Chris Pecora

Who’s Keeping Watch?

Alberta’s waning press gallery

By Graham Thomson

As a journalist, covering Alberta’s United Conservative Party government is a bit like trying to jump aboard a speeding locomotive. So much weight is moving at such great velocity that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep up.
Once upon a time, Alberta governments weren’t so purposeful or so quick—or, if they were, newsrooms had sufficient staff and resources to keep pace. I’m speaking here specifically about the press gallery: that gaggle of overworked journalists who report from the Legislature full time. Take a walk along the corridor outside the press gallery offices and you’ll see photos of press gallery members from years gone by. In 1992, for example, 25 members are posing happily. And that’s just those who bothered to turn up for the photo (I was a member back then, for CBC TV, and I know that herding cats for a photo shoot is easier). Back then competition was fierce not only for stories but for office space. There simply wasn’t enough to go around. Some journalists had to work from makeshift desks in the hallways.

Alberta’s four major papers had a dozen or so reporters and columnists based at the Legislature. Today, they have just two.

Leading the pack were Alberta’s four major newspapers, which had a dozen or so reporters and columnists based at the Legislature. Today, those four papers are all part of the Postmedia chain, which has assigned just two reporters to the Legislature. (In early 2020 Postmedia reassigned political columnist Keith Gerein, with no apparent plans to replace him at the Legislature.)
From 12 journalists… to two.
I don’t mean to pick on Postmedia—every newsroom is cutting back—but it serves as a measure of the demise of journalism in general and Alberta’s press gallery in particular. Postmedia might as well install a revolving door in its office for the turnover it has seen. Crackerjack reporter Emma Graney quit late last year to join The Globe and Mail and was replaced by accomplished reporter Janet French, who quit Postmedia in February to join CBC. Another talented reporter, Clare Clancy, simply quit. (Full disclosure: I was the provincial affairs columnist for the Edmonton Journal until I left in September of 2018.)
Two stalwarts at the press gallery are the CBC and Canadian Press, both of which base reporters there every day, rain or shine, legislative sitting or not. The Toronto Star and Maclean’s have two talented young reporters in the press gallery, but because they write for a national audience, their focus tends to be on politics (Kenney vs. Trudeau over pipelines) as opposed to governance (What’s in Bill 22, again?).
During a sitting, there may be a dozen reporters at the Legislature. When the session’s not on, that number can drop to three or four.
You might not care about this, but you should. Alberta’s UCP government is introducing not just change but upheaval. During two legislative sittings in 2019 it brought in a litany of legislation that not only ripped up the former NDP government’s legacy but opened the door to a major societal remodelling—from labour relations to education reform to healthcare restructuring—that Albertans are still trying to wrap their heads around. More tumult is on the way.
You can’t say Kenney didn’t warn us. “We think it will be important to hit the ground running should Albertans give us a mandate,” he told a Calgary Chamber of Commerce audience in October of 2018. “You move quickly. You move with speed because speed creates its own momentum. It also makes it harder for the opponents of reform to obstruct it.”
It also makes it harder for journalists to make sense of what’s happening and to hold a government to account, especially when the number of journalists is rapidly shrinking.
You could argue that in a digital age, when news conferences are livestreamed on Facebook, you don’t need reporters assigned to the Legislature. But you do. Reporters assigned to the Legislature know the players, the issues and the context.
I can’t point to stories that Albertans have missed recently, because we don’t know what we don’t know. But wouldn’t it be ideal if more reporters were digging into the government’s plans for labour negotiations this year with public sector workers, or delving into what the government might cut if the price of oil doesn’t recover? In 2009 then-Journal reporter Karen Kleiss—based in the press gallery—asked the government a simple question: How many children have died in government care? With no answer forthcoming, she spent years picking away at the story and then many months in 2013 writing a series of stories that won awards and changed government policy.
I worry Albertans will never see that kind of political reporting again. The UCP government train is so big and so fast it’s moving past us at a blur. We don’t have enough non-partisan journalists to figure out what’s on board and where it’s headed.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.

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