Kirk LaPointe left a senior role at the Vancouver Sun to assume his new one, as CBC Ombudsman. The career journalist reflects on past and present.
The former managing editor of the Vancouver Sun is taking on one of the most august positions in Canadian journalism: CBC ombudsman, tasked with making sure the institution’s journalistic practices are up to snuff. Kirk LaPointe has a rich career as a journalist, serving as the founding executive editor of the National Post and holding senior positions with the Canadian Press, CTV News, the Toronto Star and the Hamilton Spectator. Since he joined management at the Sun seven years ago, the news business has been clocked by both the recession and the demands of the digital age. The lessons learned from that struggle will be worth holding on to as he helps guide journalistic practice at the CBC.
What does an ombudsman do, exactly?
One role is as a public representative when it comes to complaints with journalism at the CBC. The second part is to present to the public an understanding of CBC’s journalism standards and how well the CBC is performing. And you have to make sure the public feels that its faith in the CBC isn’t disrupted, that individuals or special interests don’t somehow dominate the process and prevent the rest of the public from having the CBC that it wants.
Why did you decide to stay here to do this job rather than move back to your native Toronto?
Family. My wife [Mary Lynn Young] is tenured at UBC; she’s the director of the school of journalism. My son is here working, and my daughter, who’s 13, is getting structured into high school. And of course the city here is amazing. CBC has seen that the role can be done from most anywhere in the country, between technology and a little bit of travel.
What made you decide it was time for a career change?
Well, with role changes the one thing you have no control over is the timing. I loved what I was doing at the Vancouver Sun, but this role only comes open every five years. There was the sense that a number of years ago I wouldn’t have been able to approach the job, and a number of years from now it may not have had the same powerful draw.
By all accounts, the last few years have really shaken up the media industry. Was that your experience at the Sun?
I’ve been managing in newsrooms for almost 25 years. The period in which the particle accelerator began to charge up has been in the last five years with the big arrival of digital and the necessity to transform the newsroom culture. You now mobilize your resources to get information out really quickly, as opposed to harbouring it until it’s newspaper time. That has put both a profound obligation and a pressure on our journalists. I’ve been fortunate that people at the Sun were quite into it quite quickly, willing to go into the scary parts of retraining and adopting new technologies. But yeah, this has been the really big seismic shift of the industry, and it’s of course going to continue. But I think probably the most profound part of it is past us now. We now have an understanding of what these new platforms look like. From here on in, the radical change will feel a little easier to endure.
Much has been said about the challenges this poses for journalists, but what challenges does it pose to managers, especially at a time when resources are diminishing?
There are certainly job losses that have been borne by the industry, but I think the bigger thing is a mandate enlargement: to report across different platforms, use different tools, have different storytelling techniques. It’s not like the job losses are inconsequential, but the new requirements for those that remain are really pretty substantial. And for managers, it has meant that all of us have to first understand enough of the technology to be able to talk credibly about it, to perform with it and then have a strategy for how it’s best going to work inside our organizations. Not everybody is operating in the same way, and they don’t need to. In our case, we took the view that we needed to drive a lot of resources toward the digital side, even though it meant reallocation of a lot of our print resources and a lot of our people. We were able, I think, to pull it off.
Do the new realities of digital journalism affect your job as ombudsman?
The public feels, obviously, a very different relationship with CBC than with other media because it is a public institution. But in the digital age, there’s an expectation from all institutions that they carry out their work more transparently, more responsibly and accountably. So the kind of tension of the moment is, Can you make sure all of the standards and practices you worked decades to build are sustained and even enriched by having this great new way in which to tell your stories?
Will you miss having a management role?
So far my body says no. I’m not suffering anything like delirium tremens or withdrawal symptoms, but the one thing I know I will miss is just the critical mass of the newsroom. I’m not directing a team, and, you know, I think I’m OK with that. I’ve had some of the greatest jobs in Canadian journalism, but this is one of them.