Political journalist Max Fawcett discusses the economic pitfalls of Canada's most scenic city, compares stability between the boomer and millennial generations, and explains why he's dismayed about the direction of in-depth reporting at a time when it's needed most.
Tracy: You were the editor of Alberta Oil, Vancouver Magazine, and you’ve written for the Globe & Mail, National Post, The Walrus, and the Tyee (amoung others). I was about to ask you, ‘Why journalism and not politics?’ but you just mentioned to me that you did in fact work in politics at a time?
Max: Yes [Laughter]. After I got my Master’s at Carleton [University], one night while I was making dinner, I heard an MP from Toronto named Dennis Mills on As It Happens. I can’t remember exactly what he was talking about but I just thought, “I need to work for that guy.” Something about him caught my ear. I called him up and told him I’d work for free. I said, “I’m a grad student. What can I do?”. They brought me in initially as a volunteer and eventually hired me as the director of communications — which for a backbench MP doesn’t mean much: you’re writing householders and dealing with constituent correspondence.
I say he was a backbench MP, but he was the most ambitious backbencher in the liberal caucus, so we did a lot of interesting things. It was great: I got to work on Parliament Hill and had an office in the West Block which, when you’re a 22-year-old, is pretty heady stuff. There was a leadership race at the time between Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, and I was a Chretien guy. But Martin’s people crushed us, which really disillusioned me.
At the time, all of us would go to a bar in Ottawa called D’Arcy McGee’s, and a great political journalist named Paul Wells would hang out there. I think back then he was with The National Post. Everyone would be at the bar yelling at each other, but [Wells] would be in the middle telling people, “This is why you’re wrong, and this is why you’re right.” In my mind I thought, “That’s who I admire. Not someone in the PMO — I admire Paul Wells.” But I didn’t tie that to action right away.
My dad’s a writer so what wound up happening — basically through nepotism— is his publisher gave me a book contract to write about Pierre Trudeau’s influence on my generation. Now there was probably a good magazine story in there, but not a book-length idea at all. So suddenly I’m thinking I’m an author, feeling pretty good about myself. I spent the next six months writing this book, which didn’t pan out because it just wasn’t a book. I started bartending at the time to pay bills even though in my head I was still an author. They killed the book a few years later, so here I was at [around] 27, feeling fairly crushed: my whole identity had been built around being an author.
I was freelancing occasionally for The Globe [& Mail] but my older brother (who’s much more in touch with reality) took me aside and said, “You need to get your shit together. The Globe & Mail is not going to call you and give you a column. You need to pay your dues.” That woke me up. That made things real for me. So I applied to become an intern at Toronto Life magazine and got it, but I hated it. I was just fact-checking the price of Lamborghinis or the price of a $7 million “cottage” in the Muskokas. So soon after I took a job as an editor of a community newspaper in a town called Chetwynd, BC, which has a population of 3,000.
I haven’t heard of it.
It’s a timber and coal town in northern BC. My dad grew up in Prince George — so northern also. There was this romantic [idea of being] a newspaper editor in a small town. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show Northern Exposure, but I had this idea that I would be like the doctor in it. He goes up to Alaska, has a zany time, and meets a lady bush-pilot. So I drove across the country to take this job, and it was not like that at all. I got there right when the banks were failing [due to] the global financial crisis, and it looked like the world was about to end. The heart of downtown was a boarded-up hotel. I drive in and I’m like, “Oh. Well okay, welcome to my new life.”
I stuck it out for a year and I’ve got to say, it was better than going to journalism school; I learned so much. By the time I left town, I probably could have gotten elected to City Council — I was on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, I coached the Little League team, I went to the Legion everyday. It was amazing how quickly a town like that takes you in, but it can be dangerous because it might take you in too much. I did get out, but it was great time.
[My advice to] young journalists, or any of those who ask me to talk to [their] students, I would say: “Forget Vancouver, forget Toronto. Pick up a map and find the furthest town away; call their newspaper and tell them you want to work for them. Chances are you’ll have a job — and you’ll learn way more than you’ll ever learn at J-school.
I couldn’t agree more. Learning to go after the story and make your deadlines seems the best experience.
When you make a mistake in J-school, you get a bad mark. When you make a mistake as the editor of a community newspaper, you have someone from the city yelling at you in your office for three hours. Those lessons sink in a little more.
For sure. Tell me how you eventually came to edit Alberta Oil magazine, and what happened after you left to edit Vancouver Magazine.
[Around] my 30th birthday, I applied to become the managing editor of a business magazine in Alberta (knowing very little about business, but still being a bit arrogant). They offer it to me, I take it, discover I love writing about business, and do that for three years. I was in Edmonton and moved down to Calgary, first to become the Calgary bureau chief of Alberta Venture and then the editor of Alberta Oil. Then Vancouver Magazine headhunts me [to offer the position of editor] of Van Mag, so I tell them, “Only if I can change it and make it the way I want.” They agree, I changed it, and then they got rid of me.
I wanted to bring this up because when you were brought on, as a reader of Van Mag I was excited with the direction you were going to take it in. You set out to create dialogue about issues like the job market, housing affordability, economic opportunities, and loneliness in this notoriously disconnected city.
Yes. I told them that they weren’t getting someone who loved Vancouver, they were getting someone who cared about Vancouver, and there’s a difference there. I’ve never believed that Vancouver is the greatest place on earth, because frankly, it’s not. It’s a nice place, but I’ve traveled enough to know that there are better places on earth than Vancouver. I wanted to be a part of the conversation to help get Vancouver to that better place.
One of Vancouver’s biggest weaknesses is that it rests on its laurels. People here get lulled into thinking “It can’t get any better than this." — That this is the greatest place on earth. And that interferes with the business of moving a city forward. Certainly, if you’re a baby boomer or someone who grew up here ages ago, the city seems pretty great; it treated you well. Your house that you bought for $120,000 is now worth $1.7 million. That’s great. But if you’re someone my age, this is a really hostile city to your ambitions.
So yes, I wanted to talk about these issues at Van Mag, and I told them that. I [warned] them that I was going to say some things that might upset some advertisers, but that this would bring in new advertisers, because that kind of dialogue would bring new readers. The goal was to push their readership from over 50, to mid-40s / late 30s. That’s a valuable demographic that isn’t really spoken to. For me, the big weakness in Van Mag had always been that it overlooks the thing that everyone talks about in this city. There’s this giant elephant in the room and your job as the city’s magazine is to describe the elephant, analyze it, and dissect it. But Van Mag didn’t do that.
I’ll endorse that with a comment on my friend-group from my early 20s. Every single one — who either graduated from UBC, SFU, or Emily Carr — every single one of them doesn’t live here anymore. And none of them say they’ll ever move back. You have these incredibly talented, well-educated, passionate, young people that bring vibrancy to a city, but they’ve all left. They’ve taken amazing opportunities that are unimaginable in this city.
Yes, the people who are in charge of this city should be terrified, because that’s how cities die: young, talented, ambitious, creative people leave. In the 21st century those people are what natural resources were in the 19th century. Having lots of young creatives is like having a big forest or deposit of coal, and we’re squandering it. My concern with Vancouver is that I think we have already squandered it. The city’s future is now permanently on a track to becoming a leisure and resort city — which is fine if that’s the future it wants. It’s just not the future that I ever wanted for this city.
There’s a fellow who drives a commuter boat between Bowen Island and Granville Island. He took us on a detour once to view some stunning, magnificent houses, but he told us, “I’ve been driving this boat for 7 years. I’ve never seen a light on in that one, never seen a light on in this one, or that one.”
Vancouver is certainly becoming (or has already become) a bank account. It’s a geographical bank account and that has made a lot of people very rich, but it’s killing the city in the process. This might be apocryphal, but it sounds true: a majority of first responders now live on the other side of the Fraser River. That means if there’s an earthquake and it’s the wrong time of day and the bridges go out, you’re going to have a lot of firemen, a lot of paramedics, and a lot of police officers unable to get into the city. Now that seems like a really bad idea to me. And if you’re a teacher, or a farmer, or a social worker? Forget living in the city. I grew up not that long ago living in Kitsilano and Point Grey. My friends there had parents who were teachers, social workers, middle-class people. They weren’t bankers, they weren’t investment fund managers like you would have to be now. It’s interesting to watch the older generation get religion on this belatedly when they see their kids leave. When their kids tell them, “Hey Mom and Dad, even if you can give me $500,000 towards a house, I’m still not living here because the math doesn’t work out.” The boomers are finally going, “Oh geez, maybe we made a mistake.”
I read your article in The Walrus about subsidizing Canada’s seniors. I thought it was very well-timed, because most parents are sitting there wondering, “Why don’t you guys have a steady job, kids, and a house yet?”
I think it’s easy to look at young people, and infer that [they] don’t have it that hard. In a lot of respects, yes, we have better technology and tools they didn’t have, but the basic building blocks of a life — which used to be: start a family, buy a house, have a career — are all in flux. Those jobs where you can get hired at 22 and [keep until] you’re 65 are rare today. I’m leaving journalism right now because I look at the industry, and I go, “Forget when I’m 65; I don’t know if it’s going to be around when I’m 45.” So how can I invest my time and my life in that? I think a lot of people who make decent money know now that everything is precarious. Even friends of mine who are lawyers are looking at automation and technology and assuming that robots might be coming for [their] jobs. Doctors even, shockingly. There’s this undercurrent of instability in our lives that I don’t think our parents had to deal with to the same extent.
Do you think our generation just might have to get used to the instability? You can be of one profession for 10 years and then get to be another for the next 10?
That’s how I’m approaching it. When you’re presented with something that is beyond your control, all you can do is cope with it the best you can. But I don’t think it’s ideal. Having to start over every 10 years means you have to start over every 10 years. That means all the pay increases, the knowledge you gain, all go down the drain. Some of it might transfer over, but some of it just disappears into the ether. You don’t get that process of building up, where by the time you’re in your 50s or 60s you’ve got a pretty good salary, a lot of good colleagues, and you’ve developed an expertise. It’s your thing, and you can be confident in it. Unfortunately today, you’re always waiting for the figurative trap door to open again, and I think that makes you a little crazy.
Oh, absolutely. It’s called intermittent reinforcement in the behavioural sciences. Unpredictable ‘rewards’ or ‘punishments’ drive you nuts.
I know there’s a theory that it should make you more willing to take risks, but my perception is that it makes you less willing to take risks.
Because you crave stability?
You crave stability and you don’t have that sense of confidence that if you fall, you’ll land on your feet.
Talking journalism, do you think online versions of news publications have ruined necessary, in-depth reporting?
Yes, but I’m really pessimistic about journalism right now. [Laughter] We have been trained not to pay for [online journalism], and not to expect to pay for it. And I don’t think you can put that genie back in the bottle. It’s very hard to find an industry where they gave something away for free, and then eventually managed to convince people to pay for it. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how important journalism is and how it’s the bedrock of democracy and all that fun stuff, but until we’re willing to pay for it, it doesn’t matter. I’m as guilty of this as the next guy; when a New York Times article comes up and I want to read it after I’ve used my 10 free uses that month, I’ll just use my incognito browser. I know I’m a bad person when I’m doing it, but I still do it.
Because you’re conditioned to just get it. For too long, you saw a headline, clicked on it, and were able to read it. Now our brains have less capacity to interrupt ourselves, pull out our credit cards, and sign up. It's too easy to just click over to the next publication.
I’ve heard ideas on micro-payment systems that might work for the Times and for the Guardian or other big, international publications. But for Canadian ones, likely not so much, especially when we have American media flowing across the border for free. In my opinion, the only way we’re going to save this is the government is going to have to step in and declare it in the public interest to have factual information conveyed to us. We’re going to have to pay for this as taxpayers, which is a really unpopular idea, but the alternative is really scary: people not knowing anything or only knowing things that aren’t true.
The profit model of online media had huge consequences. Online advertising is a bizarre world where you pay a company for ad “impressions” on a webpage; that company pays tons of websites for those impressions, so the sites are obligated to get as many views as fast as they can. Everyone seems to be chasing their own tail. But so much money is going into it so the more outrageous the headline, the better.
It’s terrible. All of my friends who work in the more commercial side of the news business, well, they drink a lot. They see what it looks like and they know what works versus what doesn’t, and good journalism doesn’t work. What works is clickbait. What works is snappy headlines. What works is celebrity news — all the things that don’t make us smarter. And hate sells better than honesty. Now, that’s a horrible thing to say or believe, but it’s pretty tough to view it any other way. Breitbart is doing a lot better than Politico or any other more truth-oriented outlet. People want to be told things that line up with their beliefs, and very few people will pay to be told they’re wrong or to be told that the way they see the world is incorrect. That’s a really dangerous path, but it’s the one that pays right now.
What’s your opinion on print news? I'll go out of my way to buy The Walrus, or a copy of the Globe & Mail or National Post and I'll do so whether they're $5 or $15. I love flipping through actual paper and wind up reading more of each article than I would online.
Ah, well, my theory is that newspapers are basically finished [Laughter]. I think we’ll still see free ones like Metro survive, but the old way of receiving information just doesn’t make sense anymore.
How so? I see that yes we do need to incentivize people to buy papers more often than they do.
I agree with you about how nice it is to read a newspaper after staring at a screen all day. The other great thing about newspapers traditionally was that they would show you things you didn’t want to see, or you weren’t specifically looking for. You would encounter new perspectives and go, “Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that before.” Online platforms can get in the way of this.
So I agree that newspapers are great, but my concern is how the ‘hit’ that you get from Twitter and from online news is so much more instantaneous and gratifying than newspapers. [Newspapers are] a tough sell for people. My theory has always been that newspapers are probably finished, although I would love to see evening newspapers come back because I’d much rather read a newspaper at eight o’clock at night than I would at seven in the morning. I do think premium magazines still have a place. I was always drawn to them because they counteract what the internet does to your brain. They go, “Hey it’s time to slow down, sit in the tub or on the couch, and just read.” They filter out all the noise on the internet and tell you, “Here’s what you really need to know about sports, business, culture, etc.”
All-in-all, it’s a great time to be 20 and be in the media. It’s a horrific time to be 35 and in the media mid-career. You’re too late to be diving into a startup; you want the stability and the pay-check but you haven’t been in the industry long enough to want out to do something new. It’s a tricky spot.
So what’s next for you?
I’m going to work for the government in Alberta.
Ah, back to politics.
I’m helping with communications around their climate change programs. I was out here saying nice things about pipelines, and that got me yelled at, so now I’m going back to Alberta to say nice things about carbon prices and that’ll get me yelled at [Laughter]. Apparently, I have a fondness for being yelled at by people. I would love to be able to stay in the media though, so we’ll see. I think there’s a space emerging where people are not journalists but they still serve the truth a little bit. I see that with a lot of academics on Twitter, [so] there’s a space for that. It’s not the space of truth-at-any-cost, but [they] are still able to participate in the conversation, which I think is important. And for me, I’ve always been political, I’ve always wanted to win, so it’ll be nice to go back to that challenge. This is not an easy one to win, but it’ll be nice to go back to a place where you’re not just asking questions but actually trying to come up with an answer.
Exciting. Well best of luck Max, and I’ll continue to watch out for your witty and refreshingly honest work in the (hopefully) near future.
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