officer recently used a taser on one in Anchorage and is in hot water for doing so.

The local TV News station KTUU covers bear attacks and reports stories about education and hiking safety, while Anchorage Daily News's ADN.com has a section for people to submit information about bear sightings on their main webpage.

It's not just bears who make big news here: salmon do, too, and so does the majestic scenery, 100,000 glaciers, mountains, moose, caribou, waterfalls, and bald eagles soaring overhead. All that beauty and natural resources is amazing, and whether it makes people here believe in God more then elsewhere, or not, it does make the environment a big news story in Alaska. After all, I think it's hard not to be awestruck with the spectacle of Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America, at 20,000 ft. plus. Especially seeing it on a clear day, like I did.

Alaskan news organizations spend a lot of time covering the environment and how development could impact it. Be it a new Pebble Mine proposal for Bristol Bay, or global warming being blamed for slow salmon runs, the papers cover stories pitting the "Drill, Baby, Drill" camp against the environmentalists and native Alaskan first nations bands. As well, local papers in Alaska have any news about the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, on their front pages. After all, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster here in 1989 is still very much in readers' minds.

And while papers across the country have news stories about crime and law and order, I saw something in a paper in Alaska that I haven't seen elsewhere: where the Toronto Star or National Post might cover one big crime or manhunt or arrest, in Fairbanks, Alaska, they report the entire contents of the local police blotter each and every day. In the Public Safety Report, they even put the result of the breathalyzer test right in the newspaper, before the suspect has gone to trial. With names and everything! In Canada, my students at Centennial College Journalism school are not permitted to write stories that would place them in contempt of court like that, at least according to Canadian law. The paper does have this disclaimer before the feature:
Individuals named as arrested and/or charged with crimes in this report are presumed innocent until proved guilty in a court of law.

Here's a sample from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:


• Reign Sherrell Bennett, 20, of North Pole, was charged with driving under the influence after being stopped for speeding Wednesday on Buzby Road. A chemical test found Bennett’s breath-alcohol content to be 0.149, more than the legal limit of 0.08.

• Timothy Keonikeltner, 24, was charged with driving under the influence after Alaska State Troopers pulled him over for speeding near 351 Mile the Richardson Highway. A chemical test found his breath-alcohol content to be 0.127.

• Corey Spears, 36, was charged with driving under the influence after troopers stopped him for weaving on the Mitchell Expressway near University Avenue. A chemical test found his breath-alcohol content to be 0.128.

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Looking Back in Fairbanks — July 17

One final note: I teach my students about the Mack Truck Moment in journalism. That's what happens in an interview when the guest mumbles something unexpected like "I did murder her" and the interviewer ignores the comment and proceeds to the next prepared question which is something like "How about those Blue Jays?". In other words, when someone drives a Mack Truck through your yard, you'd better stop what you are doing and pay attention to it. So when the Public Safety report had the following entry, what question should a good reporter have asked the police department, but didn't? !!!!

Stephen Ronald Englishoe, 61, of Chalkyitsik, was charged with first-degree failure to register as a sex offender, a felony, after Fairbanks International Airport police treated him Wednesday after he fell out of an aircraft that was about to disembark. Englishoe has been out of compliance with the state’s registry since December 2008, according to charging documents.

Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of Sarah Palin with my family in Alaska

Sarah (cardboard) and me in a gift store in Anchorage, Alaska July 2010.

Some of you may know that I recently returned from a three week camping and hiking trip to Alaska. While my blog usually discusses journalism issues, I thought I would add the link to a new blog I began while on the trip, as we had some incredible experiences and met some amazing people.
This second blog, which I have called 3familiesinalaska, was written for them.

Let me know what you think so far.

In the coming weeks look for new posts here in the usual space, about the newspapers and journalism and bear attack stories (not me, thank goodness) which I studied while tracking wildlife and journalism in Alaska.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Many parents of a certain age have spent the past few weeks busy with grad photos, proms, hairdressers and celebratory dinners.

It seems I have spent more time hearing about or personally sitting in graduation ceremonies this year then ever before.

Whether it was for high school -- such as my friend Pat's daughter in Ottawa (way to go Shannon), or for Grade 8 and my friend Elaine's son Adam in Richmond Hill, or elementary school, which, in the case of my nephew Noah in Montreal I couldn't attend, or at York University for my niece Naomi, where the convocation lasted 5 hours but had the best food.

And this year, for the first time, I was invited to attend the convocation ceremony at the University of Toronto. I was there to represent Centennial College while my 17 students in the class of 2010 Joint Journalism program of Centennial/U of T Scarborough received their gowns and hoods and handshakes from the chancellor, former Ontario premier David Peterson.

I had to sit up on the stage, wearing my own black robe, as befitting a member of the faculty, and I took a bad seat by mistake. It was directly behind the podium, so no chance of reading a novel or texting on my new I-phone when there were long pauses between my students names being called out: the event was being televised on the web live! (Full disclosure: I did chew gum and fan myself. Sorry, but it was hot under those lights!)

The ceremony itself was very stately and traditional, with the mace being carried in, an organist, and the decorum very heavy. They even asked the families not to clap as each name is called out, but rather to wait until all the graduates had finished their trips up to the stage and were all returned to their seats.

At first, most of the guests were content to smile and take photos from their seats in the galleries. And there were soooo many graduates. (Later I would find out that in fact, this was a short ceremony of just about 2 hours.)

But soon, despite the initial request for decorum, all it took was one beaming family who let out a loud Middle eastern or Arabic "la la la la la" of congratulations to get the whole place laughing and clapping, as that family's daughter shook hands with the university chancellor and the president. After this, that prompted other families, emboldened, to shout out their own traditional praises -- such as a proud father's "You Go Girl" when it was that student's turn to receive her diploma.

So much for formality. So much for august traditions. The new U of T student body and their families are forging a new kind of graduation. The families and this crop of graduates mirrored the diverse demographics of Scarborough and the area where UTSC/Centennial's campus is located: so many visible minority faces -- Chinese, Korean, Tamil, Pakistani, Indian, plus a few Italian Canadians, one fellow in a kilt, and some women in hijabs.

The faculty and university brass? Still mostly older white folks.

That day, I too, felt emboldened to break tradition, in my own way. I snapped pictures of my students with my I phone as they crossed the stage. I wasn't able to actually congratulate them or shake their hands, as the faculty is seated too far away from the students.

While I was honoured to be invited to the U of T ceremony, I prefered the more informal atmosphere of Centennial College's graduation June 17 . Why? Because the speeches are shorter, the graduates and families can clap and cheer all they want, and the teachers get to line up right where the students leave the stage for a hug and handshake, and..there is lovely music.

Here are some photos of my students doing their thing! Congratulations to all of you who have "made it".

Friday, June 25, 2010

Job Vacancy at Centennial College@ U of T Scarborough

Anyone with magazine writing/editing/publishing experience and online skills looking for a 3 hour per week X 15 week instructor job this fall?

Centennial College in Toronto is looking for an instructor to co-teach a senior level course in Beat Reporting. In the course, students work in small groups to conceive of a new niche magazine focusing on a specific “beat” or theme. Each group produces its own magazine, in print as well as an on-line edition. The successful candidate will teach in partnership with a full-time journalism faculty member. Each instructor will act as editor for about three beat groups. The course takes place at the Morningside Campus and is part of the college’s Joint Program in Journalism with the University of Toronto (Scarborough College). The work is for three classroom hours per week for the 15-week semester. The college is looking for a journalist who has several years experience in magazine feature writing/editing and who has skills in on-line presentation formats. Post-secondary teaching experience would be an asset. If you are interested, please send a covering letter and resume to the Program Coordinator, Ted Fairhurst, not later than Friday, July 9. tfairhurst@centennialcollege.ca

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Beneath the Tattoos  | American Journalism Review

Where will Millennials get their news? From TV, then the Internet, then newspapers. And mostly from aggregators like Yahoo or MSN, not from major mainstream media websites. Great article in the American Journalism Review.

Beneath the Tattoos
| American Journalism Review

Friday, May 28, 2010

Googling yourself

I just spent 2 days at a conference in Toronto aimed at helping teachers learn to use new technology to make their students learn better, and be more engaged. One of the speakers was Will Richardson, who is a college professor in New Jersey and has 48,000 readers for his blog. He asked us how many of us Googled ourselves regularly, to see what others can see about us when THEY Google us?
So I did it --today, to see what comes up. And the amazing Internet found the first letter to the editor I ever had published, when I was 11 in Montreal. And it also found when I won a World Book Encyclopedia from the Montreal Gazette for submitting a question to Ask Andy about How teeth grow from the gums?
I have those old yellowed clippings in my memory box at home, but now I can also share these online, thanks to Google. Cool!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Teaching Audio skills at Camp Versatile Journalist 2010

The Toronto Star has this post on my talk (one of several "experts" at Camp VJ 2010) in Toronto.
Nice feedback!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gathering Audio for multiplatform journalism

I am placing my links and some screen caps and some handy tips here for you at Camp VJ to use when gathering audio to tell your stories.

The main reason to gather audio is to provide emotional credibility to your print stories (brings a sense of presence to a story). Think of the reporter covering the crash of the Hindenburgh." Oh the humanity"



There are hundreds of AM and FM radio stations still operating in Canada, and radio is still pulling in millions of listeners, in both real time, and on demand.

CBC Radio has an App for the Iphone to listen wherever you are. So do a lot of radio stations, like 680 news. (see screen cap above)

Lots of people are still listening to radio (in their cars, at work, in dentist's offices) and many more are listening to it ondemand on their MP3 players and Iphones and Ipods.

The best tools for radio sound gathering are dedicated audio recorders and proper microphones and, headphones!

How to hold the mic, how close to hold the mic (6 '' from the person's chin is a good rule of thumb) and how to listen so your audio is clear and free of distortion and unwanted noises, is explained in a lovely British way by the BBC's own training centre, in this short animated segment.


It needs flash to play. If it doesn't play, you can read the handout here: in text version.

I like to use the Marantz PMD field recorder, and a Dynamic microphone by Shure or Senneheiser for interviews.

You also need a good shotgun mic for ambient sound, crowds, and general outdoor work.

ALWAYS wear headphones. Always test batteries and bring spares.

Record in WAV format if you wish, although it will take up a lot of memory on the SD cards. You can also record in MP3 format.


Professional radio stations use professional digital audio editing software. The CBC uses Dalet Plus, a multitrack editing platform.

680 News and many other private stations use BURLI.

Some like the BBC use Cool Edit, Jazz FM uses News Boss. There's also Audacity, which is free.

Reporters who travel alot and file from foreign assignments like Adobe Audition, costs about $400.

You can get a 30 day free trial at home.

Mac based editing use Protools and ...non professionals also use GARAGEBAND, which is easy and friendly.

Apple has a tutorial on GARAGEBAND.

Best reason to get decent mics and recording material is: so you can make great podcasts like the Lost Podcast with Jay and Jack...in honour of tonight's episode (second to last) of LOST.


Here are my lecture notes with handy links ; enjoyCOLLECTING AUDIO: by ellin bessner ebessner@centennialcollege.ca

Lots of ways to collect audio when covering a story: from your cellphone, (poor quality) from you Ipod or Iphones, from a dslr, from a videcamera, from a dedicated portable audio recorder and microphone. also on the phone. (poor quality)

depends what you want to do with the audio.


I am going to approach this first from the traditional standpoint of radio stations and there are some
600-900 or so at least out there on AM and FM, as well as tons of online radio internet radio stations. The Canadian Press audio feed serves about 500 customers in Canada..who use their audio clips and news interviews --

We still have millions of people listening to radio –in real time, on line, on mobile platforms like the CBC app on iphones, and on demand…

If its an interview, and you want to post a good chunk of interview, or of a speech or a press conference, where its mostly the newsmaker talking, not you—say one or two minutes, then you don’t need to mic yourself..just record the audio close to the mouth of the guest. this is the easier and takes very little editing.
its fast too. you have to transcribe your taped iinterview anyway to write an online print story, so you will remember the most dramatic clip or clips, and post those online.

If you want to record a bunch of short “streeters’ where you interview a bunch of protestors or a bunch of witnesses to an explosion like we did at the Propane explosion in Toronto 2 summers ago…and then you edit these together one after another after another, without any narration by you, then again, you need to mic only them.

If you want to do a more production heavy voicer—like we do at CBC RADIO NEWS, where you have to not only record sound of the scene, but also your narration and mix it all with the short excerpts from the mayor and the dalai llama visiting him, then that takes time to write and produce. I admit personally I don’t listen to many short voice reports on my computer or my ipods. I would listen to a long interview or Q from Jian Ghomesi’s feature interview, and I would download a panel discussion from some longer show. And podcasts, of course of my favourite tv show LOST.
these are done in studio quality studios, with good microphones, not out in the field.

National Post does a lot of podcasts where reporters talk about what they are covering or debate issues current like the city mayoralty race etc.


I think audio – to be honest – is less attractive to many people unless its longer form – because why would readers or consumers want to listen to a 1:30 news report (unless they are my mom and dad who have to listen to my newscasts?) when they can watch the event on You tube on their mobile devices? while they are commuting in traffic. My commute takes 1 hour each way so a 1.30 minute story goes by too fast. but a longer piece of tape –like WHAT WAS SAID on As it happens, is great, because you hear the newsmaker giving the speech – you hear Tiger Woods press conference…in case you missed it during the day when you were at work or out of the office with no access or no time to watch the live event.

No matter what you decide or your editor decides you need to do with the story, collecting good quality audio is easy –and you can use a bunch of different accessibly kinds of equipment to do it. MAIN thing: what kinds of mics to use for what situations, how to hold the mic, how to handle a mic, how to listen while you are recording. (text version: http://www.bbctraining.com/modules/2857/text-version2.html)

show my own powerpoint about mic handling if BBC doesn’t work:
(BBC TRAINING funny videoJ)

Some newsrooms use EDIROLS, http://www.edirol.com/
others use MARANTZ

like the cbc and we at Centennial College and UTSC journalism. We also use several kinds of mics—cardiod for interviews, shotgun mics for outdoor work and crowd noise or street sounds…omni directional mic if you need to do both.

shure and sennheiser and excellent choices


My students use a combination of our MARANTZES and their own cheaper consumer type dictating digital recorders like Radio Shack, Panasonics etc which you can buy at The Source or SONY stores. Video IPODS have lovely quality 44,100 kh cd quality audio. Its not good enough for CBC’s transmitters, but it is for internet radio.

How to edit depends on what software you want to use:

At CBC they use Dalet Plus which is a multi track editing system – its exclusive and expensive.

Some of the other more popular ones are Adobe Audition, also multitrack editing, much like its predecessor SOUNDFORGE. It comes with a 30 day free download trial. http://www.adobe.com/products/audition/


Audacity is free to download


there is also Burli, used by 680 News, and NewsBoss at Jazz Fm among others.

On the MAC side, there are a ton associated with Pro Tools and even Final Cut Pro has a way to export only the audio after you are done with the video.
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2854 (how to export audio from FINAL CUT PRO)

There is Garage band, which comes with every mac, easy to use –my kids can use it.
you need I tunes of course for playing back.


Once you gather the sound, and edit it
you will have an incue, and out cue, a file that runs several minutes long, and you will need a place to host it so folks can download it.
You should save it as an MP3 file, which is smaller and takes up less space then WAV files to download.

If your news organization has its own server and protocols how to save stuff and post, then you can do that. If you are posting it to your own website, you need to either make sure your website like wordpress has enough power /upgraded version where you pay a fee each year to allow audio and video to be posted --- or, you can create free hosts on websites like BOXNET.com, post the mp3 file there, and it gives you a url link that you then post to your own website or blog. Easy and free.

We do this on the Centennial College wordpress journalism news site:
this story by Amanda Kwan I posted the written version, and added her mp3 interview with the man who raises water buffaloes –first to boxnet, then added the link here.
no cost to me.


and we also do it on the Toronto Observer website, the online news site of the school of journalisms course work: the students post online stories, photgalleries, video, and audio.


I have handouts:
1) how to edit with Garageband
2) how to do Podcasts with garageband
3) how to edit with Adobe Audition