You may have noticed the yellow button I added to the sidebar of this blog. I’ll explain in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you what’s happened since early July.
“Summer of change”
When I was a kid, I used to get the same feeling at the end of every summer. I described it at the time as “the epic feeling”. It was like an extended version of the buzz I got from riding my bike off some rickety jump in the forest, far from medical aid: there’s a moment before your tires touch the earth where your brain says, “this will be either wonderful or disastrous.”
Every August, as school loomed closer, I’d feel a similar rush. It’s a weird combination of adrenaline and urgency, coupled with the knowledge that everything you do this fall is going to have consequences. On those last warm nights, like a ladybug, I used to climb to the highest point I could, look out over the city, and try to control my breathing. When I turned 15, I stopped taking summers off, and the sensation dissipated.
It’s back. My friend Evan dubbed the season now wrapping up “the summer of change,” and I think he hit on something. It feels like everyone I know is breaking up or moving house or launching new projects. But there’s a macro element at play too.
I look back at Québec, at the political scene I would have been covering right now, and everything is up in the air. New parties, new resignations, sovereignist splinter groups, election speculation, fluctuating poll numbers, and a new mantra: that we need to conduct politics differently — even overhaul the system.
At the federal level, this was the summer that Jack Layton died. Say what you will about his platform, the guy understood that human beings need hope. That in itself is a revolutionary idea most days in Ottawa. Now he’s gone, and Canadian progressives have lost one of their strongest unifying voices.
On the media side, Lloyd Robertson is passing the torch. Viewers of the top-rated newscast in the country are losing the familiar, trusted face of a man who’s been in that anchor chair … forever. As every tribute so far has pointed out, it’s the end of an era.
This was also the summer when people all over England found out they could loot and riot for three days straight before police obtained political permission to crack down. Rioting is learned behaviour, and I’d argue the London inferno set a template for serious unrest elsewhere. Even Forbes magazine is now advising its well-heeled readers of a “coming global class war.”
At the same time, they (we?) toppled Gaddafi. My enthusiasm over the latest dictatorial domino falling is tempered by reports the Libyan rebels accepted NATO firepower in exchange for access to the oil fields by companies from NATO countries. Still, a summer of change.
Over the past couple months, we also found out that the recession in the United States cut deeper and hurt worse than we thought. The haemorrhaging was only staunched by stuffing the wounds with money. Now even this emergency gauze is running out. If the US double-dips, we could all be going for a swim.
Driving across America this summer, I was struck once again by how much clearer the contradictions seem — the problems built into our shared culture and economy. It’s hard not to envision the decline when you’re riding your bike around the pockmarked twilight of Detroit. Hanging out in the USA is like hitting fast-forward: take political polarization, stratified wealth, unemployment, enraged fundamentalists, and put everything in a blender. Garnish with firearms. Serve to Rick Perry, or Sarah Palin.
Paradoxically, I also found some of the most hopeful, helpful people in America. Indeed all the way across the continent, and in my trips around BC, I have discovered pockets of love and support I never knew existed. To each of you who let me stay on the couch, or gave me a meal, or told me your own story, thank you.
So, I quit my job. It turns out this was the best thing I could have possibly done for my life and yes, my career. At the same time, I do have regrets. I want to apologize to my former colleagues and employers for the drama. I know I pulled the rug out, and I’m sorry. I hope we can reconcile.
I also regret the fact that some journalists misinterpreted my personal decision as an attack on their integrity or the way they make a living. This was not my intention. Still, there were some instructive nuggets in even the most negative responses.
I think the National Post alone published three articles this summer analyzing my career choice — one an op-ed, one billed as satire, and one a news story that attempted to map a trend of entitled Gen-Y quitters. Each was well written and interesting to read, but only the first really stuck with me.
Jessica Hume wrote: “In his new role as unemployed blogger, Nagata is no longer bound by these rules. He can now fight the good fight, sharing his thoughts freely on the internet, bring his readers the stories they deserve. If he finds a way to do this — without advertising, shareholders, or a business plan – and finds a way to make a living at it, there may be room for him in Canadian journalism after all.”
I turned this over and over in my mind as I travelled home. When I got there, I began several weeks of meetings with friends, family, and collaborators. My conclusion is this: if you want me to keep writing, I will. You don’t have to call me a journalist, but if you would rather have me participate in the public conversation, I will.
Back to work
What I’m committing to this fall is to go back to work, albeit “without advertising, shareholders, or a business plan.” It’s an experiment.
I noticed something while I was working in television that bothered me deeply. How do so many smart, talented, well-meaning people, working together, create something so intellectually flaccid, even morally ambiguous? Most days it felt like we were actually less than the sum of our parts. What I’ve realized is that this disappointment is not limited to the world of TV journalism. People in all sorts of unrelated fields are wondering about the mandate they’re fulfilling, and questioning the results. I want to keep exploring that.
To start with, I’ll be launching a series of essays starting in mid-September. My focus is the public conversation itself, the thing I’m leaping into. I define the public conversation as the imaginary place where all of us in our different sectors share ideas for social progress. If that conversation is weakened, it becomes much more difficult to find and agree on solutions. What I’m trying to do is use standard journalistic techniques to start exploring the institutions that have historically promoted and safeguarded this thing in Canada.
My theory is there are connections between all of our different worlds, and many of the problems we see right now are actually related. Testing this theory means laying out a foundation, building pillars out of different examples, then trying to find the roof that joins them. I know: bla, bla, bla. I’ll try to explain better in a couple of weeks. Don’t worry, these stories are also full of hockey and drugs and political backstabbing and curious characters. I’ve worked out a partnership to help develop and distribute these articles, and I’ll be posting links on this blog, along with French translations when possible. Like everything else I’m doing, this content will be free to read and share.
I might also pop up on a campus near you. So far I’ve confirmed dates this fall with UVic, SFU, McGill, and Dawson College. We’re going to be talking about television, social media, and career, of course. But my other motive in doing this little tour is to ask faculty and students what they want from Canadian journalism. I want to hear what it is we’re missing, and start developing ideas for how to make things better. These ideas will be a big part of the experiment.
I’m also endorsing an anti-pipeline protest in September in Ottawa. This has less to do with my role as a writer and more to do with my responsibility as a citizen. I have always been an environmentalist, and I think it’s only fair to be up-front about my own beliefs. I’m in the early stages of developing a video documentary along some of these themes.
But my big project this fall is actually in California, where I’ve committed to shooting another documentary, this one about a remarkable individual with a near-impossible dream. This story is completely apolitical. It does have a Canadian connection, but it’s very much parallel to most of the other things you’re going to hear me discuss. I do think there are deeper connections, and that’s what I’ll be exploring in the film.
Like everything I’m putting together right now, this project is only possible because of the amazing people I’m working with. We’ve agreed to try something a little different with this one, format-wise. The plan is to edit the video in the field and release it in three parts this fall, online, for free.
If we can figure out a way to get that story to the people who need to see it, without a network deal or a cola sponsorship, then we can do anything. I’m confident we have the elements in place to make this work. Well, all but one.
Back when I worked as a TV reporter, we had this thing called “panhandling”. You probably know it as those parts in a report where the “man on the street” offers an opinion about the story. For fifteen seconds of “streeters,” some stories require an hour or more of standing on a corner, thrusting a mic in peoples’ faces. Depending on the subject matter, it can be pretty humiliating. What’s ultimately helpful for a reporter’s ego is that it strips you of your remaining dignity and forces you to get used to rejection from random strangers. So, here I am panhandling.
I wish I could fund these projects entirely with construction and restaurant jobs, but I can’t. Luckily I’ve been offered a grant from one partner, and the universities have promised to help out with travel costs and speakers’ fees. I’m still living in a tent with an extension cord, so that cuts overhead. My family and friends have been very generous this summer with food, and my grandmother’s tiny garden is exploding with produce. (“I’m drowning in beans,” she yelled, as I was typing this.) I’ve also been eating a lot of blackberries. Unfortunately, money doesn’t grow on thorny bushes.
What I need in the short term is to rent two camera kits. The editing gear I know I can get second-hand. I’ve decided to keep the Ford Ranger, because of how handy it will be as a production vehicle. This entails monthly insurance and car payments, plus fuel and basic maintenance. I am also, so far, keeping my cell phone. Its capacity to create an internet hotspot anywhere there’s wireless coverage is proving very useful.
Beyond that, I would really like to provide my collaborators with some kind of honouraria. Several people have signed on to work significant hours with no expectation of pay. This is hard to ask for. Eventually, I would also like to invest in a few pieces of equipment, so I can record interviews and field audio for podcasts. Right now though, the priority is those cameras.
Many of you got in touch offering to buy me a beer. Don’t get me wrong, I like beer. But what I’m hoping is that I can take an advance on that pint, and use it to produce something really cool.
If anyone donates, I’ll be happy to publish reports detailing where every dollar comes from and where it goes. Just let me know if you’d rather be anonymous.
If you’re not comfortable with the whole giving-money-to-a-stranger-on-the-internet thing, I get it. I can also take donations in kind, if you have time or equipment you can spare.