By Jaclyn Mika (RSJ ’08)
Many of our talented alumni and faculty have stretched their writing muscles beyond journalism into the realms of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The RSJ Book Club is an occasional series created to highlight these works. If you know of a notable grad you’d like to see featured, send us an email at email@example.com.
Gene Allen is a Professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and was the founding director (2007-2010) of the School’s Master of Journalism program.
Prior to joining RSJ, he had an extensive and varied career as a television news and documentary producer and as a newspaper editor and reporter, including director of research and a senior producer of the CBC/Radio-Canada television series Canada: A People’s History. He also edited both volumes of the best-selling companion book to the series.
Allen was co-editor of Communicating in Canada’s Past: Essays in Media History (2009).
Allen’s book, Making National News: A History of Canadian Press, was published in 2013. It was the first-ever scholarly history of CP and detailed how journalism in Canada has depended on the Canadian Press for most of their domestic and international news.
Below is a Q/A with the author:
What interested you in the history of the Canadian Press?
I’ve always thought that news agencies were not well understood, whether by the general public, academics, or even some journalists. When I started at Ryerson in 2001, I was looking for a substantial research project dealing with some important aspect of journalism history in Canada. After making some initial inquiries at CP, it turned out that they had a large trove of archival material that no one had ever looked at, and the people in charge were willing to allow me access to this material. So I was off to the races.
Why was it a story you wanted to tell?
Several reasons. One is that this is a big part of Canadian journalism history in the 20th century that had never been told. (There is an earlier book about CP’s history written by one of the organization’s founders, but for all its value it is definitely not an arm’s-length account.) I was also interested in the whole idea of nationalism and nationality as largely cultural phenomena (as suggested by Benedict Anderson), and thought that an explicitly national news agency like CP would provide a great opportunity to examine how this actually worked out in some detail.
Why do you think it’s important for people to know this history? What do you want them to take away from the book?
For most of the 20th century, CP was by far the most important source of national and international news for most Canadians. So it seemed important to understand how CP was established, how it evolved, and how it went about doing its work.
What was the most interesting (or strangest or most frustrating) thing you learned while researching/writing this book?
It’s difficult to single out just one thing because there were a lot of things that surprised me. One major and unexpected finding was that the US news agency Associated Press played a strongly directive role in CP’s founding in 1917. If not for a threat by AP to cut off the inexpensive international news it provided to Canadian newspapers, CP might never have come into existence as a genuinely national organization. Then there’s the story of the initial government subsidy that papered over regional divisions about cost-sharing and how it was lost when CP refused to provide news service to a new newspaper in Ottawa backed by the Liberal Party in 1923 …
What were some of the challenges you had in researching/writing this book?
The biggest challenge was that none of the voluminous CP archival material, some on microfilm and some in boxes, was indexed. There was no overall inventory and there were no finding aids, which meant that the only way to find out what the documents said was to look at every one. Fortunately, I was able to hire a series of excellent Ryerson research assistants (Daphna Izenberg, June Morrow, Jeffrey Todd, Elisabeth Collett, Martin Kuebler and Sarah Petrescu) who went through all of the boxes and microfilm, making detailed notes about the contents of each. It would have been nearly impossible to carry out the research without their help.
What has changed since you wrote this book?
A great deal has changed. CP ceased being a cooperatively-owned agency in 2010, and is now jointly owned by the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and La Presse. The book covered the period from 1893 to 1970, and in many ways it’s the story of an era in Canadian journalism that will never return.
How long did it take you to research and write the book? What was your process like?
It look a long time. Archival research is by its nature time-consuming, and I got sidetracked with other research projects and administrative roles along the way. It was finally published in 2013. The process consisted of organizing the various archival materials – which came from several sources besides CP, including the National Archives of Canada, the Reuters news agency archives in London, and the AP corporate archives in New York, along with several oral-history interviews — thematically and chronologically, trying to find a narrative that made sense and trying to figure out what it all meant.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a non-fiction, history author?
It really depends on whether you’re working in the academic world or not. If in the academic world, get the best training in archival research that you can get and get a tenure-track academic job where producing original research is one of your main responsibilities. Producing historical non-fiction for a general audience is something completely different.
What has your favourite reader reaction been?
Oliver Boyd-Barrett, one of the best-known historians of the international news system generally, described the book as “among the very best works of any that have been written about news agencies in general or national news agencies in particular.” It was one of five finalists for the 2015 Canada Prize for the Humanities, awarded by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Didn’t win, though.)
How did writing Making National News influence what you choose to work on next? What are you working on now?
My current project is a biography of Kent Cooper, who was general manager and executive director of Associated Press from 1925 to 1951. The Cooper project arose from a trip to the AP corporate archives in 2008 while I was working on the CP book.
Why do you like doing this kind of work?
Because it’s incredibly engaging. Archival research is like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle where you don’t know what the final picture is supposed to look like and don’t know how many pieces are missing (except that a lot are missing). Although the process of putting it all together can be like pulling teeth, It’s tremendously satisfying to find a way that (more or less) makes sense of it all, and with luck sheds some new light on important questions about how the international news system has developed and why.