Gene Allen is best-known on campus as an experienced journalist and professor with a CV that includes CBC and the Globe and Mail. As of late though, Allen, who has a PhD and master of arts (MA) in Canadian history, has been recognized for pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of The Canadian Press (CP). His new book, Making National News: A History of Canadian Press, explores the long and sometimes foggy history of a national news agency that’s been around for more than a century. Allen calls The Canadian Press one of the most influential, yet mostly invisible, forces responsible for forming Canada’s identity. The Ryersonian sat down with the new author to talk about his book.
Q: Why do you think CP is underappreciated?
A: I think news agencies operate behind the scenes. If you ask people who aren’t journalists or who aren’t in the journalism business what Canadian Press is, I don’t think most of them would know what you’re talking about. So if the Toronto Star is going to run an article or the Globe is going to run an article they’ll put the byline of their reporter, and CBC will put their reporter on camera, but they might be relying on Canadian Press information, or it might be a Canadian Press story. News agencies are kind of wholesalers of news, and the institutions that use their news aren’t really interested in promoting them that much.
Q: Why do you choose to focus on the first 50 years of CP as opposed to the last few tumultuous decades?
A: Because I’m a historian … and no one had ever really told this story in detail. The story really starts in the 1890s because it’s kind of a history of how Canada dealt with international news. But the first version of CP was started in 1910 and then the more complete version that people are more familiar with started in 1917, and the book ends in the 1970s. So I thought it was good to get the foundation told. By the time I got to 1970s, there were a couple of things that made me stop there. One of the reasons was that CP had given me access to all of their internal records, and for some reason after 1970s the internal records weren’t as plentiful. It was just harder to find good detailed information.
The questions of why material is preserved and kept in some cases and not in others is a complete mystery to me. You never really know why. It’s kind of miracle to me that documents from the past are kept at all so you never know, really.
Q: What was the most interesting you learned from having access to the complete archives?
A: The best thing I found was a bunch of documents from before the First World War in a big, huge, old vault off the sub-basement of the parking garage. It was something from horror movie. But I got to go everywhere. I got to go the Reuters office in London, when Reuters used to be on Fleet Street, and the AP offices in New York. So going and finding the documents is really interesting, I think one of the real surprises was how big a role Associated Press had in setting up Canadian Press in the first place.
Q: Who is your ideal reader?
A: It is an academic book, so there are a lot of footnotes. My ideal reader is a couple of different people. I would hope that academic historians would like it and my friends in Canada, who are in media and communication. I hope that Canadian journalists would find it interesting; I think a lot of them have so far. I would hope that general citizens of the country who are interested in how they get the news, and how does the news system work. I would hope that they would persevere through the footnotes and find it interesting too.
Q: What’s the main message you want readers to take away?
A: Canadian Press is just an incredibly important institution, not perfect by any means. There are all kinds of stories (and things) they didn’t do very well or things that don’t look very good on them. If you’re in Lethbridge or in Moncton or North Bay, you’re part of a similar conversation. As I say somewhere in the book, it’s like a mental map of Canada, that people are all part of.
One of the things I felt great about is that CP gave me complete access to their records, and they never asked me a single question like, “How are you going to interpret this?” or “What are you going to say about that?” They did everything they could to help me find things and then they left me alone. It takes a certain kind of courage or maturity for an institution to say “You know what? We’re just going to let you go. We’re going to trust that you’re going to do a fair job.”
Q: Did you enjoy the research and writing?
A: I love doing archival research; it is the most interesting thing in the world to me. I think you have to be kind of weird to say that. The most common thing for me working on the archival material was picking up a document at nine in the morning and working through the stuff and next thing I know, it’s five or six in the afternoon.
Edited and condensed.