Sometimes all you can do is laugh, especially when it comes to local politics and newsmedia.
That’s certainly the perspective shared by the person behind satirical news website The Western Stah, which began publishing stories about municipal politics in Corner Brook last September.
The website, www.thewesternstah.com, is a spoof of Corner Brook’s daily newspaper, The Western Star, but the Stah is making a bigger statement and taking aim at most of Newfoundland and Labrador’s mainstream media, says its creator, who spoke with The Independent Sunday on condition of anonymity.
Western Stah editor “Randy O’Toole” (their own chosen name) says they would prefer to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, though they say they’re not affiliated with any political party and have no plans to be.
The absurdity of it all
O’Toole describes “himself” as an “interested observer in the political scene, both locally and provincially,” but says the state of local politics and media have just become too much for him to remain silent any longer.
“You see a lot of the same things happening here, especially in Corner Brook, over and over and over,” he said. “I hate to be down on the media, but locally the media is kind of bland and there are some issues that I kind of wanted to poke at with a stick. And I think satire is a great vehicle for that. You can say a lot of things that people think without having the burden of [investigating],” he laughs. “You can make things up. So it’s really a creative thing, but also it is a bit of a political thing. That said, I’m not affiliated in any way with any political party — I’m very anti-partisan, in fact. I really think the whole system stinks.”
But what began as a few stories poking fun at municipal policies and politicians in Corner Brook, quickly broadened in scope to include provincial politics and politicians (taking aim at the likes of Liberal leader Dwight Ball, justice minister Judy Manning, fisheries minister Vaughn Granter, and the NDP.
“Provincially it’s to a point now where it’s not even funny. The downfall of the current government, the follies really — it’s almost bad.”
O’Toole also took some jabs at local media, like his article about CBC’s Ryan Snodden, “Newfoundland’s second-most-trusted weather man,” who reportedly “just makes up the weather forecast.”
While the stories he writes reflect a more lighthearted approach to media critique, O’Toole doesn’t mince his words when reflecting more seriously about the state of Newfoundland and Labrador’s newsmedia.
“The media, god bless ‘em here locally,” he said. “Out here you’ve got NTV…you’ve got the CBC down to nothing here locally…and the Western Star newsroom is just decimated. And quite frankly the people who are working in the media here, a lot of them have been here for quite a while and really they’re not hungry in any way. They’re taking it as it comes, sort of thing. And I don’t blame them for that because it’s Corner Brook, it’s Newfoundland. It’s not always an easy place to come up with news. It’s easier to make up news than it is to report news sometimes. There’s a lot of slow news days.”
O’Toole also criticized Montreal-based media giant TC Transcontinental Inc., which bought Optipress Inc., including its 16 newspapers in Newfoundland and Labrador, in 2004. Over the past two years Transcontinental Media shut down three weekly newspapers in the province: The Georgian in Bay St. George, The Coaster in Harbour Breton and The Charter, which covered the Placentia area. In its 2013 annual report, TC Transcontinental boasted paying, for the first time, “a special dividend of $78 million to our participating shareholders,” after generating more than $2.1 billion in revenues last year. TC Media also recently introduced metered access to The Western Star website and that of its daily newspaper in St. John’s, The Telegram, limiting the amount of information readers could access online without buying a subscription.
“Groups like Transcon…the way that they spend money, here locally in Corner Brook anyway, and the way that they staff their paper and the papers on the west coast — it’s a matter of time [before others close down],” he said. “They’re not thinking about their audience; they’re doing silly things like this forced paywall — it’s a joke, if they think they’re going to save themselves. The whole print paper thing is dead as disco unless you can find a very very weird niche, right?
“And the other thing is the quality of the reporting sometimes,” O’Toole continued. “Yeah, you gotta make something out of nothing if it’s a slow news day — I understand.
“I don’t like to sh– on The Western Star, but man, where does the spellchecker go into it? There’s no excuse!” he laughed. “And sometimes I gotta read 10 pages it seems before I can find out what the story’s even about.”
O’Toole said someone recently called him a “media vigilante”, which he likes, he laughed. “It’s a bit dramatic. I’m just a sh– disturber, I think is a more accurate term. But it’s not just a creative exercise — I am trying to make a point.”
In fact, since he launched The Western Stah mid-September O’Toole has made several points, not the least significant of which were to demonstrate the media’s often lacklustre approach to telling the news, and the inability of some media consumers to decipher between real news and absurd fictional stories. The third big take-away being that too often in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, absurdity is reality.
The whole partisanship thing, federally and provincially, it’s just gotten silly, and I think it’s outdated…for our generation.
“I liked the idea initially of the hoax, in the sense that when you say something like ‘They’re going to pave Glynmill Inn Pond’, and people [are reading] and they don’t notice they’re on The Western Stah, and they don’t read it critically, they just believe it!” he said. “And I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the comments, but some people just aren’t thinking about what they’re reading. A lot of people don’t even read the articles — they see the headline and they think it’s a legitimate story,” he continued.
“I don’t know how anyone these days can read anything online and not be thinking about it critically, but people do. So people read a headline and say, I can’t believe they’re going to pave Glynmill Inn Pond over — that’s just ridiculous; somebody should do something about that,” he laughs. “It’s nutty, and if you look at some of the early stuff, things like the Costco story — people were deeply offended by the fact that this fake Costco guy was being sarcastic about coming to Corner Brook. Because here locally everyone thinks we should have a Costco, even though it doesn’t make any sense from a business point of view at all. But people took it really seriously.”
O’Toole said he thinks the absurdity of politics both provincially and federally is what’s causing so many people, particularly the younger generations, to be so disconnected from our democratic processes.
“Now with provincial politics it’s just like, I don’t know how to make fun of Judy Manning anymore. I really don’t,” he said.
“She deserves scrutiny — a lot of it. And I think it’s hard because you want to say something about those issues but you don’t want to just keep beating the same drum, right? And it’s not necessarily a Conservative problem. The whole partisanship thing, federally and provincially, it’s just gotten silly, and I think it’s outdated…for our generation. So that kind of politics I think is why we’re seeing such disengagement among the general public, and I think that it’s a shame.”
Critique of local media
Local media need to “be able to do more investigative [reporting], or even commentary,” O’Toole said. “And you can take the time to frame an argument, and you know that what you’re reading is someone’s opinion.
“Especially as local media in Newfoundland generally is being squeezed, to a certain extent, we’re seeing more reprints of press releases more than someone actually processing what they’re getting. Everything has a slant. Reporters are human,” he continued.
“I want someone who knows something about this issue to process it and give it to me straight as they can, you know? l don’t want someone to just quote someone blindly — I want to see that critical eye to it. I want to see someone take all this data and frame it in a useful way, and I think that is where good media goes. And I don’t think we do enough of that, and as readers we should be—especially in this social media age—reading critically.
l don’t want someone to just quote someone blindly — I want to see that critical eye to it.
“We shouldn’t take anything for granted when we’re reading something. When someone is quoted as saying something, we have to have a certain amount of trust that that’s what they said, but what is the context of that? How does that relate to the three previous stories written on this issue? The reader might not necessarily know that, so I think the media’s job is to take their experience and their knowledge and frame it in a way that makes the information more useful. We’re not doing a whole lot of that, unfortunately, and I think it’s to the downfall of the media.
“I think by adding more of that kind of value, that’s where The Western Star and the CBC need to go if they want to stay relevant and survive the digital revolution, right? Why should I read The Western Star if I can just go on Twitter and look up a hashtag #CornerBrook and get my latest gossip? If you have a place where someone is actually putting some thought into it and curating the information, framing it in a certain way, then that’s value. That’s different than just getting an RSS feed or getting a Twitter feed. That’s useful to me as a consumer.”
Critique of local politics
With an election year on the horizon for Newfoundland and Labrador, O’Toole has some ideas about the kinds of improvement he would like to see in provincial politics. However, given their magnitude the problems seem almost insurmountable, he said.
“My sincere hope is that whoever gets in [as government] gets a severe kick in the ass, and that we have a healthy opposition. I would really love the NDP to get their sh– together, but the party has fundamental problems. Lorraine Michael has got to go, and the quicker that the party sort of figures that out and develops some political sparks again, that’ll be healthier for everything.
“So I’d like to see a bit more balance; I don’t want to see another—and I don’t see one on the horizon—Brian Tobin-Danny Williams type situation in the near future.”
O’Toole said he doesn’t have much hope for the Liberals, who are current favourites to win next year’s provincial election, but that for us to see any significant change in politics provincially or nationally, there has to be an overhaul of the political system in Canada.
“The Liberals have always been a populist party; they never stand for anything, federally or provincially,” he said. “Well, provincially, no one stands for anything — the parties aren’t that different, I don’t think. It’s more like who you cheer for, what hockey team you cheer for. You pick a team, and sometimes if you’re a really good opportunist…you can be the worst kind of arsehole on social media, thumping the drum for your party regardless of what they’re doing or what they’re saying, and then you can just all of a sudden swap [parties], because you see the writing on the wall and you see the way it’s gonna go in the near future.
We need to tone down the rhetoric and get to work. There’s a lot of important issues facing the province right now.
“And I think that cynical kind of politics—I don’t blame people like that for switching parties because the party system I think is somewhat outdated for the electorate and I think that’s why we’re not seeing young people engaged at all,” he continued. “They don’t know the differences — there isn’t an ideological basis for a lot of these parties. So I think that’s where we need to change: we need to tone down the rhetoric and get to work. There’s a lot of important issues facing the province right now.
“But most of all it’s this idea that you can’t question the government, and if you criticize or ask questions, you know, you’re doing things like engaging in ‘character assassination’, as the current justice minister calls it,” he said. “That’s not right; we need to be open enough to discuss these things.”
O’Toole said he will continue pursuing his hobby of using satire to critique Newfoundland and Labrador politics and newsmedia.
With 75,000 visits, 100,000 page views and 50,000 unique readers in its first month, it looks like The Western Stah has struck a chord with many in the province.
So, where’s the news coverage of The Stah’s early success?
“One media representative contacted me and I answered them in a tongue in cheek fashion, as I’ve been doing, and then they just dropped it,” O’Toole explained, laughing. “They sent me a message saying that they liked my ‘papah’ … and I told them that I think they meant ‘paper’, and that spelling was important, even in radio dramas,” he laughed. “And they went away.”
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