Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Canadian Geographic in thrall to its sponsors, says Canadaland site

[This post has been updated] Canadian Geographic magazine and its publisher the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) are in the crosshairs of the muckraking website Canadaland. Headed The Sad Story of Canadian Geographic, the first post in projected series says that, essentially, the magazine has sold out to corporate interests.

Like many such stories (not just on Canadaland), principals named in the story refuse to comment. But a good deal of the post rests on quotes from former employees who say the magazine -- keen on developing sponsorship revenue -- has strayed considerably from its mission. Some of the harshest criticism is for André Préfontaine formerly the publisher, now Canadian Geographic's chief development officer*.

One of the quoted passages was from the former acting editor Dan Rubinstein, who left the job at the end of 2012, after four years as the managing editor. In an excerpt taken from his book Born to Walk he explains why:

"...(I spent) a decade as a magazine editor, cresting at the top post at a respected publication. Financial turmoil threatened to swamp the magazine industry. The non-profit where I worked responded by creating 'independent and objective' content in partnership with corporate and government backers...Our sponsors were determined to ramp up either public support or profits, and I was aiding and abetting their newspeak. 
My dream job, which I had moved across the country to take, became a nightmare... A watchdog was opening the gate for the wolves."

Also quoted was Alberta author and magazine journalist Curtis Gillespie who was commissioned to write a feature on the Calgary Stampede but found that the article -- indeed the entire issue -- was being sponsored by the Stampede. He was promised editorial independence and his article was praised and was laid out and illustrated, ready for publication, when the publisher (Préfontaine), had pulled it because he felt it was unfair to the Stampede. In its place, the magazine ran a piece on animal welfare, written by someone who had written the authorized history of the rodeo.
“To me, the magazine was essentially lying to its readers," Curtis Gillespie says. "I was left mortified for them, journalistically."
Former CanGeo cartographer Steven Fick left after a map he had done illustrating the impact of airborne pollution from oil sands refinery stacks on Alberta's lakes was pulled from the issue because -- Fick says -- the magazine was in the midst of sponsorship negotiations with Shell Canada.

Alan Morantz, who had worked under contract as senior editor for more than three years, said that late in 2012, management abandoned the editorial policy of labelling sponsored content. An article in the December 2012 issue was sponsored by the Weston Foundation.
"Previously we would have labelled a feature like this 'Special Section, in partnership with the Weston Foundation,'" he recalls. "But the disclaimer was changed right before publication to 'Special Report on Northern Research.' You don't take money from a source," he tells CANADALAND, "and pass off the resulting work as journalism."
(*People familiar with the magazine business in this country will recall that Préfontaine was president of Transcontinental Media until his abrupt departure in January 2003 after 10 years with the company. When Key Publishers announced that it wanted to sell its 50% partnership interest with the RCGS, Préfontaine was hired as a consultant to find a sympathetic partner. When a partner acceptable to the Society board could not be found, the directors decided to buy the 50% back themselves and offered the publisher's job to Préfontaine. Once the purchase and sale of the 50% was formally closed at the end of August 2006, seven key staff were terminated. In October 2011, CanGeo outsourced all but the editorial and ad sales of the magazine to St. Joseph Media.) 

[Update: the board of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society posted a statement on its questions raised about editorial ethics.]

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