You Don’t Know Jack!

By Liam Hyland

After a little more than a year, the new editor of The Daily News, Jack Romanelli, is shaking things up in the newsroom. Bringing his own editorial style to the paper, it is out with the old and in with the new. Many people around HRM have noticed a change in the paper over the last year but some are still skeptical. Either way there is a buzz around Romanelli and The Daily News.

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Jack Romanelli took over as editor in chief of The Daily News in October 2006.

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By Liam Hyland

The elevator doors open to the fourth floor of Summit Place, the home of The Daily News. Its 10 o’clock a.m.? and the newsroom is buzzing with activity.

At the end of the room is a corner office overlooking Lower Water Street. Inside sits Jack Romanelli, editor-in-chief. Romanelli types on his MacBook and at the same time answers the phone. He looks up, “Just let me take care of this and I will be right with you.” He shoots off a few quick e-mails, closes the laptop and is ready to begin. He sits up in his chair, tosses a copy of The Daily News onto the desk and in a matter-of-fact tone says people should be reading his paper, “If you’re not a regular reader you’re missing out on the best journalism in the city.”

Romanelli was once managing editor of the Montreal Gazette followed by what he describes as “a short project” at the Cornwall Standard Freeholder. During his time at the Freeholder the paper was nominated for a National Newspaper Award, the only one in its history. Romanelli took over as editor of The Daily News in October of 2006. In the 15 months he has been with the paper his goal has been to change the reputation of The Daily News from a tabloid to a newspaper that does “things that journalistically are correct.”

Is Romanelli really making a difference? Looking at the Wednesday edition of both papers over a period of eight weeks from June 20th until September 12th The Daily News measured up to The Chronicle Herald and in some areas, beat them. Specifically in the area of local politics The Daily News beat the Herald. Over the three-month period The Daily News had 10 per cent more local political stories than the Herald. It could be argued that the absence of the Herald’s star political reporter, Marilla Stephenson, for most of the summer was the reason for a smaller number of political stories, but Romanelli doesn’t think that is the case. He believes his reporters are doing “quality journalism.”

Barb Stegemann, Manager of Communications at Trade Centre Limited, sees Romanelli as a positive influence on The Daily News. Stegemann, a columnist for both The Daily News and the Herald, says Romanelli brings “diversity” to the table. She says, “Diversity brings a positive enhancement” and is a “refreshing change for the community.” Stegemann says Romanelli is also innovative.

Prior to Romanelli, The Daily News suffered many ups and downs because of changing ownership. When the paper was sold by CanWest to Transcontinental Media Inc. as part of a deal totaling $225 million in the summer of 2002, many staff at The Daily News were optimistic about the future of the paper.

According to Bruce Wark, former producer of CBC Radio’s Media File, now columnist at The Coast, The Daily News has always been the underdog and the changes in ownership have not helped. Wark says when the “penny pinching Asper family” sold the paper to Transcon the initial reaction was an enthusiastic, raising their hands to the heavens “Thank God!”

Under the Asper ownership The Daily News struggled with strict editorial rules by not being able to publish stories about Israel or the Middle East. Transcon, however, proved to be not much better than the previous owners, Wark said. The company, “appointed a guy who doesn’t understand newspapers and (didn’t) want to spend any money on it. And they (didn’t) believe in news so everything (was) soft.” Wark says it got so bad many people missed the days when media mogul Conrad Black owned the paper.

When Transcon took over The Daily News in 2002 the message was The Daily News was going to be its flagship paper, but Wark says Transcon was not happy with the numbers, so the company began to cut staff and the stories became “really short and fluffy.” The Daily News continued to struggle and circulation numbers fell. Wark says the initial view of Transcon as the saviour of The Daily News began to disappear.

The Romanelli era

Fast forward four years, and in steps Romanelli. He says the days of the traditional formula of “blood and guts” or “gossip” are over. According to Romanelli, the paper’s mandate is clear, “To inform Haligonians of issues in their city.”

Romanelli says the paper has lived up to that mandate with features such as HRM By Design, published last fall. The five part series focused on an urban design study group that examined structure and design in Halifax. During the run of the series community involvement at public meetings increased dramatically. “I am sure HRM By Design, 12,000 words, didn’t sell us a damn paper but I think we did a great thing because 600 showed up at the meeting. I am sure 600 showed up because they read our series.” Romanelli believes it is important to keep people informed even if it doesn’t sell hundreds of extra copies.

Sticking to the Romanelli mandate, The Daily News is also tackling tougher issues. “The piece we did on racism may only appeal to five percent of the population but it was important. If you are trying to sell papers, five percent is not the group you go after.” The piece Romanelli is talking about was Racism in Nova Scotia, which asked the question: “Is Nova Scotia racist?” Besides reporting on the issue, The Daily News set up a round table discussion about racism in Nova Scotia that Romanelli hoped would lead to a better understanding about race issues in Nova Scotia and what the media and the public can do to help.

The mission statement of the paper is to do “non agenda items.” That means Romanelli does not want his reporters to merely “follow the pack” but instead to do stories that the competition might not find newsworthy.

Romanelli is also changing the way he covers daily news. He said in the past the policy of The Daily News was that if the Canadian Press covered a story The Daily News didn’t. It’s not the policy anymore. “My story of the day is not going to be from CP.”

But that is just one area Romanelli is focusing on. Prior to his arrival at the paper, news content did not go past the editorial page. Romanelli says it’s a waste of valuable space to devote “18 pages to arts and entertainment when there is news to be covered.”

Although The Daily News has only around 40 people in its newsroom, as opposed to more than 100 at the Herald, Romanelli says they are doing “some of the best journalism in the city.” Like David and Goliath the smaller local is going head to head with the big provincial and Romanelli thinks they are keeping pace and in many cases coming out ahead. Romanelli has his hands full when it comes to circulation. Right now circulation of The Daily News stands at around 20,000.

Letters to the editor

Some local readers do notice a change in the paper since Romanelli arrived. Fred MacGillivray, President and CEO of Trade Centre Limited, says Romanelli’s, “Got them focused.” MacGillivray, who has appeared in a number of articles in both the Herald and The Daily News surrounding the Commonwealth Games bid, says he enjoys the paper and says it is “an interesting read.” In terms of local coverage, especially in the area of politics, MacGillivray says he notices “a significant difference in the paper” since Romanelli took over. He finds the stories to be more in depth and about issues that are important to the people of Halifax. “It’s good reporting.”

Not everyone sees The Daily News changing for the better, not least among them, the competition. Only a few blocks up, on Argyle St., is the Herald building, home of the independently owned Chronicle Herald.

Dan Leger, director of news content, considers The Daily News “a worthy competitor” but feels it is lacking in many areas. Leger says that the Herald is providing more “value added” stories than The Daily News.

Leger still sees The Daily News primarily as a tabloid. “Tabloids have traditionally thrived on crime. Anything that can be told in six paragraphs. We like to think we are adding a lot more context.”

He says The Daily News doesn’t have the space to put together long features as the Herald does. Leger also says the Herald has far better picture coverage and covers business in Halifax better than the Daily, which Leger says “is kind of a half-ass effort over there.”

He contends that the problem stems from ownership. The Herald is independently owned while The Daily News is owned by Transcontinental Media, a huge firm with interests in printing, magazines and educational publishing, as well as in newspapers.

According to Leger, “When you’re owned by a big corporation whose headquarters is far away and you’re just another push pin on the map, eventually that’s the way you reflect the community.”

Wark doesn’t think The Daily News reflects the community, “as a push pin,” but does agree that the Herald, with its larger newsroom, has the capacity to do more in-depth stories.

Wark referred to Romanelli as “an old newsman” and seems convinced that he is trying to change the reputation of the paper. Wark says he has to “give Romanelli some credit but I feel they have a long way to go.” He says The Daily News has always been a livelier paper than the Herald and its reporters have always been loyal.

He believes the key to good journalism is competition and he says that if The Daily News can be “aggressive” in its stories it will enhance not only its image but also its quality. According to Wark, aggressiveness is an aspect that is missing from both The Daily News and the Chronicle Herald.

In the little more than a year that Romanelli has been with The Daily News he has made significant changes, changes being noticed. He believes anyone who read The Daily News before he took over will notice a significant difference now.

“We are far better as journalists.”