Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why You Should Support "The Guelph Back-Grounder"

Two recent stories in what I call the "lame-stream media" really clarify why it is that I've started publishing "The Guelph Back-Grounder". Since it's been a long time since I've published a story---and I've only had one reader actually give me some money for reading the website---I thought I'd send off a quick "advertorial" to explain exactly why I think it is important for readers to support it.

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The first story comes from the National Post about suicides at the University of Guelph. It mentions that there have been four students who killed themselves since last September and members of the admin have been walking around residence "checking in" to see how people are faring. The idea is that there has been a rash of suicides and the school needs to do something about them. But nowhere in the story does the reporter make any effort to find out if there really has been an extra-ordinary number of suicides on campus.

If you look at stats Canada you will find that there is an average suicide rate amongst per 100,000 males age 20-24 of .00016. There are also 22,648 students at the U. of Guelph (full, part-time, undergraduate, graduate), which means that four suicides in one year is .00018.

Complexities to consider. Suicides among males are higher than females. And also among ages 20-24 as opposed to 15-19. But, there are no numbers I could easily find for university students as opposed to non-university students, so this is bound to be a non-representative sample because many students are away from family and friends for the first time in their life. They are also subject to stresses that many other young adults in this cohort are not subjected to.

So the number of four suicides seems a little higher than the average but well within the range. That is because the average that I've quoted (from a stats Canada website) is a mathematical abstraction. Simply through random distribution, there will be higher numbers and lower ones too.  This is especially true when such a small change in the size of the group (that is, if there were 3 or 5, instead of 4) would have been a very significant change in the final outcome (ie: the ".00018" number.) And since "clumping" is part of random distribution, I would suggest, therefore, that there has not been an epidemic of suicides at the U. of Guelph, but rather just what would be expected.

I realise that this is an emotionally-charged issue, which might be part of why no official has "pushed back" on this story. But public policy should be driven by numbers and dispassionate analysis instead of emotions. If we don't do that, we end up doing things that were never intended.

With that in mind, I think it's important to understand that every time the university puts money into increased counselling and support services for students they have to pull it out of other parts of the budget. There is a well-recognised phenomenon in university administration that there has been a huge increase in resources being pulled from academic and physical resources and redirected to these support services. (People often hide this fact by saying that the problem is the growth of "middle management". This might be part of the problem, but I would suggest that this is just an attempt to evade the fact that a lot of the people are remedial teachers, therapists, people who help students with disabilities, etc---that no one wants to be seen as opposing. In addition, adding in all these support services makes navigating the university environment more complex, which means that more middle managers are necessary to make sense of the Byzantine bureaucracy.) This has been subsidized by replacing tenured professors with poorly paid sessional lecturers, deferring building maintenance, replacing full-time unionized maintenance staff with contract employees, and, increasing tuition fees. In effect, every attempt to make the lives of students a little easier has been done by making the lives of lecturers and support staff worse, letting buildings fall apart, lowering the quality of education, and, making university less accessible for poor students. This is what is called "the opportunity cost", and it's something that is never mentioned in lame-stream media stories about things like university suicides.

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The second story I wanted to talk about comes from the CBC and it has the headline "1 child or youth injured by gunfire nearly every day in Ontario, pediatricians find". The person who casually hears about this might think "Wow!  An epidemic." But if you carefully read the story you will find out that the age group includes everyone aged from newborn to twenty-four. Most people wouldn't consider anyone age twenty to twenty-four as being anything other than an adult. Moreover, it turns out that the study included as a "fire-arm" bb, pellet, and, air soft guns as well as regular fire arms. Again, most people don't think of a daisy bb-gun when they read "gunfire".

Stats Canada says that there are 2.22 million people in Ontario, age 0-14. There isn't a similar break down of age 14 to 24, but let's assume that there are similar birth/immigration rates for both cohorts. That means that we can divide 2.22 million by 14 and get the birth/immigration rate per year, or .159 million per year. Multiply that by ten, and you get the number of people aged 15 to 24, or 1.59 million. Add those together, and you 3.81 million Ontarions aged 0 to 24. Divide this number by the number of cases mentioned in the article, 355, and you get one injury per 10,730 "youths".

When I was a student in high school I didn't know anyone who got killed or injured by a firearm. (Although, I did have a pellet from a pellet gun bounce off a tree and hit me in the cheek---it stung.) I did, however, know about six guys who got killed in drunken car accidents. (It was the 1970s, a time very, very different from now.) Well, lets compare the two. I have a statistics Canada page open that says that 51,487 people aged 0-24 in Canada were injured or killed in car accidents in 2010. I looked at the population for Canada, and it appears (from some calculation) that Ontario had 39% of the total Canadian population in 2012. So if we multiply 51,487 by 39%, we get a figure of 20,080 fatalities and injuries in Ontario for one year. Lets be conservative and ignore the increase in population between 2012 and 2016, that means we have one injury by car accident per 190 "youths". This begins to fit into my personal experience as a teen. (I'm not saying I knew 960 "youths", but the fatality rate in rural Canada during the 1970s would have been much larger than today.  Like I said, a very different time.)

When we explain exactly what is going on beyond the headline, and, compare the numbers to those from auto accidents, it turns out that there really doesn't seem to be much of a problem here after all.

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I used to write a weekly column in the old paper "Mercury". That's when I started doing the sort of fact checking that I have done above. I found that 15 minutes with an Almanac or other standard reference text was often enough to show how totally ridiculous many news stories really were.  This was the basis of many of my columns. They were plenty popular, but I stopped after three years because the "Merc" editors never offered to pay me anything for them. Indeed, I had to beg for a "free" subscription. Eventually, I realized that I was just taking the bread out of the mouth of some professional journalist, and I didn't want to do that---especially when the likes of Ken Thompson and Conrad Black were making fortunes squeezing profit out of the paper.

Another reason I quit was because I started to absolutely loath the lame-stream press. After getting into the habit of "deconstructing" these sorts of stories I started to realize that the people controlling the media usually don't give a damn about the public good or the truth. What they are trying to do is sell advertising and make money, period. And to do that, you have to be emotional and sensational instead of honest and contextual. The two stories I referred to above are pretty standard fair in that they are designed to whip the public into a frenzy so people will share stories on social media, which will generate advertising revenue. When copy is written to be as sensational as possible for these reasons, the name for it is "clickbait". In this case, both stories were designed to crank up people's biological anxiety over the safety and well-being of children.



This sort of "journalism" is incredibly damaging to the public interest because it is worse than keeping the public uninformed----it is actually filling their heads with misinformation that confuses them about what is or is not important when they are making up their minds about public policy issues.

Since the Trump campaign there has been a lot of talk about "fake news". Originally, this came from a Vice Media story about how a group of teenagers in Macedonia had managed to make a lot of money by creating false stories that supported the Trump campaign, post them on fake news sites, and, convince gullible right-wingers to share them extensively in the "Trumposphere". The result was a lot of money being raised by Google Ad Sense, which had advertising on these stories.

But "fake news" is more than just teens in Macedonian playing dumb Republicans. That's at the farthest end of a continuum that starts with reporters who don't have enough time to do any back ground research to be able to put any given story in a context, and, editors who tell them to "sex up" a story with lots of emotion so the story can go the rounds in social media. And all of this is dangerous to a democracy because it is ultimately a form of very effective propaganda. This isn't propaganda for any government faction, it's propaganda for the least rational, most emotional part of the human mind. It's an institutional bias towards outrage, poor judgement, lynch mobs, and, the misuse of scarce public resources. 

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After my initial feeble attempts at being a journalist were over, I went through a "dark time" where I basically hated all professional reporters because I thought that the majority of them were actually destroying our democratic system by spreading dangerous lies about the world around them. I've since become a bit more mellow and now think that the real problem is that most of them are being chased around from story to story by editors who don't allow them the time to think about what they are doing----let alone do any background research.

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I've just "knocked around" a bit on the Internet to come up with the deconstruction that I've done on these two stories (even by doing this, however, it has taken me a few hours to write this story.) But to provide a context for an issue often requires a great deal more work than that. The last story that I wrote about the Ontario Municipal Board, for example, involved a very careful read of a fairly complex, technical analysis of the board by an independent scholar. This took an hour or two careful reading every day for about a month---but most of this isn't obvious when you read the finished article. Almost all professional reporters simply don't have time to do this sort of back ground research. Instead, they get assigned a story, make a few phone calls of people that they know will give them a good "quote", and write a "he said"/"she said" story. Then it's time to write the next one. As a result, you will get lots of stories where people complain bitterly about not being able to find an affordable apartment---but nothing about how for decades an obscure tribunal has blocked attempt after attempt to build apartment buildings in Ontario cities and as a result we have a huge shortage of rental housing.

The story I'm working on now involves a discussion of the old Carnegie library in Guelph with an attempt to draw parallels to the current debate over building a new main branch. This too is a lot of work. I've spent hours and hours already reading microfilms of rotten, hard-to-read, copies of the old "Evening Mercury". There are no indexes, which means I have to look at every single front page in order to not miss the very rare story that is relevant.  What is really maddening is that much is missing---front pages are gone or chopped to pieces. Months and months of the paper are simply missing too. But I have still found some interesting information and a lot of great context that describes what Guelph was like when the Carnegie library was built and replaced. This is really important if anyone is going to come to an informed opinion about the current debate over replacing the current library. But this is exactly the sort of work that no reporter at "Guelph Today" or "Mercury/Tribune" will ever do. They simply don't have the time. And I certainly don't expect Adam Donaldson at "Guelph Politico" to do it either---I don't understand where he gets all the energy to do what he already does.

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I like putting out "The Guelph Back-Grounder", I think it serves a useful purpose. But it is a lot of work. And this isn't supposed to be a charity. I'm trying to run this as a business, and a business needs revenue to keep going. I have managed to cut my costs down to the bone, but it still generates them. Authors don't want to give out review copies of books anymore, so if I review a book, I have to buy it. People won't take you seriously if you don't look "serious", so I have to generate a bare minimum of that sort of thing. I just spent $20 on business cards. I use "Blogger" because it is free, but I'm sure lots of people who look at the website are saying "Why doesn't he use a more professional-looking website?" Money. I can't just pull images off the internet because that would infringe on copyright and be stealing from artists, and sometimes I just cannot find a public domain image that works, so I have to buy an image from Shutter Stock:  more money.

I have an OK job, but I also have dependents, so any extra money I can make is really appreciated. More to the point, the public has to realize that you can't expect to get good journalism if you refuse to pay for it. I have Ad Sense adverts on my site, but they only make money for general, "click bait", style stories. Those kids in Macedonia will never get involved in a Canadian election because the entirety of Canada is too small to make real money off Ad Sense---so forget about local Guelph news. I've had adverts on my other website for years, and in a good month day I will make something like five cents off it. How does this work for Google? Well Google only pays in $100 increments, which means that it has had over $50 of my money sitting in an account---which it can use to fund its ventures---for about ten years. Since there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers in the same boat, you can see where Ad Sense makes Sense.  ;-)

If people want local news, they are going to have to pay for it. And if they want good local news, they are going to have to pay for that too. If they don't, the free market will give them "click bait" and what happens when a small number of reporters are being chased around from one "he/said, she/said" story to another. If people won't pay Adam Donaldson and myself to provide good news for Guelph, then no new people are going to come along and do the same thing when we eventually burn out, move on, or, just die in the traces.

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After the old paper "Merc" died there was a lot of "boo hoo, what are we going to do?" Most of that seems to have disappeared and people have adapted to the "new normal". Well, if ever there was a case of "the frog in the pot", news coverage in this city is it. I can remember the old, locally-owned Mercury. It had reporters who actually did research and sometimes even provided context. Then it got bought out by the chains. And there were ten horrible years when it changed hands every year. Each time, there were fewer faces in the news room. Context and investigation ended altogether. Then it stopped hiring local reporters and just brought in people from out-of-town who'd been downsized out of another paper in the chain. These people didn't know anything at all about the history of Guelph and didn't know who were "in the know" on any given story. The quality of even "he/said, she/said" stories fell through the floor. The editors knew circulation was dropping, so they told people to "sex up" stories. As a result, editorial policy seemed to become "stir the pot" and "get people upset". This certainly didn't help circulation, but it made ordinary voters more outraged over trivial matters. Even so, when the paper "Merc" disappeared, the on-line replacements of "Guelph Today" and the "Merc/Tribune" came along, they were much worse.

The only way this decline is going to end is if people start supporting alternative media. And in the case of "The Guelph Back-Grounder" that means three things:

  • Subscribe to Patreon with micro payments. Even a dollar a month will make a difference.
  • Make a one-time donation through the tip jar. Again, even a dollar will help.
  • Advertise your business or community group directly through the Back-Grounder. It has a local readership that is a specific demographic that is community-focused and progressive. If that fits your business or charity profile, contact me ( thecloudwalkingowl@gmail.com .) Rates are reasonable because readership is still relatively low, and, this form of advertising goes straight into the blog format---so it is immune to ad blockers.  

Even if you think that my stories are awful and someone better should be doing this, you should support me. If I can't make any money doing this, no one else is going to try to do the same thing and try to out-compete me. And the number of people who are lunatic enough to put the time and effort I'm putting into this thing "on spec" are vanishingly small. If "the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread" can't make any money off a venture, no angel is ever going to try to do it in the future. I'm what you've got, so "use it or lose it".

Bill Hulet







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