Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Blaming the Baker

Averill Baker is my fault.

Well, not all my fault. I imagine that George and Averill, her parents, probably played a fairly large part. And, you know, Averill herself deserves some of the credit.

But in terms of her getting published in newspapers across Newfoundland and Labrador? Yeah, that would be me.

Now, some of you are probably cheering while others are no doubt trying to figure out my address to send me something as a token of your "gratitude" for unleashing her on the province. In my defence, which is the defence of many people in similar situations, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

If memory serves it was shortly after the 2003 provincial election. Averill ran, and was hammered, in the Waterford Valley district. No real surprise there. She was running against Harvey Hodder. And whatever Hodder's faults as a Speaker of the House, no one will deny that the man runs a machine in that district when it comes to elections. There's a story that he can tell you within a few dozen votes of how much he will win by at the start of an election. It's probably true.

But hell, Averill impressed me during the campaign. She was well spoken, argued well and put up a heck of a fight anyway in an election she must have known she was going to lose. I wrote as much in a column with The Express.

Shortly after the election we were brainstorming around the paper for new columnists. It never hurts to have some new blood writing in the pages and we had a few columnists leave. Impressed with how she did in the last election, I threw out Averill's name. As far as I was concerned, she had a couple of solid points going for her.

1. She seemed very well spoken. Being a prominent defence attorney probably helped.
2. Her father was George Baker, so there was a good political lineage. (For those outside Newfoundland, he was at one point the most popular MP in the province and one of the most popular backbenchers in Ottawa. Then they made him a cabinet minister, which he was terrible at).
3. As a lawyer, she had a decent profile in the province, especially since she was defending seal hunters, which made her popular in rural areas.
4. Lastly, and most importantly, she was a woman who could argue politics.

I appreciate that last point might seem condescending or not that big a deal. Sue Kelland-Dyer does it. However, Averill at that time had credibility. I'm trying to recall if Sue had much left at that point three years ago. Sorry Sue. I know that sounds harsh, but I honestly don't know anyone who takes much of what you have to say seriously anymore. harsh, but true.

(Also, while I'm loathed to slag fellow local bloggers, Sue's is nearly unreadable. Seriously Sue, stick to one font size, one colour and stop using exclamation points. You'll be doing the readers a huge favour.)

So anyway, there were few women commentators in the province at that time. It tends to be, rightly or wrongly, something men dominate. I thought Averill would be a good new voice. So even though I had never met her (I've still never met her, although had one brief cordial e-mail exchange) I pitched her as a columnist, convinced the boss who then approached her. She said yes, submitted some writing samples and we were off to the races.

It became apparent a few months in that I might have made a mistake.

It's not that the first few columns were rough. They were, but who cares. It takes awhile to find your voice in a newspaper format. Anytime I get too cocky, I like to read the first few columns I wrote for The Packet. Or if I really want to be humbled, I'll read the first thing I ever wrote for the Muse. Dear God, the horror of it.

No, two things became apparent.
1. She wasn't learning from her mistakes.
2. She kept hammering the same points, using the same phrases, over and over.

I'll be the first to admit that editors can be evil bastards. But they are necessary evil bastards. More than one story, column or editorial I've written over the years has been saved by good editing. The key is, you read the story after the editor is through with it and then compare it to what you wrote. If the editor is good, and if your ego can handle it, you'll quickly see where you went wrong and make the adjustments. After awhile the edits become smaller as your writing improves.

That never really happened with Averill. Now, things might have changed the year I've been in the north. But anyone that edited her (I did on occasion) found themselves making the same corrections.

Part of it is that she's a lawyer. And lawyers have different writing styles. They tend to favour repetition to hammer home a point. And the writing tends to be drier. Something I should have considered before lobbying to make her a columnist. I think that shows up in Averill's writing. There's no spark. No clever turn of phrase that makes me go "ooohhhh, that's nice."

But there is the odd thing. Despite the fact that her work required a lot of editing, that it was still dry and that she kept repeating the same points and phrases week after week (How many nations are illegally fishing off the Grand Banks, Averill?) she became quite popular. I guess playing off Newfoundland Nationalism works.

This is something that can drive editors nuts. They don't like a columnist, the staff doesn't like the columnist, but the readership adores it. It happens all the time. In this case, Averill gets letters. Her columns are quoted on open line shows. It certainly helped to boost her profile in the province. And while the staff might not like a columnist, the readership pays the bills. That is why Averill stays when I believe many of the editors in papers across Newfoundland and Labrador would probably prefer someone else.

Why bring this up now? Because I noticed someone on another blog quoting Averill's last column. So out of curiosity I read it. And then to make sure I tracked down and read another couple of her columns. And nothing has changed. She's still hammering away at the same few points, the writing is still dry and I can practically see the bleeding where an editor made ruthless cuts to either make it fit in the space he or she had or to cut out Averill's habit of repeating herself.

Understand, I'm not saying Averill Baker is a bad person or lawyer. Frankly, I don't know her well enough to say that. She's probably a lovely person. What I am saying is that she's not a great columnist. Worse, she's boring. And the sooner people stop paying attention, stop reading and writing letters, stop quoting her on Open Line or blogs, the sooner they might be able to get someone who can write and argue eloquently on more than three topics.

That's harsh, but I'm sure she's heard worse over the years. And hell, when she takes over the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador in the next 10 years or so, I'm she'll hear even meaner things...


Ed Hollett said...

You speak for many.

danadana said...

I only read Averill's column for the first time a few weeks ago. I was impressed by her points (about illegal fishing off the Grand Banks) and took it all as gospel, thinking, "She's a lawyer, of course she's checked her facts".

I was less impressed when I picked up the express the following week and read (1) another column by her on nearly the same topic, but not so well-written, and (2) a well-referenced letter from Loyola Hearn, disputing most of her 'facts'.

Averill Baker, you hath deceived me. I can admire your enthusiasm and personal success, but I no longer admire your writing.

bagwatts said...

Hya Townie,

You are 'loathe' my dear, NOT loathed. Of course you may be loathed by someone; however in this context on your blog you are loathe. As for Averill, Well said. Once again in the province of Newfoundland an undeserving and inadequate person is given an opportunity based on family connections and money. When you do that you get nothing but incompetence. What do you expect? Brilliance? As a lawyer she is superficial and sloppy and that is AFTER restricting my critical tongue. I find it difficult to believe that it wasn't possible during that 'brainstorming' session to choose a worthy candidate from the vast pool of talented writers in this province. Of course, none of us have ole George as our daddy but at least we have intellects. Two lashes with a wet noodle for unleashing "The Averill" on us. For shame and tisk tisk!