Monday, December 2, 2013


Let’s face it querying is a crap shoot or, as one person put it, a moving target. I say this as editors don’t always know what they want. One editor will take a one paragraph query, while another wants a one page query. The fun part is when a junior editor wants queries one way and a senior editor wants them another. Also an editor might take queries on one subject one day and reject queries on the same subject the very next day. Occasionally an editor will actually admit they have no clue what they want. I once had one tell me that, while my query was good, they were rejecting it because it didn’t catch the person’s fancy, whatever that is. Another editor might have assigned me the story. Sometimes an editor will reject a perfectly good query that’s right on target for no other reason than it’s late in the day and they just want to go home or they might be under a lot of stress when your query is read.

I once picked up an assignment on the basis of one sentence in a letter of inquiry to a magazine I didn’t know too well. On the other hand I sent a well-crafted query with a unique angle to a magazine I knew very well. Initially the editor was very encouraging and invited me to call. When I did the editor turned me down because I did not work in their field, something the person already knew. It was a complete waste of time.

In all fairness to editors they receive A LOT of queries that are totally inappropriate. The potential writer may demonstrate they haven’t studied the publication by querying on a subject that has just been covered or that they never cover. The potential writer may simply not know enough about the subject they want to write on. Editors also receive a lot of queries that are too broad and not focused enough. The writer might propose an article on women’s health, for example, instead of narrowing it down to a specific aspect of it. I confess I’ve made all of these mistakes at times much to my regret and embarrassment.

While querying is generally a serious and maddening business sometimes it can be funny too. Back in snail mail days Writer’s Digest, which was supposedly writer-friendly, used to send out rejections that were hilarious. It was a form rejection that rambled on and on and on about why they hated using form rejections, but here’s why. This continued for a while even after they published an article about using check-list form rejections. I don’t know what they do now as I haven’t queried them or looked at the magazine in years, but hopefully they’ve grown since then. I still recommend Writer's Digest for beginners.

Bottom line is while querying is quite a bit of a crap shoot, studying the market, having at least a general knowledge of the topic you’re proposing will definitely increase your odds. Finally above all keep your sense of humor you’ll need it.

By the sorry for missing the November post, but it was web host renewal time and as they only sent me the invoice the day before they blocked access to my website I couldn’t post anything. Frustrating.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Help My Mind Is Blank - Writer's Block

Sorry for the delay in this month’s blog, but I suffered writer’s block. For the few of you who have never experienced it, it is where your mind goes completely blank when faced with a clean screen or sheet of paper and you have no clue what to write. (My wife says I have no clue about many things, but that is another story.) It can be especially frustrating when you’re totally on your own having to come up with both the subject and the words to say. In these times it can seem like your battery is running low and you need to recharge it, but there is no place handy to do it. And so you have to try to get every last bit of juice out it until you are able to get it recharged.
To recharge my batteries I often find either making a list of potential subjects to write about or reviewing what you and others have written can be a big help. Another is to read a newspaper or magazine. If you have the luxury, delaying for a day or two might be just what you need. Call a good friend you can bounce things off of and maybe the two of you can brain storm an idea to get you started.
It’s a bit easier when you at least have a general idea of what you’re writing, but just can’t seem to figure out how to start. I often find that just writing anything related to the subject at hand is better than staring at a blank screen or piece of paper even if it’s the worse piece of crap you’ve ever written. No one needs to see it, but you. It starts the creative juices flowing. Once you’ve written something it is very easy to change it.
Sometimes even that may be impossible in your present situation. In this case read something similar to what you’re going to write. Go over your research. Take a walk, play a game, go shopping or do whatever to take your mind off things and then come back to it. I’ve found this technique helps when you’re really stuck for words. I’ve been amazed what your mind can come up with once you’re fed it and allowed it time to think. I used to think I was procrastinating, but now I realize this is part of the creative process.
So best wishes to those of you, who like me, suffer from the occasional bit of writer’s block.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Another Look At Newspapers

With the Toronto Star going behind a pay wall it’s time again to revisit the issue, not that anything much has changed from the last time I wrote about this. As a reader I understand and appreciate the Star’s need for an improved income stream in order to do investigative reporting, general reporting, cover special events and for columnists. However, it can be very counterproductive.

In my case twenty years ago I got about 70-80% of my news from newspapers and the rest from tv and magazines. Today it varies from about 1-40%, depending on the subject. The bulk of my news comes from tv, magazines, ezines, online lists like Newswise and All Aboard, press releases, blogs and websites. If the Toronto Star and most other papers were to shut down today I wouldn’t miss them as much as I would have twenty years ago.

So what to do? For starters the Star and other papers need get ads that people are actually interested in. I remember this one VERY annoying pop-up ad on the Sun Media papers websites for bridal dresses. It was totally irrelevant for me as I’m both male, very happily married and with no children. There have been other ads that were totally irrelevant to me on various newspaper sites, including the Star’s. What’s one thing that all of us need on a daily basis? FOOD! So where are the grocery store ads? I’ve yet to see one on any newspaper site. Put them on and I promise I will look at them at least once a week. The same thing for ads for other things that it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out what people might be interested in, like hardware and clothing stores.

Another thing, why, if I want to subscribe to several newspapers, do I have to go to the Toronto Star’s website and subscribe to the paper and then go to the Globe & Mail, New York Times, St. Catharines Standard and any other paper I may wish to subscribe to instead of going to just one website? It shouldn’t that hard to do. Heck I can go to a cable company and I can at least buy package deals on t.v. stations. Metrolinx has been creating one fare card for use across the GTA.

And why can’t there be two versions of a paper and several levels of access instead of just two? One version would be the full subscriber version. The other would be the free version with all the things that remain free with synopsis of non-free articles, like the investigative series the Star did on Marineland. From the shorter version of the article have a link to the full version, which would count towards the 10 or whatever free articles per month or require a subscription to. Right now my choices are 10 free articles a month or a full subscription. Why not another level that allows me to buy say 25 or 30 articles a month? For some people that might be all they need. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do this.

And please don’t do what the St. Catharines Standard did, which turned me off the paper. I quit subscribing to the physical paper as the price of the subscription kept going up and I didn’t think I was getting good value. I considered subscribing digitally, but when I investigated it found that I had to go through an American company and pay in American dollars or the Canadian equivalent. That has totally turned me off the paper.

I find it ironic that newspapers were among the first to embrace the Internet and yet are still having problems in learning how to deal with it. They remind of Kodak, who invented the digital camera and yet went bankrupt as they weren’t able to figure out what to do with it. It’s a shame because I VERY strongly that we still need newspapers, but not in their current form.

My advice to the Star, Standard and other newspapers, if you’re listening, which I doubt it, GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER, if not and you are determined to commit suicide then please do, but do it quickly and get it over with. This slow death is like watching someone kill themselves by smoking.

Friday, August 2, 2013

PR 101

Just like death and taxes, accidents are a fact of life. There’s no escaping it. So why were Edward Burckhardt and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway seemingly so totally unprepared for the accident at Lac Megantic? It’s not like derailments are uncommon. This has become a textbook case of what not to do in a crisis.

So here’s what you should do.

Develop a plan of action well in advance of any crisis. Waiting for a crisis to happen and then trying to ad-live is no way to handle it. The action plan should include how to deal with the media, the victims and the public at large, including politicians and others businesses. The plan should also include how to handle the monetary aspects of a crisis.

Treat the media with respect and don’t lecture them. Answer questions truthfully, which doesn’t mean telling them everything you know. The media is just trying to do their job and most of their questions are predictable.

When a crisis, like the one at Lac Megantic, happens the CEO should show up within 24 hours not 4 days later as Burckhardt did. A delay in showing up signals that the CEO doesn’t care. However, the visit must be carefully managed keeping the CEO clear of the immediate disaster area so as not to interfere and must try to show genuine concern. Basically put yourself in the place of those immediately impacted by the accident and ask yourself how you would like to be treated.

Wait for the facts to present themselves before making a comment, passing judgment or admitting liability. Burckhardt first blamed the firefighters and then blamed the engineer for the accident at a time when it was too early to know exactly what happened. And what if the person or persons you blamed turn out to be truly innocent? Now you’ve got another problem on your hands. In a crisis there is lots of misinformation and speculation floating around, which the CEO and other company officials don’t need to contribute to.

Come with money. Even if you aren’t legally liable bringing at least some money shows genuine concern and will go far to help improve the imagine of your company. And pay your bills promptly.

One last thing don’t act nervous or play the poor me game. As Alan Bonner said in the Toronto Star the crisis isn’t about you.

Here’s a story I heard about how the Boy Scouts Of America handled an accident at one of their camps. One teen took an unauthorized joy ride with a friend in a motor vehicle and was killed in an accident and the other teen injured. The Boy Scouts paid for the funeral of the boy who was killed and the medical expenses of the one who was injured. They treated the families with genuine concern and respect. The result was neither family sued. That’s how to handle a crisis.

Unfortunately the Lac Megantic accident may end Burckhardt’s career or at the very least tarnish it. This is sad, as prior to this he was greatly admired in railway industry for turning around several railways in the United States and New Zealand. “Ed is a living legend,” Henry Posner, CEO of Railroad Development Corp., quoted in Business Week Business Week

The bottom line for those of you working in public relations is be prepared.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cutting Waste & Saving Money

The number one product of all business is waste and that includes journalists. Think of it how much do you waste? Well there’s electronic equipment, like computers, printers and cell phones, when they’re up for replacement, not to mention empty ink cartridges. Then there’s paper and pens. Add to this electricity, water (We all need to use the toilet.), heat and fuel. By cutting back on waste we keep more money in our pockets while reducing our environmental footprint.

Let’s take ink cartridges. Like a lot of things they’re made of plastic, which comes in part from oil. Most people tend to throw them out after the ink is gone. Even if you recycle them by taking them back to stores that accept them. It’s a waste. However, you can get more use out of them before recycling them and save yourself a bit of money if you take them to a place that refills cartridges. Cartridges can be reused from about1 to 5 times depending on the brand. You can buy kits or take it to a company that will refill it at about half the cost of a new cartridge. Some say that the quality isn’t a good a new one, but others say that depends on what you’re printing.

You can reduce your use of paper by using both sides. I like to print out drafts and rather than putting the paper into recycling right away I either use the other side for other drafts or write on it. With a pack of paper costing anywhere from about $6 doing this can soon add up.

While it’s very important that we take our old electronic equipment to places that recycle them, the way to reduce waste starts when we purchase them. Really think long and hard about what you want to the device for and do you really need it. I’m a desk top computer fan. When I bought a new desktop about 3 or 4 years ago I kept my monitor. It was a flat screen and it was still good and is now about 7 or 8 years old and still going strong. I use my computer to write, surf the Net, temporarily store photos I’ve taken on and to play computer games, like cards and Railroad Tycoon so I don’t need a whole of lot computing power.

Several years ago I replaced all the lights in my house, except one, a chandelier, with CFLs and I turn off my computer when not in use at both the computer and the power bar to eliminate phantom power. Doing this and other things helped me reduce my electric use by 50-60%. As LED lights become better I will eventually replace my CFLS with them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


This is an update to my post regarding photography at Union Station and other GO Transit property. Contrary to what I was told Metrolinx they do require journalists to have permission to take photographs or video while on Metrolinx’s property. Here is a link to By-Law No. 2. Note section 3:22 prohibits the use of “...any camera, video recording device, movie camera or any similar device for commercial purposes upon the transit system without the express written permission of the Corporation.”

Here a link to a Q&A piece in the Toronto Star with John Lehmann, president of the News Photographers Association Of Canada, regarding the Union Station incident Q&A Article.

As I said in my previous post I can see a case for requiring a permit for commercial purposes, but not for journalists. Again if it is not Metrolinx’s intent to bar journalists from taking photos on their property then the by-law needs to be amended to clarify the situation and to spell out VERY CLEARLY that this is not the case.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Photography Confussion At Union Station

Earlier this week I made a post about an incident at Toronto’s Union Station whereby a Toronto Star photographer, Alex Consiglio, was arrested and ticketed for trespassing. (Two police officers were injured while trying to subdue a man who tried to open the doors of a moving GO Train.) Mr. Consiglio took a photo of an injured police officer and then, just outside the station, took a photo of a couple who had witnessed the incident. At this point he was arrested. As to exactly what happened both Metrolinx and the Toronto Star have different versions.

However at the heart of this is the issue of whether or not a permit or waiver of some kind is needed by reporters to take photographs at Union Station. When I asked Metrolinx directly they said this is not the case and that the media reports were confused. Reports in the Toronto Star and elsewhere strongly suggest otherwise. If, as the evidence suggests, that some sort of waiver is required, for whatever reason, by journalists to take photographs at Union Station then this is indeed outrageous and should immediately be cancelled. It gives the appearance of trying to control the press. This is not the first incident involving photographers at Union Station. I have heard of others involving people who were within public areas.

After I made my original post on this incident the evening of June 5th I was very sharply criticized by Metrolinx for it, being accused of poor journalism. I was frankly taken aback by this and at first apologized and then withdrew my original post and update. It did not help that June 6th was a very hectic day for me and I was feeling stressed as a result.

Metrolinx has told me that they have had good relations with the Toronto Star and wish it to continue. I as a freelance journalist have had good relations with Metrolinx and wish it to continue as well. However, the only way good relations can continue is for Metrolinx to clarify, in no uncertain terms, what their policy is towards photography at Union Station for both individuals and journalists and if there are any requirements for a permit or a waiver for taking photographs that these immediately be removed, except in the case where permission is sought to go in restricted areas, filming a t. v. show or movie or other such commercial purposes.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

When The Media Gets It Wrong

Who pays or should pay when the media gets it wrong? Too often the one who pays is the person or business misidentified as doing something wrong. During the recent hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers the New York Post published photos of what they claimed were the suspects in the bombing. One article told of how one of the young men learned he had been identified as one of the suspects when he started getting threatening emails. He feared for his life as a result. When the FBI released photos of the real suspects, the Post made a retraction, but the damage had been done.

Kate Allen writing in a blog on April 22, 2013 quotes former CNN news anchor Ali Velshi, “But being wrong is, at best, a hard kick in the gut. At its worst, it can cost a journalist his or her career and an organization its credibility. Whether or not you tweet at us about it, we journalists actually do understand that being right is all that should matter.” Two questions arise here: do journalists really understand that being right is all that should matter? and what should happen to the journalist and news media that does get it wrong?

The answer to the first is no. Most journalists do not really understand that being right is all that should matter. They frankly don’t seem to care. How else can you explain, for example, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, most journalists insist on calling public money given to passenger trains and urban transit a subsidy, while calling public money given to roads, air travel and water travel an investment, despite it too being a subsidy. How many times have I seen trains referred to as “chugging”? Recently I saw a journalist referring to the Toronto to New York City train as a “commuter train”. Trains don’t chug and never have and commuter trains are local trains making frequent stops, while trains running long distances are intercity trains. When I posted a link to a video about what trains do and don’t do to a journalism list, someone emailed me wondering what that had to do with journalism. I shook my head in amazement. Some of this may seem trivial, but if a journalist can’t get simple little things right, it can call into question everything else they’ve written or said.

When it comes to who should pay, it should be the journalist and/or the media the person works for and not the person(s) or business(es) that have been wronged. Sometimes all that is required is an apology. Once I misspelled the name of a guy I knew. I apologized and he ribbed me about it for several years afterwards. I learned to be more careful. At other times something more serious is required. In the case of the New York Post I believe that young men they misidentified as being the Boston bombing suspects should be compensated in some way for the emotional distress they were put through.

We all make mistakes and journalists are no different. Ultimately when the media makes mistakes we all pay.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Unmuzzling Scientific Freedom

Well it’s about time. Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is launching an investigation into allegations that the federal government is muzzling Canadian scientists. The following departments are part of the investigation: Environment Canada, Department Of Fisheries & Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, National Research Council Of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Department Of National Defence.

A complaint was launched by the Environmental Law Clinic of the University Of Victoria and by Democracy Watch. They produced a report: Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat To Democracy. For example the report claims that in November, 2007 Environment Canada issued a new protocol requiring all media calls to be routed through the department’s Ottawa headquarters. Three years later the department noted the media coverage of climate change science had been reduced by over 80%. In October, 2011 Environment Minister Peter Kent is alleged to have prevented federal ozone scientist, David Tarasick, from speaking about a study he co-authored in Nature on the Arctic ozone hole. And in April, 2012 government media minders were sent to an international polar conference in Montreal to monitor and record what Environment Canada scientists said to reporters.

I’ve heard of reports of documents being freely available on government web sites, only to be later taken down. And it’s not the departments being looked at that control information, the Ministry Of Transportation does too. One person reported that when you ask Amtrak for information on certain routes, you get it, but when you ask VIA for the same type of information they hide it.

The alleged government muzzling of Canadian scientists has drawn negative attention in such publications as Nature and The Economist. Nature had this to say, “...Canada’s generally positive foreign reputation as a progressive, scientific national masks some startlingly poor behavior. The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.”

I agree and I also agree with a Conservative MP who said, “In my view, scientists should stick to science.” To which I add and for governments to keep their nose out of it and to allow the free flow of information, which democracy and a free press is based on. Hopefully the Federal Information Commissioner’s investigation will force the government to do just that.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Writer's Home Office

As writers we usually work out of our homes. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand there’s no commuting, there are tax benefits, greater flexibility in work hours, flexibility in dress (heck you can even work naked if you wish) and a home office is cheaper than renting. On the other hand there can be numerous distractions, like children and pets, friends and neighbors who may not see your working at home as work and it is isolated from others. Basically you need space, some office furniture, equipment and good lighting.

Where you place your home office depends on your needs, the available space, the needs of others in your household and how much money you can spare. If you live with a spouse/partner and have children you’re going to have to consult with them and have to compromise.

Start with knowing your needs. How much space do your require? Do you need lots of storage space? Will you be meeting with clients? How easily distracted are you? How much energy do you require? Do you require a permit for a home office? Do you require more than just a chair, desk and computer? Will desk drawers do or do you need bookshelves and filing cabinets? Do you needs lots of peace and quiet and no clutter or can you ignore a noisy environment with lots of clutter and other distractions?

Once you’ve assessed your needs you can then review the available space. For example you might live with a spouse/partner and two children in a single story house. In this case maybe you’ll have to settle on an underused corner of a room. You might wish to consider putting up a screen, which has two uses: one to keep out distractions and to hide your space when company comes. Another option is to store your things in a closet and take them when you’re working. Desktop computer might be on a small rolling desk.

I would strongly advise against using a corner of your bedroom for workspace. I did when I started out and I came to deeply regret it. As I was stuck in the room for sleeping and working that it made both very hard to do.

On the other hand you may live in a large house or condo or apartment or live alone in which case there might be an underutilized room you could convert to an office. If this is the case maybe all you need to do is move whatever is currently in the room out and put your desk, chair, computer and anything else you need in. Maybe some extra lighting is needed or maybe you need to build in some bookshelves. Maybe you have an unfinished attic or basement that could be fixed up for an office.

Finally you may be one of the lucky ones who have the money and space to convert a garage into an office, build a room onto your house or build an outbuilding specifically for writing. In this case you get to start from scratch.

In my case I’ve taken a basement bedroom and converted it into an office. I have some built in bookshelves, cupboard, some filing cabinets, a closet and a desk and chair, with a computer and printer. I have a ceiling light, a small window and a task light. During the summer time, since I don’t have central air conditioning, my office is one of the coolest in the house. It’s not ideal and some day I’d like to move my office upstairs to what used to be a den, but is now used as a library.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Looking Glass World

Imagine having twenty television sets on and being unable or with great difficulty to turn them off or turn them down. Imagine being given vague instructions. Finally imagine being a Mexican jumping bean. If you can imagine any of these you can imagine my world as person with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or may be one yourself.

ADHD affects me both personally and professionally as a writer. For example I get bored after 15 to 20 minutes and need constant stimulation. I usually have many projects on the go. I’m currently writing three books, a magazine article and updating my journalism site, not to mention reading a book. My brain races at about a thousand kilometers per hour, while the rest of me struggles to do five. And when I go to a newsstand or bookstore I am overwhelmed by the numbers of magazines and books.

Once at church someone commented on some preschoolers how nice it would be to have their energy. I had that much energy into my twenties and I never ever want it again. I just couldn’t concentrate. Even today I still have lots of energy, but my concentration has improved.

Sometimes I’ll get an assignment and read it, but miss seeing something important until I’m almost at the deadline and then I scramble to take that something into account. It’s not uncommon for me to put my foot in my mouth with unintended consequences as I hadn’t thoroughly thought things out.

It’s no picnic. I find having ADHD very frustrating as no doubt those who have to deal with me. What adds to the frustration is being fairly intelligent. I suffer from anxiety as a result and am constantly second guessing myself.

Society has never been fully accepting of ADHDers and those with other differences and mental health issues. For all the recent talk of dealing with disabilities and mental health issues, I have yet to see any significant changes.

Fortunately I have learned some coping skills. Writing weekly and daily lists of things to do are a big help. For example my weekly list will include appointments, which I also write on a chalk board, specific tasks to do, like get groceries, and ongoing things to do, like reading the book I’m reading or a piece of work I’m writing. My daily list will include such things as take my vitamins and aspirin, appointments, reading and working on specific writing projects, like an article I’m on deadline for. Writing lists has greatly improved my productivity.

Speaking of deadlines, I’ve learned that big tasks get done and done quicker if I break them down into much smaller ones. So once I get a deadline I mark it down and work back from there as to when specific tasks must be done and write it down. I find projects go a lot easier that way and I also reward myself for completing certain tasks, like taking a ten minute break outside or playing a computer game.

To cope with having lots of energy, I bicycle and walk regularly, plus do daily exercises. When writing, I’ll sit for five to fifteen minutes and then get up and walk around. I go back and forth like this until I finish what I’m working on. It helps me cope and focus better.

I’ll have more to say on ADHD in future blogs.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Underreported Stories Of 2012

I thought I’d start the year off with my list of underreported stories for 2012. It is based on my knowledge and so I may have missed some.

The Environment Cliff: Much has been made about the American so-called Fiscal Cliff, but we hear little of the environmental cliff, which we are rapidly plugging over and from which there is no return. It includes not only climate change, but the greatest period of extinction since perhaps the Permian Period, when about 90% of all life went extinct. Each year we’re losing several species, some unknown to science. Some of these might have given us the next cure for some disease. Another part is the global water crisis and the quality of air, except for the summer smog alerts.

Loss Of Democracy: Very little has been said about this in the media. We go through the motions of elections, but little discussion is made in the media about how more and more our lives are governed by big corporations, other special interests and the super rich. They are controlling more and more what can be said and done in society. For example SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are used to silence critics of business when they want to do something that others don’t want them to do.

Concentration Of Wealth: Each year the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class shrinks. Government in the name of austerity are cutting back on social programs, while increasing benefits to the wealthy. Unions are being crushed under freedom to work legislation. Part of this is the policy of deliberately keeping interest rates low and the other part is by destroying credit.

Loss Of Press Freedom: Press freedom is being lost through the concentration of the media into the hands of a few and through restricting free access to information. A recent article in the Toronto Star through delaying tactics and making the cost of obtaining this information prohibitive except for wealthy institutions and people.

Deflationary Depression: In all the talk about the economy, politicians and the media are strangely silent about the possibility of a deflationary depression. When it strikes it will come as a complete surprise to most people. The government warns people about high debt, but fail to heed their own advice.