At the Times Colonist, is the client always right?

By Sam Williams, August 1, 2010

Is the local daily's coverage of City Hall influenced by the financial support it receives from the City? 

Times Colonist reporter Bill Cleverley, in a story filed on July 31, asks “What’s best for the Blue Bridge?” Cleverley’s 2000-word piece starts with “The answer seems like a no-brainer,” and goes on to detail the City’s thinking behind its decision to replace Victoria’s iconic 86-year-old Johnson Street Bridge. Cleverley, who appears to be angling for one of those cushy communications jobs down at City Hall, promotes the official line on the bridge without so much as a blush. But isn’t this just a new take on “integrated journalism,” where a newspaper provides a major advertising client with supportive editorial without disclosing the financial relationship between the newspaper and the client?

Victoria City Hall’s Public Bodies Report shows the Times Colonist received $163,407.27 from the City in 2009. Now that may not seem like incentive enough for the paper to further lower its journalistic standards, but it’s enough to pay the salaries of 2 or 3 reporters like Cleverley. And in a year when the paper’s advertising revenues were shrinking so badly that the local daily became a 6-times-a-weeker, its income from the City of Victoria actually went up.

That Cleverley and the TC aren’t interested in drilling down into the real story behind City Hall’s move to replace the bridge shows up in completely contradictory statements the paper was willing to print—without question and within a period of one week—in support of the City’s effort to replace the bridge. In his July 31 piece, Cleverley went to great lengths to describe how difficult it would be to paint or repair the old bridge, but sums up the ease of building a new bridge like this: “The new bridge would be constructed immediately to the north of the existing bridge. This would allow the old bridge to stay open during construction, estimated to take four years. The old bridge would be torn down when the new one is finished.” But just a week before, Cleverley reported that the City’s general manager of operations, Peter Sparanese, was saying that unless Victoria electors approved something in the November referendum, the existing bridge would have to be closed in 2012. Let's review that. In one story the old bridge will have to be closed in 2012. In the other story it will last until 2014. No questions are asked by the reporter about this contradiction. This sounds like another way of saying, “The client is always right.”

Copyright © 2010, Sam Williams