CP may not be Timmy’s but it’s close

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Di Cresce

WHEN mulling over those pe­cu­liar ties that con­sti­tute Canada, they can of­ten seem flimsy and triv­ial. While beer, hockey, cold weather and Tim­bits do a pretty good job bring­ing folks to­gether — es­pe­cially when spun into rous­ing yarns — it’s prob­a­bly a good idea to ex­pand that list both in time and space to broaden and deepen our un­der­stand­ing of what it means to be Cana­dian. Gene Allen in Mak­ing Na­tional News: A His­tory of Cana­dian Press, does his aca­demic best to en­rich that list through an im­pres­sive in­sti­tu­tional his­tory of a news agency, Cana­dian Press (CP). Allen, a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Ryerson and a for­mer ed­i­tor and reporter at the Globe and Mail, traces the evolv­ing or­ga­ni­za­tional con­tours of CP from its found­ing in 1917 un­til the 1970s. In the process, he ar­gues that this not­for-profit co-op­er­a­tive, which on a daily ba­sis writes, rewrites, se­lects and trans­mits news to its mem­ber news­pa­pers, drew its au­di­ence to­gether in a shared cul­tural space called Canada. CP does this al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly in its ba­nal­ity. As in­flu­en­tial as the Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion has been in ar­tic­u­lat­ing our na­tional iden­tity dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, CP ri­vals it, says Allen. Mak­ing Na­tional News is or­ga­nized both chrono­log­i­cally and the­mat­i­cally. Allen ap­proaches CP as a sort of liv­ing thing and stud­ies how this crea­ture of print cap­i­tal­ism is shaped by so­cial, eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, per­sonal and tech­no­log­i­cal forces. Specif­i­cally ex­am­in­ing how chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward sub­si­dies, war­time pres­sure on news cov­er­age, ef­forts to union­ize, in­ter­nal per­son­al­ity con­flicts, Que­bec na­tion­al­ism, and the chal­lenge of new me­dia (ra­dio and TV) con­trib­ute to CP’s evolv­ing struc­ture. From a Western Cana­dian per­spec­tive, the first chap­ter, Un­easy Al­lies, is re­mark­able in its orig­i­nal­ity. It maps out the messy cre­ation of CP. Born amid a whirl of in­ter­ests, CP found two of its chief cham­pi­ons in the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tele­gram. Be­grudg­ingly brought to­gether in 1907 by a spike in the cost of tele­graphic news, the Free Press and Tele­gram or­ga­nized western pa­pers into a co-op­er­a­tive to cush­ion the fi­nan­cial jolt. Then they used le­gal ac­tion and later, dur­ing the First World War, pa­tri­otic pleas to pry a tele­graph sub­sidy from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, the Amer­i­can-based As­so­ci­ated Press, keen to cre­ate a sort of fran­chise in Canada, nudged the big east­ern pa­pers into join­ing the news agency by threat­en­ing to stop send­ing its copy to them at a re­duced rate. Set­ting aside the irony of a U.S. news agency’s piv­otal role in form­ing CP, we find here a stun­ning counter to the stereo­typ­i­cal story of western alien­ation. The West’s in­ter­ests were pri­mary in­gre­di­ents in the bak­ing of this na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion. More­over, be­cause of CP’s co-op­er­a­tive struc­ture and re­gional sen­si­tiv­ity, the West re­tained an abid­ing in­flu­ence in an or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­duc­ing a cul­tural com­mod­ity that is “essen­tially” Cana­dian. While Mak­ing Na­tional News is writ­ten in a plod­ding and sober style char­ac­ter­is­tic of academia, co­in­ci­den­tally a crit­i­cism of­ten lev­elled at CP sto­ries, it pow­er­fully il­lus­trates the way a news agency can at once de­fine and mold a mod­ern na­tion. Cer­tainly our na­tion would ex­ist whether or not this or­ga­ni­za­tion did, but the news Allen is mak­ing is that Canada would be a poorer place and more dif­fi­cult to imag­ine with­out CP. Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg jour­nal­ist and a stu­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion his­tory.

Mak­ing Na­tional News A His­tory of Cana­dian

Press By Gene Allen Univer­sity of Toronto Press, 472 pages, $37

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