Thursday, January 31, 2013

News Cafe Part 3: Front Running a Failing Business

The Free Press News Cafe is a story about transparency and those who claim to have "professional standards" as journalists.

The story keeps changing, about:

1) What the relationship between the News Cafe and Winnipeg Free Press is

2) Where the $400 000 in grant money is going
3) What the relationship between the grant-funded Community News Commons and the News Cafe is

Dan Lett made a bizarre appearance onWinnipeg Internet Pundits yesterday, while taking some well-intentioned questions from mere bloggers/untrained citizen journalists. The story about the News Cafe continued to change. Lett somehow ended up proclaiming the News Cafe's successes in what is apparently now being called "community building." 

The reason why this is so controversial to begin with is because Lett wrote about CNC programming held at the Cafe without divulging he had business interest in said Cafe. Nor did he divulge who else at the Free Press has a vested interest. 

In reply to Free Press online commenters, Lett stated that he does not profit from the News Commons "citizen journalism training" which he volunteers for at the Cafe he is an owner of. Yesterday he told WIPs "the actual food and beverage part of the cafe, is run by a small separate business." 

Dare I venture to ask if any of the CNC "Investigative Journalism Courses" cover how to take an elevator to the tenth floor of the Woodsworth Building and pay $7 to find out the truth?

According to records available at the Manitoba Companies Office, there are three directors to "Flatt Iron Grill Inc." One is Dominic, the restauranteur (and by reputation a fine one). The other two listed are Free Press Publisher Bob Cox, and Free Press Canadian Newspapers CFO (ownership group of the Free Press) Dan Koshowski. The Free Press in other words, controls 2 of 3 votes on the board. 

That sure looks like Free Press controls the Cafe to most reasonable people, who may have otherwise thought this was just a branding exercise. 

According to Lett on Internet Pundits, they are just looking for a buyer to take over a "soup and sandwich" business. Soup and sandwich? A far cry from Marion Warhaft's August 2011 "Extra! Extra! News Cafe Worthy of Page 1" glowing review. In it, Warhaft stated that she was "ordered by "she who must be obeyed" (editor Margo Goodhand)" to write an "honest" review. Editor Goodhand somehow forgot to tell readers  that at least one Free Press employee (Lett), her own boss (Cox), or the proverbial cheque-signer (Koshowski) had a stake in the success of this "soup and sandwich" operation. 

Remember too, the January 21 page B1 Bob Cox sidebar accompanying Dan Lett's column that "reassured" readers about the News Cafe. What a great opportunity it is!

I have a hard time believing Bob Cox just happened to, whoops, say it was the building for sale, not the restaurant, of which he is a Director. And that at least one Free Press writer holds shares in.

Lett claimed on Internet Pundits that the restauranteur has had health problems. That may be. However, Dominic may have had another reason for wanting out: the Manitoba Government.  

On January 7th, two weeks prior to the News Cafe "opportunity" a debt...most likely for unpaid PST...was registered against "Flatt Iron Grill Inc." It appears the News Cafe owes the government over $16, 000 in unpaid remittances. The responsibility to pay this ultimately lies with the Directors, personally. 

Eleven days later, January 18, the News Cafe was posted for sale on Kijiji. 

Three days after that on January 21, Bob Cox was quoted as saying: 

"You'd want to buy it because of the association with the Free Press," Cox said.

So far, according to documents I have seen, that Free Press "association" has resulted in the Cafe losing over $68 000. So that's $16k owing to the Province and $68k in operating losses, and...

The loan.

Yes, the loan. 

A $105 000 loan the restaurant company owes to...of course you guessed it, the Winnipeg Free Press. 

There could be another reason why Publisher Cox is encouraging a buyer to come forward for $109 000 (the listing price of the News Cafe). Except it really looks like, to a reasonable person, that his "small, separate business" owes his newspaper a substantial amount of money. It really looks like the News Cafe cannot make money and someone is trying to rid themselves of their debt. 

Perhaps Free Press business reporter Geoff Kirbyson, when he recovers from being hypnotized at the Cafe, can do a story about "front running," which as someone in business explained to me is quite frowned upon. Wherein a stakeholder of a company exclaims how great the business is, without disclosing it is his business and that it is failing.

Despite repeated proclamations over the last couple of weeks of how welcoming and inclusive CNC programming is, at least one group has been excluded: established Winnipeg bloggers and citizen journalists who expect media institutions to be as transparent and accountable as any other institution in our community. 

For an "award winning" newspaper that has spent years publishing stories (and rightly so) about Mayor Sam Katz's frequently absent sense of transparency, accountability, and not declaring conflicts of interest, Dan Lett, Bob Cox, and the Winnipeg Free Press have surrendered any legitimacy as journalists to lecture Katz, or any public figure, or citizen journalists, on those subjects again. 

At the least they owe their readers an apology.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Free Press' Cafe: Around the publisher's ruse, Part 2

Yesterday's piece about Dan Lett's involvement in the Free Press Cafe and how it relates to journalism ethics and the existing citizen journalism/blogging community received tons of support. Free Press readers aren't as gullible as some people would like them to be, and sense something fishy is going on with this deal. They are not wrong. 

Lett's newfound praise for the citizen journalism program at CNC on Monday lacked any mention about a key role that citizen journalists play in the media landscape.

Holding the media to account. 

Part of the reason many of us get into this and putting ourselves out there is challenging the established narrative, a role MSM increasingly does not play. Not surprisingly, no "training sessions" have been held on this important aspect of the existing community. The most recent "training session/event" will be a town hall adressing if Winnipeg is a compassionate city. Aww. 

Dan Lett's tune changed over the years in his opinions of citizen journalists. He has been quite critical for a long time on the way the blogosphere functions, from The Sausage Factory circa 2008: 

The blogosphere, on the other hand, is often dominated by commentary about how mainstream news organizations missed stories, or did bad stories, or spelled stuff wrong, or made mistakes in fact. Fair enough - there is no purpose in denying that all that happens.

But IMHO, it doesn’t make for compelling content...

Au contraire, to a newspaper journalist it most likely does not make compelling content. However the number of visitors of my post yesterday suggests otherwise. My overhearing of complete strangers within earshot talking about my post says otherwise. The kind of thing that happened on Monday with the Cafe for sale and the Free Press pumping it up raised people's bullshit-o-metres. They looked for information elsewhere.

It is as easy for Lett to criticize me as it is for me to criticize him. But suddenly, Lett isn't criticizing the citizen journalism/alternative media scene. Now, in 2013, it is a great thing. As long as citizen journalists are trained at his Cafe. 

In 2009, Lett quoted me from a long-ago blog post where I analyzed how many of my posts in one year were based off a story originally in a newspaper. This post of mine was attractive to Lett because it backed up his claim that bloggers "just" draft off the MSM, that our content is not compelling, implying that we are somehow of less worth. Yet if I were to say Lett's piece on Monday about how great CNC is that happens at the Cafe counts as compelling journalism content, I must have a degree from a journalism school somewhere.

Nearly 5 years ago, in January 2008 (no longer available, drawing from my inbox) Dan Lett opined:
But isn’t the beauty of the on-line journalism community the fact that technology is helping citizen journalists jump into the game with old-school, bricks-and-mortar news outlets?
If citizen journalists could compete 5 years ago, then why do they need training now? It could have something to do with a former Editor of the Free Press helping shut down the only non-FreeP-endorsed citizen journalism training platform that existed, which has been well documented.

The criticism from Lett seems to have ended at the infusion of $400k into a program that is run out of a Cafe that he, and apparently some of his colleagues, own, operate, or have a financial interest in. He may claim he makes no profit from CNC events at the Cafe and that may be true. Events don't pay directly; they bring people into the Cafe. Lett & Co just lose less money.

Mb Prof Planners Institute rocks breakfast on capital region transportation plan  

As if to compliment the Bob Cox sidebar on Monday's paper assuring prospective buyers the Free Press partnership ensures success, Dan Lett is tweeting a photo of a Cafe full of people attending an event the day after (remember the Cafe is for sale! Look at all the people the Free Press can help attract to the business!). Which Lett is a part owner of, and is trying to sell, and just a day prior was using his platform as a journalist to reach hundreds of thousands of readers to tell them about the amazing citizen journalism program, where he brings the light of journalistic integrity to us blogging hacks, at the Cafe. 

But Lett is not the only one whose undisclosed relationship - and before being confronted by an online commenter, it appears his stake was never found within the Free Press archives - with the News Cafe has compromised the journalistic integrity of the Free Press. This is a lot bigger than just Lett's "very small share" of the Cafe, and not only about Dan Lett and his need to sell the restaurant "entity."

There are others higher up the food chain who have a keen interest in closing that chapter of their failed business book.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Free Press publisher's failed ruse exposes Lett's News Cafe conflict of interest

Another blogger, WPG News Review, seems to have come to many of the same conclusions I did. What wonderful convergent thought we have here in the blogosphere.
* * * *

**Update 2**
There is only one "Our Mistake" listed on page A2 of today's deadtree. The glaring error which allowed this post of mine to exist in the first place (and WPG News Review's) was only corrected on Dan Lett's column online yesterday. The only interest this possibly serves is the publisher's, Dan Lett's, and whoever else owns a piece of the Cafe. The ruse goes on.
* * * *

On Saturday morning, as far as I can tell, a most unlikely and beyond-puzzling story broke on Twitter, brought to our attention thanks to Dave Shorr's retweet. The Free Press Cafe was for sale, and it was being advertised without the slightest shade of discreetness on Kijiji (has since been taken down) of all places.

Dan Lett and the Free Press have been found themselves in a firestorm: they've been caught trying to promote the sale of the restaurant while pretending they themselves have no business interest in it. As more information surfaced over the past couple of days, not only is the Cafe indeed for sale, the paper has seemingly gone on a News Cafe Events promo blitz, and their star columnist on political ethics is preaching to us the virtues of training citizen journalists, at the cafe. 

On Monday, two days after the Kijiji ad surfaces, a massive full-page article on B1 by Dan Lett goes out. Lett's piece is not about the Cafe being for sale, rather he sings the praises of citizen journalism and their CNC program and how great it is, which happens at the Cafe. As of Monday night, there are two other stories about the Cafe, advertising events with MP Joy Smith and the British Consul General. Come to the Cafe!

Meanwhile, a sidebar story with a photo of the Cafe is tacked on to Lett's piece, featuring quotes from publisher Bob Cox reassuring readers that the future of the Cafe is secure, as long as the Free Press is around to take care of it. If I didn't know better, I'd say this looks like a great opportunity to a prospective buyer...considering the asking price is $109k.

If they believe this is such a vital and valuable program, why don't they buy it themselves?

On the surface this all seems to have been attempt to prop up their version of citizen journalism. Then the facts came out, starting with a correction about a glaring error in the aforementioned sidebar. The sidebar states the building is for sale...which can't be true. Where can you buy a building for $109k downtown? In a correction tacked on to Dan Lett's piece online, whops, it was in fact the business was for sale. Silly us, we said it was the property by mistake!

Lett was then forced in comment section of his article to admit he had a piece in the business.


9:10 AM on 1/21/2013
Shouldn't Dan Lett always ID himself as a financial partner in the Free Press Cafe whenever he writes about it? Seems like the ethical thing to do.

Dan Lett11:46 AM on 1/21/2013
Column is not about the News Cafe. It's about the Community News Commons, which delivers some but not all of its programs through the cafe. 

How timely!

The Cafe is up for sale, and just by coincidence, a Lett piece appears to cheerlead for what goes on at the Cafe. Pure coincidence, folks. Nothin' to see here. Move along.

google9:47 AM on 1/21/2013
Umm...I'm pretty sure Dan Lett is the one who owns the Free Press Cafe...

Dan Lett11:45 AM on 1/21/2013
I make no secret of the fact that I am a very small shareholder in the entity that runs the food/beverage side of the cafe. The column in today's paper is not about the News Cafe. And the cafe does not profit from its association with the Community News Commons.  

Hear that? He's a stakeholder in the Cafe. The Cafe is for sale, but the piece isn't about that, so if you're looking for a conflict of interest, you won't find one, apparently because the Cafe does not profit from CNC. Events and CNC draw people to the restaurant. CNC is endowed with $400k from the Winnipeg Foundation, and CNC exists because of the Free Press Cafe. If the Cafe disappears, what happens to this funding and does the Free Press get cut out?

Maybe a bit of a situation if you're a stakeholder. The citizen journalism project must go the Free Press Cafe.

Chillin in St James11:09 AM on 1/21/2013
While I take issue with Dan Lett's poor choice of words in describing that newspapers are 'under siege', some of us stopped regular home delivery of the WFP long before social media became the force it is today. Superficial stories, analysis, context, or critical thinking are the real underpinnings. Rare examples like Bartley Kives date to take an issue and put it in context. Perhaps the news cafe should reflect on the uniqueness and relevancy of reporting in traditional newspapers.

Dan Lett11:49 AM on 1/21/2013
I would implore you to go to the following website and look at the National Newspaper Awards archive, the best of newspaper content over the past few years. FP work is regularly nominated for NNAs. I'm proud to say that we continue to do good journalism. No one newspaper is going to satisfy everyone's every need. However, there is no doubt that we still do a good job at what we do best. 

236989674:59 PM on 1/21/2013
Lots of fluffy awards and your readership is in decline. What wrong with this picture?

At the suggestion that content is a problem at the Free Press (something I argued during last year's layoffs) Lett defends the Free Press' record, and that they do good journalism.

Isn't that rich?

This is journalism? Where does this rank on the ethics scale? Upon news of a tanking business put up for sale, the guy with a stake in the business puts out a cheerleading piece about citizen journalism which happens at the business, who only discloses he has a stake in the business in his comments section, and whose employer is directly involved with the business, who uses their platform to do a promotion blitz of the CNC and events at the business. What a great bargain this business is!

I'd go on a limb and say that everything Dan Lett has ever written about the Free Press Cafe or his version of citizen journalism needs to be revisited. I'm not sure how he has any credibility anymore.

He loves to talk about how great citizen journalism is here, but has never bothered to ask me about what happened to the incredibly successful citizen journalism radio program I was a part of. Nor has he ever asked me, a citizen journalism with success of my own, to come down and participate in his little project. Nor has he approached the currently-existing citizen journalism community. A few years ago, he was writing how the blogging community doesn't break stories, only commentary, implying that it is somehow of lesser value. That content is the real driver of journalism.

What the Free Press, and Dan Lett, have put out about what is going on with this Cafe is propaganda to serve a business interest that was concealed with the guise that they are helping the community.

Dave1112:50 PM on 1/21/2013
"I am a volunteer who has helped devise and deliver CNC seminars. That is a task that is completely and utterly separate from my work at the FP or my association with the cafe. It's volunteer work. "
Your altruism is unquestionable, especially because you have a financial stake in the WFPNC.

And Lett, who just a few months ago pointed the finger at us for not paying to support their journalism, that it was our fault, the readers fault, for recent layoffs. Does he expect me to pay for this pathetic display of "journalism?" A coordinated effort to build and maintain the image of the Cafe that is now for sale? To maybe cut or stem their losses by luring a new prospective buyer to a failing business?

Nice try, guys. All that energy wasted. There are so many potential stories in this province worthy of the title "good journalism," to challenge the government and hold our ever-more-corrupting offices to account. The Free Press says they're all about content, but here we are on a Monday laying a path of deception about the sale of an investment liability on B1. There is nothing more worthy of B1 today than this exceptionally important story on how great CNC is, that will impact your life as a citizen.

In the coming days I'll hopefully have time enough to revisit Lett's past pieces about blog-land and see how they stack up to this newfound philosophy and 'altruistic' devotion to the success of alternative media.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Make art, not bad budget policy


Thanks to Jean, who volunteered an entire afternoon to come take pictures of me every five minutes, and then more time to stitch the photos together. These 60 seconds represent over 4 hours of work.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

City Hall: tax break for the CMHR, pathetic spending cuts to the Children's Museum

This budget stuff is a total doosie, eh? Budget time is always interesting.

Like how City Hall gave the Canadian Museum for Human Rights a massive tax break, like they needed it. If you remember, the Deputy Mayor lampooned critics of this $3.6 million tax break as having a "behavioural disorder" less than two years ago.

Now, important other community museums have to suck it up. They are getting the shaft to save the paltry sum of $358 000.

Victims of this include the St Boniface Museum which will have to cut it's travel and advertising costs, something the CMHR certainly doesn't waste a single ATP unit of brain energy thinking about. The Children's Museum will have to do without $12 000 this year, which is a big number to a little place. The CHILDREN'S MUSEUM! Why is it that when an administration looks to cut spending, they cut such tiny amounts from important community venues that desperately need it?

That one, single, tax break for the CMHR? Could have payed for 9 years of these non-profit grants. Too bad, so sad.

Remember that the next time a non-profit asks for a donation. Or when you're shocked at the admission price of the Children's Museum.

These institutions are worth giving money to. It is a crying shame they will have to do without, in the shadow of the CMHR, whose immense money-attracting gravity is felt throughout the entire non-profit sector, and extends to City Hall. A black hole analogy is nearly apt: even logical reason can't escape it's pull.

How can any councillor justify cutting such amounts from local museums and non-profits after giving The Big One such an enormous tax break just 21 months ago?

* * *

The Winnipeg Sun has a great summary of the cuts to non-profits.