This beat goes on

City Hall reporting will be a different challenge in the Tory era: news will have to be chased down in a figurative sense, rather than a literal one

A couple months ago — Sept. 12, to be exact— it dawned on me that the next mayor of Toronto would not require 24-hour monitoring. This was a relief.

But I’ve yet to come to terms with the idea that local politics no longer demands compulsive daylight surveillance, either. These days, I’ll still emerge from a meeting and desperately skim Twitter to find out what I’ve missed in the previous hour, only to see — nothing much, really.

A friend compared this to how drivers uneasily adjust upon exiting a highway, when it takes some time for the adrenaline high to settle.

And now into the quiet clearing of this post-election lull has drifted a larger question about how those of us who cover City Hall will orient ourselves in the post-insanity era.

I’ve been gnawed at by this blog post from Neville Park, who reasons that the media’s singular focus on Ford worked to the detriment of our broader democracy — that the press analyzed one man’s psyche more deeply and extensively than it did the policies that define the conditions of the city’s diverse lives.

“So,” Park wrote, “I think we owe it to ourselves to engage with civic affairs in a more challenging way. We should be constantly pushing ourselves to pay attention to those boring things that we know are actually pretty important.” Good stuff, she points out, is often buried in the details of budget documents or on the agendas of lower-profile committees.

Park’s post built on a quote from a Toronto Life interview with journalist and media critic Jesse Brown, who in the wake of his Ghomeshi scoop blasted Canadian outlets (other than the Star) for typically taking a responsive approach to newsgathering. “We should be running toward things that have not broken yet,” he said. “News should be what people don’t know about yet. [But] everybody is just sort of chewing on the same bone. To be in a completely responsive mode is not responsible journalism.”

(Park found Brown’s remarks “incredibly vindicating,” because “there are an awful lot of media people who will only take [such criticism] seriously if it comes from the the right sort of white guy.”)

This was, on the one hand, an impossibly valuable insight, and on the other, a starkly obvious statement. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the mechanics and politics of every major newsroom, but I can confidently venture that most City Hall bureaus were not built to handle something like the Ford era.

Global’s Jackson Proskow, one of the few correspondents to cover City Hall in both the Miller and Ford years, once observed that the biggest change in reporting on the latter was “the volume of news.” And that was way back in February 2012, prior to even the (first) Ford conflict-of-interest application, let alone any thought of crack.

If a mainstream outlet’s bare minimum obligation is to stay on top of essential breaking news (and arguably it is), then everything else becomes secondary when the volume and frequency of that news becomes overwhelming. For most City Hall reporters in the time of Ford, the beat became less about exploring leads to new stories than merely trying to keep up with what was already the biggest thing at any given moment.

The National Post’s one-and-a-half-person City Hall bureau, for example, spent nearly all its time just making sure the broadsheet had the same major items as its better-staffed competitors. The Globe’s three-person bureau did its best to keep up with the Star.

And even the Star’s bureau — by far the biggest at City Hall, with upwards of six or seven members — lost its highest-profile reporter largely because she was sick of covering the day-to-day business and wanted to devote herself fully to investigations.

But that paper’s resources did make a difference. The Star broke so many municipal stories (including countless matters only tangentially related to the mayor) not just because of its activist attitude but because of the simple fact that it had more staff between whom to spread the work. Everyone in media heard that Ford did cocaine at the Bier Markt, for example, but only the Star could afford to put someone on it for two whole months.

(NOW’s City Hall complement is one or two, depending on the day.)

Covering City Hall in the John Tory era will be challenging in different ways. It will be less exhausting physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but more taxing intellectually news will have to be sought out and chased down in a figurative sense rather than a literal one.

This new (old?) approach, however, won’t be without its pitfalls. Accustomed to a certain degree of scandal, there will be a temptation to blow some things out of proportion. Just before leaving office in 2010, a bitter Mayor David Miller complained to a crowd at a Canadian Journalism Foundation event that the Star had given the same treatment to councillor expenses as it had to the MFP scandal several years prior. He argued that in the absence of any actual corruption at City Hall, the press portrayed a squirrel suit as an outrage. (It was actually a chipmunk costume, but the point was otherwise accurate.)

The dailies’ bureaus had been cleaned out and turned over just prior to the 2010 election, and the lack of institutional memory was often apparent. I’d go so far as to argue that inadequate reporting was (a small) part of what helped Ford get elected.

Even with the comparative luxury of covering a sufficiently competent mayor, some journalists will still root stories in received wisdom, lazy narratives, and simplistic conflicts. Hopefully it gets called out when it happens.

But we’re heading into a new period of change: Star bureau chief Daniel Dale will soon be off to Washington Global’s Proskow is already there the CBC’s Steven D’Souza is heading to New York the Star’s Paul Moloney, who’d been at City Hall forever, retired just two weeks ago and Post columnist Peter Kuitenbrouwer is moving to the business pages.

This places a premium on the value of City Hall observers both inside and outside the mainstream who have acquired intense institutional knowledge over the past four years. The voices at the edges, in particular, now have the expertise and credibility to move into positions of greater influence. All those drawn to City Hall by Ford, but whose scrutiny was not limited to him, will find themselves beginning this term several steps ahead of those new to City Hall including Mayor-elect Tory.

And it is in that space, where journalists can outpace politicians, that the real work of breaking news may begin.

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