The water cooler it ain’t

A Canadian-born online journalism resource is moving discussion and debate from the office to the web.

By Colin Nicolle

With marketing money tight, J-source.ca distributes a large amount of it’s print advertising to journalism schools
A J-Source poster on the wall of the University of King's College School of Journalism. (Photo: Colin Nicolle)

By Colin Nicolle

Before J-Source.ca Canadian journalists saved discussion and debate for the sidelines of the newsrooms or for around the water cooler.

Now the water cooler has moved online.

J-Source is an online journalistic resource produced by Canadian journalists and for Canadian journalists. It is the brainchild of Ivor Shapiro, a long time journalist and faculty member at the Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto. The website is constantly growing, pulling in new contributors and readers.

“If you look at the names of bylines on J-Source, the names of comments on J-source there are often names on those bylines you recognize from the national press,” said Shapiro.

“There’s a lot of people who are subscribed and visit it every month or every week but that has to grow, it has to infiltrate the consciousness of the journalism community across the country.” (Photo Courtesy: J-source.ca)
Robb Cribb (Photo courtesy: J-source.ca)

Cecil Rosner, managing editor for CBC Manitoba, is one of those nationally recognized names. He reads and contributes to J-Source and feels that journalists need resources such as this so they can check their work, and the work of others. “If it’s so busy that all you’re doing is covering the stuff that’s happening and you’ve never had a chance to step back and reflect on what it is you’re doing and whether you’re doing the right thing, then I think a lot of mistakes start getting made.”

The way Ryerson University Journalism Chair Paul Knox sees it, journalism is going through some trying times. “The more mechanisms there are for talking to one another about it the better. So far I think J-Source has proved to be an ideal way to conduct conversations about journalism.” Knox sees great potential for J-Source academically as well, potentially shifting the sharing of research from more scholarly mediums to open internet forums, such as J-Source.

Ron MacDonald, a journalism faculty member at Mount Royal University in Calgary and frequent reader of J-Source, agrees that the journalism industry needs such websites to keep people connected. “There are all kinds of things going on that mean that we need to look at what journalism studies is really about.”

Both Knox and MacDonald recommend the website not only to their students, but to their colleagues. “There’s stuff on there that’s of tremendous benefit for people out there working in newsrooms and also tremendous benefit to journalism students,” said Knox.

Robert Cribb, a Toronto Star reporter who was one of the first to be contacted by Shapiro believes that J-source started to pick up speed because it filled a niche. He said that there was no place where Canadian journalists could have moderated, intelligent discussions and exchange ideas freely. “Of course the American realities, examples and specifics frequently don’t apply. It’s a different system, a different landscape and a different bureaucracy.” The difference in landscape is what made J-Source a good idea, Cribb explains.

What it’s all about

J-Source.ca allows users to sign up and start commenting on or discussing articles that are published to the site. One article entitled, “Should Suicide be Reported?” garnered five responses in as many days: “How about the suicide of a child in care? Talk about your emotional minefield,” wrote one user, “So yes, sometimes it is a responsible action to report on suicide,” wrote another, referencing an award-winning article in The Coast, a weekly Halifax paper.

Beyond allowing users to discuss and comment, J-Source also provides resource sections with tools and tips aimed towards students and working journalists as well as sections on ethics and an “Ask a Mentor” section where working journalists and academics answer questions submitted by J-Source readers.

Roger Gillespie, the senior training and development editor at the Star sends J-source to all of his interns urging them to use it.

“It’s free and accessible and certainly when I was a journalism student that kind of access to people didn’t exist,” he said.

J-Source, which boasts no official office or physical space gets its operating budget from the donations of patrons and as well from the Canadian Journalism Foundation, one of the parties present at the first meetings held about J-Source in 2005.

About an idea

Shapiro had his research assistant create a few mock-ups for a website, telling him how he saw it unfolding and eventually he had something to show people.

“Now we are  actually have people calling us and saying, ‘Hey can I become a contributing editor could I run a section? Could I run a column.’” (Photo Courtesy: Paul Benedetti)
Paul Benedetti (Photo courtesy: Paul Benedetti)

“It of course doesn’t resemble anything today, different name, but it’s what I sent out.”

Paul Benedetti, coordinator of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, was one of the people to whom Shapiro sent mockups.

“It was…about an idea to create a Canadian journalism site that would be of use to practicing reporters and editors, journalism educators and others.” After a positive response from newsrooms and universities, Shapiro called a few meetings and pulled people together.

Benedetti, now the deputy editor of J-Source, said that the start was slow and people were worried about manpower and especially about money. “It takes a visionary to just start, to just do it, to make it go and then get things to fall into place afterwards.” Benedetti added that Shapiro was crucial in getting the project moving, bringing in organizations such as the journalism foundation and garnering interest country-wide. “He’s really good at getting you to commit, to say ‘I will help, I promise,’” laughed Benedetti.

Once a small group of people was brought together to help out on the project, there was a mutual feeling that this could actually be done, Benedetti said.

But the project was, and is not, without its challenges.

Benedetti  said money is always needed, “You need infrastructure. You need something to pay for website design, pay for the technical site and people to man it every day as it gets bigger and bigger.”

Justice, peace and dreams

Big ideas have always been part of Shapiro’s life.

He started writing in high school, freelancing for the Cape Argus a daily evening paper in South Africa. But, for a time, religion became his calling.

Shapiro credited the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa with bringing him closer to his faith, “It brought me into touch with Christian people,” he said, his voice quieting, “(people) who had a commitment to this cause of justice and peace that dwarfed my own.”

He continued, “It was a way of growing up…I think it gave me a sense of people coming from different backgrounds and sharing a dream, and at that time it certainly felt like a dream,” Shapiro said about the affect growing up during apartheid had on him. It taught him to take criticism, talk and listen to people from different backgrounds and about, he said, ”that dreams can be achieved.”

Shapiro came to Canada as an Anglican priest, with his first parish in Bay L’Argent, Newfoundland. But he soon found that the forces that had drawn him to religious service in South Africa didn’t exist here.“ I realized that, take that political charge out of it and it just wasn’t me.”

He returned to his first love, journalism. He began writing for magazines, eventually becoming the managing editor of Chatelaine magazine before moving on to consulting work and then education.

Shutting up and doing it

Shapiro is humble about J-source’s beginnings despite high praises from both co-workers and J-Source contributors, “It was a good idea for a whole bunch of years; the fact we have it is attributable to his effort,” Cribb said.

J-Source is a small operation compared to some similar resources in the United States such as the Pew Research Center and Poynter Institute but Shapiro is amazed by how J-Source came together.

Ivor Shapiro, founding editor of j-source.ca (Photo Courtesy: Ivor Shapiro)
Ivor Shapiro, founding editor of j-source.ca (Photo courtesy: Ivor Shapiro)

“We can do what we can do and somehow it adds up to more than what anyone can do alone.” That effort is starting to have results, he said. “A year ago if one of our editors called up a journalist in a newsroom and said can you do something for J-Source, the journalist was like ‘What’s J-Source,’ now that’s just not happening.”

It is surprising to learn that J-Source is not doing so well in Journalism schools. Even Shapiro said he is baffled. “We are succeeding exactly where we absolutely have to succeed but I’m disappointed in some journalism schools, journalism students and journalism faculty (who) aren’t aware of J-Source.”

Shapiro said that J-Source would like to start compensating its contributors and editors, but financially that is not in the cards right now. “Journalists do journalism for money and so we’re always asking people to do journalism for free; it’s definitely a challenge.” Shapiro wants to see J-Source.ca grow into a hub of activity and discussion about Canadian journalism.

Said Benedetti, “Reporters like to talk and it would be great if J-Source became the place that they did that, instead of that place being the parking lotor the bar. If we could be the online bar where a lot of interesting and intelligent debate and discussion about journalism took place, that for me would be ideal.”

Shapiro, who recently passed on the role of editor-in-chief to Ryerson colleague Janice Neil, maintains that J-Source would be non-existent if it weren’t for busy people taking time to do little things.

“When one person from Ryerson, one person from King’s, one person from etc. etc. can actually put the thing together if all we have to do is talk about it…”

Shapiro likens it to his anti-apartheid days. “To go back to that previous point–you can share a dream, and maybe something can happen if you’re just civil.”

Clarification: This story includes a sentence stating that J-Source has no official office or physical space and that its operating budget comes from patrons as well from the Canadian Journalism Foundation. While J-Source doesn’t have an office all its own, it does share office space with the foundation. J-Source’s operating budget for salaries and other expenses all comes from the foundation, both from its own funds and from fundraising.