Getting Canadian not always easy

Generally speaking, being an IT journalist is pretty stress free. You get your assignment, do a little background research, speak to some people and write a story. Yet periodically we are confronted with a wall of silence. Phone calls are not returned, deadlines get pushed back and blood pressures rise.

Why this is of any interest to you is because often the cause of stress is related to being a journalist in Canada. Many Canadian companies, and the government in particular, have a relationship with the media that is best described as adversarial.

The feature in this issue is about supercomputers, a topic that is both fascinating and cutting edge. There are about 500 supercomputers in the world, a few of which are in Canada.

The most powerful reside with government agencies in the United States. They are used in such areas as nuclear test simulations, weather forecasting and academic research.

Since our publication focuses on the Canadian IT industry, I wanted to speak Canadian supercomputers users. I also wanted to speak to the Americans who possess the elite of this field. Many of these machines are owned and operated by the Department of Energy, the creators of the world’s most sophisticated nuclear weapons tests.

When you think about it, there is no distinct advantage for DoE employees to speak to a Canadian journalist at a Canadian publication for a story geared toward Canadian readers. Our tax dollars do not fund them, nor do our votes affect them.

On the other hand, I did think Canadian government and research facilities, whose computers are either paid for or subsidized by our tax dollars, would like to speak to the media about how these supercomputers help them do their work.

I could not have been more wrong.

Within 24 hours senior executives at Sandia National Laboratories (nuclear weapons reliability tests), SETI@home (search for extraterrestrial life), Indiana University (largest university supercomputer in the U.S.) and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories (nuclear weapons testing) got back to me.

The situation was entirely different on the home front. I contacted people at universities, hospitals and government agencies. It took, on average, seven days to get an interview. I mistakenly thought telling their story would be in their best interest. My attempt at putting a Canadian angle on the story was becoming increasingly frustrating.

This feature is decidedly positive in tone. It is not about IT boondoggles or some other monumental screw up due to incompetence. The story is about the marvels of supercomputers and how they have changed research. Yet no Canadian contact deemed the story important enough to get back to me in a reasonable amount of time.

Please don’t even suggest they were all too busy to speak, for it would imply the aforementioned four Americans, and many others I spoke to, had all the time in the world.

No, it all comes down to the perception Canadian and American executives have about the media.

Americans want their side of the story told. In essence, speak to the media and control the spin. Canadian executives often go the ostrich route. If I hide, it will all go away. In essence, no news is good news.

Americans executives, though wary of the media, realize it is a useful tool to promote their company. It is time for more Canadian executives to do likewise.