Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CP may not be Timmy's but it's close

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When mulling over those peculiar ties that constitute Canada, they can often seem flimsy and trivial.

While beer, hockey, cold weather and Timbits do a pretty good job bringing folks together -- especially when spun into rousing yarns -- it's probably a good idea to expand that list both in time and space to broaden and deepen our understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

Gene Allen in Making National News: A History of Canadian Press, does his academic best to enrich that list through an impressive institutional history of a news agency, Canadian Press (CP).

Allen, a professor of journalism at Ryerson and a former editor and reporter at the Globe and Mail, traces the evolving organizational contours of CP from its founding in 1917 until the 1970s. In the process, he argues that this not-for-profit co-operative, which on a daily basis writes, rewrites, selects and transmits news to its member newspapers, drew its audience together in a shared cultural space called Canada.

CP does this almost imperceptibly in its banality. As influential as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been in articulating our national identity during the 20th century, CP rivals it, says Allen.

Making National News is organized both chronologically and thematically. Allen approaches CP as a sort of living thing and studies how this creature of print capitalism is shaped by social, economic, political, personal and technological forces.

Specifically examining how changing attitudes toward subsidies, wartime pressure on news coverage, efforts to unionize, internal personality conflicts, Quebec nationalism, and the challenge of new media (radio and TV) contribute to CP's evolving structure.

From a Western Canadian perspective, the first chapter, Uneasy Allies, is remarkable in its originality. It maps out the messy creation of CP. Born amid a whirl of interests, CP found two of its chief champions in the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Telegram.

Begrudgingly brought together in 1907 by a spike in the cost of telegraphic news, the Free Press and Telegram organized western papers into a co-operative to cushion the financial jolt. Then they used legal action and later, during the First World War, patriotic pleas to pry a telegraph subsidy from the federal government.

Meanwhile, the American-based Associated Press, keen to create a sort of franchise in Canada, nudged the big eastern papers into joining the news agency by threatening to stop sending its copy to them at a reduced rate.

Setting aside the irony of a U.S. news agency's pivotal role in forming CP, we find here a stunning counter to the stereotypical story of western alienation. The West's interests were primary ingredients in the baking of this national organization.

Moreover, because of CP's co-operative structure and regional sensitivity, the West retained an abiding influence in an organization producing a cultural commodity that is "essentially" Canadian.

While Making National News is written in a plodding and sober style characteristic of academia, coincidentally a criticism often levelled at CP stories, it powerfully illustrates the way a news agency can at once define and mold a modern nation.

Certainly our nation would exist whether or not this organization did, but the news Allen is making is that Canada would be a poorer place and more difficult to imagine without CP.

Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 A1

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