Move over unicorn lattes, there’s a new Instagram trend in town: Normal-looking food

Written by Matthew Philp, Toronto Metropolitan University, Ethan Pancer, Saint Mary’s University and Jenna Jacobson, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Figuring out which foods garner more social media engagement will help restaurants and food content creators determine how to better amplify the reach of their online content.

The past decade has seen the rise of the Instagrammable food trend, where restaurants have altered menus to prioritize visual uniqueness — often at the expense of taste.

In a competitive social media landscape where users are inundated with content, the question for restaurateurs has been how to stand out and generate audience engagement in the form of likes, comments and shares.

Under the assumption that creating unique food items will help businesses stand out and garner more engagement on social media, the Instagrammable food trend has given birth to novelty items like unicorn lattes and poop cafes.

But does this strategy actually work? Do unique, distinct and atypical-appearing foods garner the most engagement? Or do people engage more with normal, familiar and typical-appearing foods?

What people think Instagrammable food is

Since social media platforms use rank-ordering algorithms to prioritize and boost content, figuring out which foods garner more social media engagement will help restaurants and food content creators determine how to better amplify the reach of their online content.

Conventional social media wisdom suggests that people will engage with social media content they deem entertaining, where “entertaining” is synonymous with unique, distinct and atypical content.

In a food context, it has been assumed that entertaining means food that looks more unique, distinct and atypical.

This assumption has sparked an industry trend where restaurants have abandoned taste in lieu of visual aesthetics, such as bright and unusual colours, to spark engagement on visual-based social media platforms, such as Instagram.


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There are many different examples of this over-the-top food trend on Instagram, from the Bagel Store in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Fugo Desserts, the Enchanted Poutinerie and Glory Hole Doughnuts in Toronto.

What Instagrammable food really is

Our recent investigation, published in the Journal of Business Research, investigates which foods are truly the most Instagrammable — in other words, which ones garner the most likes, comments and shares.

Our research examined over 10,000 images of food on Instagram from over 850 top restaurants (according to using Google Vision, a machine-learning algorithm that extracts insights from images.

A photo of a pizza is classified as being 80% food by an algorithm.
Google Vision’s API assigns labels to images and classifies them into predefined categories. In this example, a pizza has been classified as 80 per cent food by the machine learning model. (Shutterstock/Google Cloud API)

We found that when Google Vision was more confident that an image contained actual food — a proxy for how normal and typical the food actually is — the more social media engagement it received.

A followup experiment suggests that positive affect, which is the extent to which we feel good, helps explain this relationship.

While social media forecasters may suggest that unique foods are a trend, this logic contradicts some principles of evolutionary psychology. Humans evolved to quickly visually recognize foods, not just for what is edible, but also for what is calorie-dense.

Since finding and eating edible food was crucial for survival when humans were hunter-gatherers, we may be hard-wired to feel intrinsically good when we simply see food we know we can eat.

Social media food marketing

How is this relevant to social media? The average user spends over two hours a day on social media platforms, exposing them to hundreds of different posts in a single scrolling session.

While rapidly processing content, the brain may instinctively feel more positively toward images that are more easily recognized as food. These positive feelings can then transfer to behaviours directed toward the post, thereby increasing the likelihood of the post receiving likes, comments or shares.


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Since people feel better when they see foods that are easily recognizable as food, normal-looking food tends get more likes. On the other hand, unique foods tend to result in lower social media engagement because they are harder for people to recognize and classify as food.

Despite food industry bloggers and social media trends suggesting that people crave unique, eye-catching content, the most successful Instagrammable foods are the normal-looking ones that are more easily recognized as food.

Not ice cream disguised as feces served in a toilet, waffles shaped like penises or unusually coloured ice cream. Instead, consumers appear to engage more with regular food, like a classic burger or normal pizza — no unconventional shapes or colours required.

Bottom-up, audience-driven and shut down: How HuffPost Canada left its mark on Canadian media

Written by Nicole Blanchett, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

HuffPost Canada was abruptly shut down on March 9, 2020, by Buzzfeed as part of a broad restructuring plan for the company. This closure came two weeks after two dozen workers filed for union certification.

From prioritizing diversity to a bottom-up editorial process and using traditional marketing practices to develop journalistic stories, HuffPost Canada was a digital-first innovator. Then it was shut down.

It’s now been a year since the small newsroom closed. Trying to make a big impact, HuffPost Canada fought against the narrative that it prioritized free content over quality journalism. Those who worked there thought they were playing an important role. Now that it’s shuttered, they’re moving on to different newsrooms, bringing experience that could influence practice across Canadian media.

I undertook interviews with HuffPost Canada employees as part of data gathering for the Journalistic Role Performance project, an international effort between 37 countries exploring if there’s a gap in journalistic ideals compared to practice.

After collecting thousands of stories in 2020, then coding them and surveying journalists from the news organizations who produced those stories, we’re now getting to the analysis stage. And, by coincidence, we captured some of the last days of HuffPost Canada.

A different kind of newsroom culture

With wood-planked floors, high ceilings, exposed brick and lots of natural light, HuffPost Canada had a different look and feel to it than many legacy news organizations. It was less utilitarian, more a place you’d want to hang out even if you weren’t working.

Another reason was the young and diverse staff.

Although some strides have been made industry-wide in terms of newsroom diversity, there’s still a long way to go based on a recent report from the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Of the more than 200 Canadian newsrooms that participated in its survey, almost half “exclusively employ white journalists.” About 90 per cent have no Latin, Middle Eastern or mixed race journalists, about 80 per cent have no Black or Indigenous journalists and about two thirds have no Asian journalists.

At HuffPost Canada, the focus on diversity didn’t stop with the people working in the newsroom, but flowed through to the use of sources and experts. One HuffPost Canada editor said:

“Our big thing is that we normalize diversity. We don’t have special sections, we just do it — and if that approach can influence other media, that’s a marker of success for us.”

In terms of newsroom hierarchy, one reporter said there was a “striking difference” at HuffPost Canada compared to legacy newspapers. At her previous job, the editorial process was completely top-down: decisions about what was covered were based on what editors “felt” should get published. At HuffPost Canada, the reporter was able to come up with their own ideas.

More than meets the eye

A study participant from another news outlet acknowledged HuffPost Canada did some good work, but questioned why it was part of our research. He said they were “national” only because anybody could “click on them” but their “reportorial footprint” was “pretty thin.”

Addressing this perception, one HuffPost Canada editor said it was a small team and there was “no illusion” that they could cover everything. They relied on agencies like The Canadian Press for stories they didn’t have the resources for and encouraged reporters to focus on what they were passionate about and develop stories they’d be “remembered for.”

He stressed they weren’t just going for “cheap clicks” and that speaking “truth to power” and giving a “voice to the voiceless” was their “brand.” However, he also said there was no shame in doing viral stories and didn’t understand why they were somehow considered “dirty” or labelled as “clickbait.”

My observations echoed his statement. At an editorial meeting I attended, there was a lot of talk about what was trending, but there was also a lot of discussion about politics, including an investigative piece coming out of Ottawa.

Reader-focused content

Most news organizations collect demographics to help better understand who their audience is. HuffPost Canada went beyond this, using data to create profiles of imaginary readers like Adam, a middle-aged millennial who had a partner named Taylor, and Adela, a young millennial who was on Instagram at 10 p.m. Before starting a story, reporters were supposed to use these imaginary profiles to “put a face” to the specific segment of the audience they were writing for.

Its understanding of its audience allowed HuffPost Canada to recognize that topics considered “lighter” or less “important” by other news outlets — like parenting — were actually important to its readers. One editor said that they always asked two questions about their content: “How does this affect me and why should I care?”

The editor said HuffPost Canada focused on making content as accessible as possible for readers, noting that information shouldn’t only be for those who can afford subscriptions or have a certain reading comprehension level. Serving only the most educated and affluent news consumers, and the use of paywalls in journalism, have both been noted as growing concerns by the Reuters Institute of Journalism.

Building community was important at HuffPost Canada. On a Facebook page they hosted dedicated to housing, for example, information was shared no matter where it came from, including other news organizations. Additionally, they responded to corrections from readers to try and “show a human face.”

A lasting legacy

I’m sure there were downsides to working at HuffPost Canada. As a former journalist, I’ve seen a laundry list of serious issues play out in a newsroom. However, I didn’t get to spend enough time there to get the full picture —particularly for those who might have been doing contract or freelance work.

But they undoubtedly exemplified priorities and practices that should be reproduced in other newsrooms: amplifying diverse voices, connecting with the community and breaking from traditional formats to engage more deeply with their audience.

When asked to describe the impact of the closure of HuffPost Canada, one study participant emailed this response:

“We combined relevance with irreverence, having fun with the news when appropriate, and digging in with our considerable editorial talents on investigations whenever possible. We prioritized diverse communities’ perspectives and sought out — and featured — the voices not often heard from, and Canadians are seeing less of that without HuffPost Canada‘s contributions to the landscape. That feels like the greatest loss, and hopefully as our journalists and editors get snapped up by other outlets, is a change that’s soon seen elsewhere.”

I hope so, too.

Why toy shops — and Amazon — are tapping into paper catalogues

Written by Joanne E. McNeish, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Joanne E. McNeish/(/Quicksilver Agency/YouTube). Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Paper is part of seasonal marketing for both bricks and mortar and online retailers.

Did you receive them? Found in many mailboxes in this second pandemic holiday season were paper catalogues from Toys “R” Us, Mastermind Toys and perhaps most surprisingly, the highly profitable digital retailer Amazon. Amazon first launched a toy catalogue in 2018 and mailed it to millions of customers.

While it might seem that paper catalogues would be relegated to history with the advent of e-commerce, it seems as if, at least for these retailers, they are still part of doing business.

To understand why catalogues formed part of these retailers’ promotional strategy, let’s explore some retail history.

Connection to the past

Almost 140 years agodepartment store retailer Eaton’s produced its first mail-order catalogue, with Simpson’s following suit 10 years later.

These catalogues are so important to the history of Canada that you can see them in the collections of the Library and Archives Canada and the Canadian Museum of history. Some Christmas catalogues grew to hundreds of pages.

Black-and-white photo of a row of workers sitting at desks with packages.
Catalogue mailing room in Toronto, 1953. Photo credit: Sears Canada. Panda Photography. Library and Archives Canada, e011172127/Flickr, CC BY.

Nostalgia and childhood

The way we celebrate holidays is based in part on what we learned from our families as children. Consumer studies researchers have examined how holidays ideally involve the creation of special foods that take time and effort, the coming together of special people in our lives and making memories that we recall with pleasure long afterwards.

Thinking positively about people, events or places that happened in the past is called nostalgia. We can even feel nostalgia for something that occurred before we were born through seeing objects from the past, or hearing the memories of others.

Some contemporary consumers or their grandparents in Canada today had the experience of receiving or reading the Eaton’s and Sears Christmas catalogues as children. Sears even called their Christmas catalogue the “wish book.”

Amazon, once focused on promoting products with a digital wish list, promoted its 2020 catalogue as a “Holiday Wish Book” and this year describes it as a holiday kids book.

While it is possible to remember without physical artifacts, the three dimensional and tactile information received from interacting with paper documents help to reinforce people’s memories and knowledge retrieval. People may have had the experience of going carefully through each catalogue page, marking it up and folding down the pages — whether or not they received what they wanted.

The front window of store on a street says 'Simpson's.'
Simpson’s mail order office, Sarnia, Ont., 1952. Photo credit: Sears Canada. Photo Engravers and Electrotypers Ltd. Library and Archives Canada, e011172139 / Flickr, CC BY.

As Archives Ontario notes, not only did the Eaton’s catalogue make an emotional impression, it even made its way into some Canadian literature. For example, in The Hockey Sweater, by Québec writer Roch Carrier, a devastating mail-order mixup means a most unwanted Toronto Maple Leafs sweater from Eaton’s arrives at his childhood home.

Emotion aside, how do catalogues influence sales?

While nostalgia can be a powerful motivator for consumers who consider shopping today at physical toy stores or online retailers, companies must consider catalogues’ effects on sales and return on the investment.

Catalogue cover showing child looking at a Christmas tree.
1966 Sears Christmas catalogue. Photo credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr, CC BY.

Toys “R” Us and Mastermind Toys (both physical stores) and Amazon have a short corporate histories compared to Eaton’s and Simpson’s (later Simpsons-Sears), and none had mail-order businesses. Mastermind Toys and Amazon grew up during the advent of e-commerce, so using this seemingly old-fashioned technology seems curious.

But let’s consider that while social media seems to attract consumers’ attention and quickly, digital clutter is a common consumer complaint.

Home-delivered paper catalogues can be part of leisure reading and are artifacts with esthetic, symbolic and instrumental value. Catalogues present images and text that are viewed as the retailer intended, without the mediation imposed by the consumer’s screen size and device capabilities.

Paper catalogues create a richer sensory experience compared to a digital catalogue or online store. Touch creates a sense of ownership and so consumers may be more likely to purchase.

For toy companies, the October to December period represents almost 50 per cent of their yearly sales. The critical job for toy retailers is to get the attention of consumers for their store. As Canada Post argues in a 2015 report promoting direct mail, research suggests direct mail paper catalogues can serve as an effective trigger for visiting an online store, and their physical presence in the home and in leisure spaces can act as an ongoing prompt or reminder to visit.

Connect in new way?

So in addition to selling toys, why is Amazon sending out paper catalogues? Amazon is likely concerned about its brand. The company has faced widespread condemnation of its labour practices. It has responded with commercials featuring happy employees with varied abilities and gender identities.

In the face of criticism of its impact on small and medium retailers, Amazon set up its Shop Local Campaign to promote products from small and medium Canadian companies. I believe sending paper catalogues helps them tap into the long tradition of Christmas catalogues and connect in an emotional and surprising way with their customers.

Adele’s ‘30’: A mathematician explores number patterns in album titles

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: One Night Only/CBS. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Adele performs in Los Angeles at ‘One Night Only’ in October.

Adele, the 33-year-old British top-selling and award-winning recording artist, released her sensational new album, 30, in November. Reviewers are raving, with the New York Times calling it a “musical tour de force,” and Rolling Stone naming it her best album yet.

Besides how great the album is, everyone, it seems, is also talking about Adele’s numbers, as in: how many albums she has sold? But as a mathematician, I’m interested in how she has used numbers to sequence all of her albums. Her previous album was called 25. In fact, Adele’s album titles are always numbers, and they reflect the age that she wrote them. She wrote her debut album 19 at 19, followed by 21, then 25, and now, 30 Adele recently turned 33 but she started writing the album at 30.

Is there a pattern to Adele’s albums? The chronological list of Adele’s album titles 192125 and 30 was coined the “Adele sequence” by David Patrick, senior math and science curriculum director at the Art of Problem Solving.

Mathematicians love sequences, and they pop up all over the field. Sequences are simply numbers listed in a given order. The simplest sequence we learn about as children are the counting numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.

Adele’s ‘30,’ album cover. Photo credit: Columbia Records

A vast, searchable catalogue of sequences is the On-line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, or OEIS, for short. The OEIS is your one-stop shop for everything on sequences, containing more than 340,000 entries.

As Patrick points out in his article on the Adele sequence, searching OEIS for 19, 21, 25, 30 uncovers the curious sequence with the catchy title A072666, whose first few numbers are: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 18, 19212530, 31, 36, 41, 43 and 44. The Adele sequence is there in the middle: 19212530 and suggests her next album will be 31.

Adele’s sequence

A sequence of significant mathematical and real-world importance is the one consisting of prime numbers. Prime numbers and their properties form an expansive topic in mathematics, with applications from blockchains to encryption. A major open mathematical problem is to determine if there are infinitely many pairs of prime numbers whose difference is two (as is the case for 3 and 5 or 17 and 19).

A number is prime if it is larger than 1, and not the product of two smaller numbers. For example, 2 and 3 are prime, but 4 is not prime, as 4 is the product of 2 with itself. The primes form the sequence A000040: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67 …. The ancient mathematician, Euclid of Alexandria proved in 300 BC that the sequence of primes never ends.

A colourful grid of the first 25 prime numbers. Photo credit: Chris/Flickr

To define the nth number in the A072666, we take the nth prime number (where “n” stands for a number), add it to the (n+1)th prime, and subtract 1. If the resulting number is prime, then we include n in the sequence. Otherwise, we skip it.

For example, the 19th prime is 67, and the 20th is 71. We then have 67 + 71 – 1 = 137, which is a prime number, and so 19 belongs to the sequence. In contrast, if we perform a similar check with the 20th and 21st prime, we have 71 + 73 – 1 = 143, which is the product of 11 and 13 and so is not prime. That tells us that 20 is skipped in the sequence.

OEIS lists a total of nine sequences containing 19, 21, 25, 30, such as A142958, whose next entry after 30 is 41. If, instead, Adele follows A142958, her next album will be 41. That would be sad news for her millions of devoted fans, as they’d have to wait almost a decade for more of those heartfelt ballads.

The inspiration of numbers

Adele may be unique in naming her albums only by numbers, but she is far from alone in using them in song and album titles. Musicians appear to often draw inspiration for their titles from numbers.

A tiny sample of popular songs with numbers in their title are “Eight Days a Week” and “When I’m Sixty Four” by the Beatles, “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks, “Fifteen” and “22” by Taylor Swift, “99 Luftballons” by Nena, “10,000 Hours” by Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber, “99 Problems” by JAY-Z, “2 Become 1” by the Spice Girls, “Whalien 52” by BTS, “7/11” by Beyoncé, “Five Years” by David Bowie, “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores and “7” by Prince.

Avant-garde techno artist Aphex Twin, aka Richard David James, went a mathematical step further and named one of his songs after an equation.

The Aphex Twin track, often referred to as the ‘Equation,’ after the mathematical formula pictured here, is the B-side on the single ‘Windowlicker. Photo credit: Anthony Bonato

Besides using numbers in their titles, some recording artists also completed advanced degrees in mathematics. There is Dan Snaith of the Polaris-winning band Caribou, whose doctoral dissertation at Imperial College London was entitled Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols, and Art Garfunkel, who holds a master’s in mathematics education from Columbia University.

No one, not even possibly Adele, knows her next album title. Her love of literature, ignited early in school by an English teacher, may also point to an appreciation of math (or maths as she might say).

For whatever reasons, musical artists like Adele, Taylor Swift and the Beatles drew on inspiration from numbers for their song and album titles. Adele herself may be doodling with numbers and mathematical sequences as you read this, plotting her next sonic masterpiece.

‘Habib’ spoof trailer uses pita bread weaponry in comedy arsenal to combat Arab stereotypes

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Wishful Genies. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Toronto-based comedy duo ‘Wishful Genies’ is behind spoof superhero trailer ‘Habib,’ which has had over 80,000 YouTube views since its March upload. The Conversation

As a researcher of Muslim superheroes, I’ve learned about the many ways Islamophobia manifests. Because Islam is racialized in the west, Arab Christians, Hindus and Sikhs have been implicated in Islamophobic political discourses, making them victims of Islamophobia.

Many of these issues can be traced back to a strange convergence of stereotypes that became heightened after 9/11. Immediately following 9/11, but also in the years since, there has been a backlash that has negatively and urgently affected Muslim, Arab and brown communities.

This is especially concerning for many people in Canada amid recent hate crimes, such as the terror attack against a Muslim family in London, Ont.

The number of police-reported hate crimes in Canada increased by 47 per cent to 2,073 incidents in 2017, which included the attack on the Québec City mosque where six Muslim men were killed. While the number of incidents remained comparable in 2018, there was a 10 per cent increase in police reported hate crimes motivated by hatred of a race or ethnicity from 2018 to 2019, most targeting Arab or West Asian and Black people.

There continues to be an urgent need to combat Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. In July 2021, the Canadian government convened a national summit on Islamophobia, and commissioned eight anti-racism projects. This included providing $184,000 in funding to the Canadian Arab Institute to combat anti-Arab racism with “myth-busting videos and shows.”

Popular culture and Arab talent

When we consider the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture, it should be no surprise that members of these groups in post-9/11 North America have turned to creative approaches to help change the narrative.

One recent example is a mock trailer for a fictional superhero film project called Habib, by Wishful Genies. The Toronto-based comedy duo consists of writer, actor and comedian Rob Michaels and comedian and actor Fady Ghali.

‘Habib’ spoof trailer.

The Habib trailer playfully contests long-held stereotypes of Arabs, which in turn makes a powerful statement on anti-Arab racism. The trailer has had over 80,000 views on YouTube since its upload in March and Wishful Genies also has a popular Tik Tok account.

Michaels and Ghali grew tired of “orientalistrepresentations of Arabs in popular culture.

Michaels, who is Iraqi-Canadian, admitted that when he wrote the script he based a lot of it on his life growing up, including random security checks he experienced.

Both Ghali and Michaels are Christian, and Michaels mentioned how people are often surprised by that fact. Non-Arabs in the west frequently assume that Arabs are Muslim and vice versa, when in fact fewer than 15 per cent of Muslims globally are Arabs and the Arab world is diverse with different dialects, religions, cultures and customs.

Unsettling villainous depictions

Arabs have long endured demeaning representations as Hollywood’s go-to villains as seen in films like Rules of Engagement (2000) and True Lies (1994). Such depictions became more commonplace in post-9/11 cinematic representations like the 2014-16 television show Tyrant and films like The Hurt Locker (2008) and American Sniper (2014).

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee documented “hundreds of violent messages targeting Arab and Muslim Americans” from people who had seen the film American Sniper on social media.

Ghali and Michaels may be seen alongside a wave of other Arab and Muslim creators in the west who use comedy and satire genres to engage stereotypes and expose social ills. In the tradition of stand-up comedy or satire, they use those apparently light-hearted genres to comment on, destabilize and challenge mainstream views.

Superhero needs back-up plan

What makes Habib work is its use of satire to contest racist views of Arabs. Habib appears to be a mash-up of Arab stereotypes: his costume, for instance, includes a keffiyeh and fez, which have different cultural and geographical connotations.

The trailer starts off with Habib fighting off a bad guy with pita bread and a sword. What proceeds are comic scenes with shisha, clueless S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and overbearing immigrant parents.

When Habib reveals his superhero identity to his family, his father rebukes him by telling him that he still needs to get a real job, “in case this superhero thing doesn’t work out.”

Most tellingly, when the Arab supervillain Wahish arrives on the scene, people start screaming, “He’ll blow himself up!” Wahish retorts in frustration: “I’m a supervillain! Not a terrorist!”

When I asked Michaels about that line, he stated, “I felt that was appropriate commentary to have him immediately labelled a terrorist just because he’s Arab, regardless of what he does. White people get the luxury of being supervillains, but in the media, Arab equals terrorist.”

Making fun of orientalist tropes

Arab creators are also relying on comedic effect in their depiction of superheroes. After seeing the Habib trailer, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Marvel’s new Arab-American superhero, Amulet, who was introduced last year in The Magnificent Ms. Marvel series. Comics produced in the west have historically generated Arab villains like Batman’s nemesis Ra’s Al-Ghul.

In the issue that introduced Amulet (No. 13), the Arab-American writer Saladin Ahmed chose to include a laugh-out-loud scene with an Arab fortune teller dressed like a bellydancer.

In the case of Habib and Amulet, the focus is on Arab identity and not on the character’s religion.

Michael hopes Habib will further challenge generalizations about the Arab world and stereotypes propagated in popular culture if it ever makes it to film. When we consider how widespread those stereotypes are, and the urgent need to interrupt Islamophobic and anti-Arab racism and its harms, it feels like our world is due for a superhero-sized film like this.

Fewer viewers, nervous sponsors: The Olympics must rethink efforts to stay relevant

Written by , Ryerson University; , Brock University. Photo credit: David Goldman/AP Photo. Originally published in The Conversation.

The Olympic flag is lowered during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics – the first Games to be held without spectators because of concerns of spreading COVID-19.

At the conclusion of every Olympics, there are reflections on the importance and relevance of the Games. There are always a wide range of opinions, from those who praise the movement as a global humanitarian platform to others who criticize the Games due to sustainability, environmental and human rights concerns.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach called the Tokyo Games the “most challenging Olympic journey” during his speech at the closing ceremonies. The Games were postponed a year, held during a pandemic emergency that barred fans from the stands and had reluctant support from the host country. And there are other challenges ahead for the Olympic movement.

Given all of the problems facing the Olympic movement, what is the relevance of the modern Olympic Games from a consumer, marketing, media and economic perspective?

Eyeballs matter

Olympic viewership dropped significantly this year, with some estimates noting close to a 50-per-cent decline from the 2016 Rio Games — including for the lead television partner NBC Universal, which paid over US$7 billion to extend its U.S. broadcast rights for the Olympics through 2032.

There was a similar slump in Canadian ratings. And, despite parallel streaming arrangements with all major Olympic network partners, viewers in North America and Europe were considerably fragmented, if not frustrated, with being many time zones away while major events were taking place live.

A women’s beach volleyball match in the empty Shiokaze Park at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo.

More troubling for the International Olympic Committee is growing evidence of a general decline in interest in the Olympics from young people, including Generation Z.

Support from key sponsors is also declining. Toyota announced on the eve of the Games that it wouldn’t air any Olympic-themed TV ads in Japan, even though it signed a US$1 billion sponsorship in 2015. Other sponsors are minimizing their Olympic commitments, raising questions about the perceived value of the hefty partnership deals.

Olympic economics

The Olympic Games are a massive social and financial undertaking. It’s estimated the Tokyo Games will cost over US$20 billion.

While cities once competed fiercely for the right to host the Olympics, the steep costs, coupled with waning public sentiment, has resulted in less countries willing to take on the multi-billion-dollar commitment. Case in point: when Brisbane, Australia, was recently announced as the host of the 2032 Olympics, there were no other rival bids.

The economics and expenses of the Olympic Games has been generally well supported by a highly structured means of revenue, which is led by significant broadcast contracts, followed by the The Olympic Partners (TOP) program that was established following the highly successful 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. A small group of international partners in the TOP program each pay approximately US$200 million per four-year cycle to be an Olympic partner, including multinational companies like Coca-Cola, Dow and General Electric.

Australian politician Annastacia Palaszczuk celebrates after Brisbane was announced as the 2032 Summer Olympics host city during the IOC Session at Hotel Okura in Tokyo on July 21. Photo Credit: Toru Hanai/Pool Photo via AP.

The core profits from both the media and marketing partnerships are ultimately dependent on the interest and consumption of the Olympics.

Corporate and media investments are based on the premise that consumers around the globe are tuned in to the Games (and are watching key corporate partner messages), that major corporate partners want to be affiliated with the Olympics and all they represent, and that hundreds of thousands of tickets will be sold to people who want to attend the competitions.

Given the recent free-fall of interest and global awareness of the Olympics, this traditional Games revenue model will be significantly challenged moving forward.

It was recently reported that Olympic advertisers are renegotiating with NBC given the less-than-promised viewing numbers. The U.S. broadcaster had expected to generate more than US$1 billion in ad sales during these Games. Likewise, sponsors have sought make-good provisions from broadcasters and Games stakeholders to safeguard their expenditures.

What now for the Olympics’ economic model?

Given changing consumer, corporate and geopolitical sentiments, the current model of the Olympic Games is outdated. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Branch recently wrote in the New York Times: “In some ways — too many ways, critics argue — the Olympics are stuck in time, a 19th-century construct floating through a 21st-century world.”

The Olympic movement, which has been called “the most complicated sports event in the world,” will have to dramatically rethink its current strategy and economic model to stay relevant to its partners and fans.

Game on! The opportunities and risks of single-game sports betting in Canada

Written by , Ryerson University; , Mount Royal University; , Mount Royal University; ,  Brock University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Single-event sports betting was recently approved by the Senate of Canada via Bill C-218, which is big news for the Canadian sport industry.

The passage of this bill, almost 10 years in the making, will dramatically change the sports landscape in this country given that annual betting by Canadians is already estimated to surpass US$10 billion a year through offshore betting websites and illegal gambling operations.

The influence of this bill — and related activities that will include sport marketing and media partnerships and related activation — will be enormous for an industry that has been severely and negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Many industry insiders representing professional sport teams and leagues are already planning for what they describe as being one of, if not the most, transformational sport disruptions in the modern-day industry. Experts note that the potential for this market is large, given it could be a US$4 billion revenue opportunity.

A plethora of sport betting operators will now enter the Canadian market, including DraftKings, FanDuel and PointsBet. That will contribute significantly to the economy through a variety of means, including new revenue via individual consumer betting as well as realized revenue through sport marketing partnerships with professional teams and leagues.

These new revenue streams are going to be difficult to ignore, but are fraught with big and unknown impacts.

The Canadian sport industry:

Today, the global sport industry is estimated to be valued at approximately US$529 billion. It has been well acknowledged that it has been severely impacted by COVID-19, especially when it comes to loss of fan-related revenue, including venue attendance and ticketing.

In Canada, for example, the Raptors had to play in Florida due to international border restrictions due to COVID-19 and the costs have been detrimental.

In the United States and Canada, the sport industry is estimated to be valued at approximately US$80 billion, with Canada making up a tenth of this market size.

The Toronto Raptors usually play at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto but had to play in Florida this past season because of COVID-19. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette.

Single-game betting offers a new means of engaging the fan-sport property entertainment experience, which is why so many sport teams, media partners and related sport sponsors are actively going “all in” with the opportunity for involvement around this highly engaged consumer segment.

This new market can be compared to Big Tobacco sponsorship money which was formally extinguished through previous federal legislation. It held a new and rather unwieldy power as one of most influential sport funding partners in Canada during the 1970s and 1980s.

And despite the single-betting bill taking 10 years to pass, stakeholders and the government are still trying to regulate the the effects of the new sport betting industry.

It means sorting out what will be best practice strategies that can draw comparisons to Wild West when unmoderated.

Social impacts

So what are the impacts of single-game betting to the industry and society, and how will it be regulated?

The government recently announced they are implementing a watchdog type agency and policy to monitor the industry for a number of concerns which, in the bill’s current form, include amendments to prohibit match-fixing and changes to the Criminal Code to allow First Nations lottery considerations.

What has not been considered, however, is how responsible betting will be moderated, managed and communicated. To date, there is no evidence of a national, independent or arms-length conversation on responsible betting. We know that related addictions could rise, especially with recent Canadian evidence showing that sport fans and bettors seem to be at a higher risk of problem gambling than non-sport fans.

Single-game sport betting is now legal in Canada. Photo credit: Shutterstock

What is the appropriate role and place of key stakeholders in this space, new and current, and how will this new category be defined as a sport marketing vehicle? The exchange of related sports data for betting purposes remains unclear.

One concern is the lack of a comparable mechanism to the U.S. National Council on Problem Gambling — of which theScore, a leading Canadian player in the global sport betting scene, is a member. Another concern is the lack of diversity in the sports betting industry. The industry is already loaded with traditional male profiles — a comprehensive diversity strategy could attract young, bright talent.

What does it mean for Canadian sport?

The jury is very much still out on the impact of the now legal, single-game sport betting industry in our country.

But this change will be monumental in size and value, with the potential to significantly impact the sport industry in a way we haven’t seen in decades.

The industry needs to take immediate steps to ensure it is open, transparent and considerate of responsible betting. It must also lead with a diverse culture, and have strong considerations for an authentic and sustained footprint in an industry desperately posed to return to sport after COVID-19.

Chinese American actresses Soo Yong and Anna May Wong: Contrasting struggles for recognition in Hollywood

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Paramount Pictures. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Soo Yong and William Boyd in a still from the film ‘The Secret of the Wastelands’ (1941).

The recent Netflix series Hollywood creates a make-believe 1948 ceremony in which the noted Chinese American actress Anna May Wong wins an Oscar. In reality, an Oscar eluded Wong during her four-decade film career.

Wong, who was born in Los Angeles in 1903, was famously passed over for the lead role of O-lan in the 1937 classic hit, The Good Earth. Instead, Austrian-born white actress Luise Rainer was cast — and for her work, won her second Oscar for best actress. Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code (known informally as “the Hays Code”) explicitly forbade depiction of screen intimacy between people of different races. Wong was reportedly heart-broken about the decison.

Anna May Wong, 1932 portrait by Carl Van Vechten. Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

The desire to posthumously grant Wong recognition as seen in the series Hollywood should also alert audiences to the significant contributions of the other actors of Asian descent who appeared in The Good Earth. One of those actors was Soo Yong. Yong had campaigned for the lead role but she was also passed over. Yong eventually accepted two supporting roles in the movie, one of the most influential Hollywood films on China.

Yong’s journey to Hollywood and the way her career contrasted Wong’s reveals much about Hollywood’s racist casting decisions and the racial barriers faced by Chinese American actresses. Yong’s career also reflects the dynamic and shifting development of 20th-century Chinese-American relationships: When contrasted with Wong, Yong’s calculated path towards a “respectable woman” reveals much about how both American Hollywood and Chinese popular culture wanted to depict Chinese women.

Alternative to familiar stereotypes

Yong’s profile aligned with the concept of the Chinese New Woman promoted by the Chinese Nationalist government that emphasized education, chastity and patriotism.

Yong strove to present a dignified and educated Chinese womanhood on screen and stage, an alternative to the familiar binary stereotypes of the subservient China doll and the vicious dragon lady. She showcased an aristocratic and intellectual style of sophistication and glamour, void of over-sexualization.

Hollywood filmmakers were entranced by her talents and assured by favourable Chinese attitudes toward her as China was a significant market.

Soo Yong, seen seated facing the bride, in a supporting role in the 1937 film ‘The Good Earth.’ Photo credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Circle of Chinese intellectuals

Born in Hawaii to Chinese immigrant parents in about 1903, Yong was orphaned as a child, and largely raised by her sister, Harriet, who was later a force in Hawaiian politics.

After graduating from the University of Hawaii, Yong ventured to mainland United States in 1926 to earn her master’s degree at Teachers College, at Columbia University. She was one of 50 women of Chinese descent in American colleges at that time, and one of the very few in graduate programs, who became recognizable figures in China’s intellectual life.

Yong was a student of noted educator John Dewey. She grew close to other students who also studied with him, including Zhang Pengchun, a distinguished dramatist and professor from Nankai University, and Chih Meng, the future director of the China Institute in New York City.

Yong became involved in the transpacific modern drama movement initiated by Pengchun and Meng. After starring in plays written by Zhang, she began an acting career with bit parts in Broadway productions.

Soo Yong’s name was prominently mentioned in the poster advertising Mei Lanfang’s performance on Broadway, 1930. Photo credit: Yunxiang Gao, Author provided.

Yong on Broadway and in Hollywood

Yong’s big break came in 1930 when she was hired to interpret the performances of Mei Lanfang, the famous Chinese theatrical personality, sponsored by the China Institute.

Yong enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Southern California between 1933 and 1936. She said her ambition was to be a great actress with a PhD. In the eyes of the public, her desire for advanced education helped to distinguish her from Chinese immigrants. It also positioned her as an equal to elite Chinese and American intellectuals.

Photo showing Soo Yong and Clark Gable in a still from the film ‘China Seas.’ Yong autographed it to ‘The Young Companion Pictorial,’ in November 1935, a popular magazine in the Republic of China. Photo credit: Yunxiang Gao.

Hollywood casting agents chose Soo Yong for visible roles in films produced by major studios, starring Hollywood icons like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Marlon Brando.

Despite her generally limited screen time, Yong frequently occupied within the first 10 spots on billing — the list of names at the bottom of an official poster — which testified to her respectability, popularity and great negotiation skills. She worked up to the highest level of Hollywood stardom allowed for a non-white actress.

Chinese ‘New Woman’

The highly influential 1943 visit to the United States by Madam Chiang Kai-shek, the American-educated first lady of the Republic of China, dominated the contentious process of representing Chinese womanhood.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in February 1943 in Washington. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Yong embodied Madam Chiang’s brand of glamour, defined by jewellery, high fashion, perfect English, advanced education, sophistication and a happy marriage. In 1939, The Chinese Digest, the leading English-language Chinese publication in the United States, said Yong belonged to “Madame Chiang’s school” of women.

In 1941, Yong married C.K. Huang (黄春谷), a businessman who lived in Winter Park, Fla., after changes in immigration law enabled her to marry a Chinese citizen without losing her U.S. citizenship.

With Huang, Yong ran the Jade Lantern, a successful Chinese novelty shop. Customers shopped there for a lifestyle associated with her glamour and were served by the star they recognized.

White Hollywood smitten

White Hollywood was smitten by Yong. She developed an educated, middle-class persona that contrasted with how Hollywood cast Wong. Unlike Wong, who often had to display bare skin and perform sexualized roles, Yong was always fully clothed and displayed sophisticated glamour in her roles. And unlike Wong, Yong never played parts that involved physical abuse or death.

Wong’s film persona, created for her by racist Hollywood casting decisions, irritated China’s Nationalist government. Yong’s screen roles presented a softer orientalism that allowed ethnic dignity and did not offend her Chinese American audience or her nationalist friends in China.

The Huangs visited China in 1948, recording two rare Cantonese operas while there (released on Folkways Records in 1960 and 1962). The Huangs lived in Winter Park until 1961, when they returned to Hawaii. That year, they were awarded the Rollins College Decoration of Honor for their community contributions.

After a series of smaller roles in 1950s Hollywood classics including Sayonara, Yong made a cameo in the 1961 film Flower Drum Song, a Hollywood milestone with a largely Asian cast. Yong secured small parts in four episodes of Hawaii Five-O between 1971 and 1978, in which her husband also appeared. She also appeared in two episodes on Magnum P.I. in 1981 when she was 78.

Huang died in 1980; Yong passed away in 1984. The couple’s estate established scholarship funds at the University of Hawaii and at Rollins College.

Yong rejected western racist attitudes that associated being Chinese with ignorance and servitude and instead showed a cosmopolitan “Chinese woman at her best.”

Skepticism, not objectivity, is what makes journalism matter

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Originally published in The Conversation.

The Washington Post has been criticized for saying a reporter who was the victim of a sexual assault couldn’t objectively cover topics like the #MeToo movement.The Conversation

“That reporter is too biased to cover this story.” It’s a too-familiar complaint from news consumers — and sometimes also from newsroom managers — because people expect journalists to be impartial, detached or even “objective.”

The fraught idea of journalistic objectivity was at the centre of a recent controversy at the Washington Post.

The story of Post politics reporter Felicia Sonmez began with her 2018 allegation of sexual assault against a fellow journalist. Soon, she’d been banned from covering stories that “hinged on sexual misconduct” and, by extension, the #MeToo movement — a ban finally lifted on March 29.

Similar perceptions of “bias” have stymied Canadian journalists in relationships with politicians, gay reporters covering marriage reform and Jewish or Muslim reporters in the Middle East.

Journalists, apparently, should not report from territory to which they’ve spent their lives acclimating — unless you count education, health care, war, sports, travel, cars or real estate.

The O-word

Racialized reporters, for instance, often get hit with the word “objective” when they pitch or file stories about race.

“Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our white colleagues,” Pacinthe Mattar recently wrote in The Walrus.

Mattar quoted a news producer as saying: “There seems to be the assumption that racialized journalists cannot co-exist with the journalistic standards of being fair and balanced and impartial. Really, what we are fighting for, what we’ve always been fighting for, is just the truth.”

And that’s the problem: does telling the truth require journalists to detach themselves from their life experiences? Is this degree of balance or impartiality even possible?

As far as I can tell, few professors use the O-word nowadays in Canadian journalism schools. Journalists inevitably bring their subjective experiences to work and must learn to recognize and manage their biases and assumptions. They are human beings — they have feelings about the events and people that they find interesting.

A resilient ideal

Still, the controversial ideal of “objectivity” is uncannily resilient. It’s especially widely invoked in the United States — long after the actual word objectivity was removed from that country’s professional journalists’ ethics code in 1996.

Clever academics have helped keep the O-word alive by massaging its meaning to suit a more limited purpose than intellectual detachment.

Columbia University’s Michael Schudson defined this “chief occupational value of American journalism” as “at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing.”

Likewise, Canadian ethicist Stephen Ward has promoted a method of “pragmatic objectivity” that requires journalists to step back from their own beliefs to apply tests for empirical validity, logical coherence, “self-consciousness” and transparency.

And so impartiality limped stubbornly into an age of duelling truths.

Detached watchdogs

Research by a team I led found that most Canadian journalists still see themselves as detached watchdogs — autonomous monitors of power and privilege. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard students and working journalists say words to the effect of: “We know objectivity’s impossible, but we aim for it anyway.”

It’s an impossibility that now leads some to embrace outright, unabashed advocacy.

All journalists bring their biases and their own life experiences to assignments. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.

A new book, The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism, by father-and-son British professors Brian and Matthew Winston, argues against the “fantasy” of a journalism that provides “pure truth.” They call for journalism to be rebuilt wholesale on a more “honest, biased, subjective foundation.”

That seems unnecessarily extreme. Yes, journalists’ ranks have always included commentators who unapologetically advocate for one or another form of social change (whether leftward or rightward) or for the status quo. But not all.

Different motivations

Newsrooms are big tents whose occupants, diverse even if only in interests and aptitudes, produce nuanced documentaries and breaking-news tweets, baseball reports and concert reviews, data-mining investigations and courthouse updates.

Some are in this business to make the world better. Others live to fact-check. Still others like making people laugh.

Writing at the century’s turn, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel rejected outdated notions like objectivity and balance in favour of 10 distinguishing marks of journalism that hinge upon a “discipline of verification.”

Their book, The Elements of Journalism, has been required reading in journalism schools around the world for the last two decades, but mass addiction to the O-word continues.

This book is required reading in many journalism schools.

If a benign replacement is needed to break the O-habit, it could be a much humbler ideal: plain, old-fashioned skepticism.

Uninhibited curiosity

The uninhibited questioning of what others take to be facts is nothing like a claim of neutrality or to be seeking “pure truth.” Skeptical journalists make no claim except their own ignorance and they expect to be surprised daily. When called upon to opine, interpret or analyze, they stay within sight of evidence.

As for a unifying purpose, they seek merely to provide (in the words of Oxford University’s Rasmus Kleis Neilsen) “relatively accurate, accessible, relevant, and timely independently produced diverse information” about public affairs.

It’s neither bias nor objectivity but simple curiosity that has led journalists to ask unsettling questions like: Were soldiers dying because governments spread lies to justify wars? Was a wildly popular newfangled financial instrument sound? Did a leading magazine skip fact-checking a false allegation of campus rape?

The tradition lives on despite dissent’s growing hazards: Is the science of combating pandemics more complicated than governments would have us believe? Does realistic health policy require setting a numerical limit on “acceptable” deaths? Are Canadian lawyers debating a court-enforced declaration of pronouns?

To ask dumb questions when all around believe they know the answers requires both mental discipline and hard-won confidence. But it’s both more reasonable and more inclusive than enforced detachment.

Under skepticism’s rubric, subject matter with which you’re intimately familiar is the opposite of forbidden territory; your life’s experience can provide perfect trailheads to unfamiliar paths, because you know where to look — you know what you don’t know.

There, in the unknown place just out of sight of home, journalists find new questions to ask and new stories to tell, stories that need telling whether or not they’re comfortable to hear.

Skepticism, not objectivity, is why democracies need journalists.

This is adapted from an article originally published by the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

How to help artists and cultural industries recover from the COVID-19 disaster

Written by , Ryerson University; , Ryerson University; , Ryerson University. Photo credit: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Street dancers wearing face masks dance the tango in Madrid, Spain, Dec. 16, 2020.

To say that 2020 has been rough for the cultural and creative industries is an understatement. More specifically, COVID-19 has been nothing short of a perfect storm for workers in those industries, who already experienced precarious conditions. Venue closures and travel restrictions have affected other economic sectors, such as hospitality, on which many workers depend to make ends meet.

If this pandemic were a natural disaster, it would be as if the tides kept on bringing oil to already devastated shores, day after day after day. In the end, who can we count on to provide some of the much needed “post-disaster” assistance, and when?

Research on disaster management offers insights into these questions. Interestingly, it suggests that future assistance will need to look a lot different than the responses seen to date.

Adverse impacts

Almost a year into this pandemic, it feels as if everything has been said. We know all too well about the struggle, the layoffs and the dire financial situation many artists now find themselves in. We know about artists and other creative professionals moving on to more stable, greener professional pastures — at times in a literal sense as they leave cities that they were increasingly priced out of pre-pandemic. Perhaps more worrisome, we also know about the mental toll of prolonged inactivity and isolation.

Yet, we have also regularly been privy to glimpses of hope, promising innovations and we’ve marvelled at the adaptations of a generally resilient arts sector.

Think back to when news media extensively covered the the phenomenon of people singing or playing instruments from their balconies. Despite the crisis, many established artists found ways to engage the public and some people in quarantine filled time with crafts or their windows with paintings.

Such positive moments remind us of the value and power of creativity, but they sit, of course, in the context of grief, anxiety and exhaustion.

The Super Wonder Gallery in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood on College St., pictured April 5, 2020. Photo credit: Francis Mariani/Flickr.

Beyond immediate relief

There is now a need to look also beyond immediate relief to deal with artists’ short-term needs met through things like emergency benefit schemes, wage-subsidy programs and other forms of cash injections. The subsequent “chronic” stage efforts will need to focus on cleaning up, conducting post-mortems or self-analysis and perhaps more importantly, on healing.

Applied to the cultural and creative industries, this involves asking tough questions on the current working conditions, financial stability and social recognition of artists, as well as extending sustained non-monetary support such as counselling for those who have had to weather a seemingly perpetual storm.

Only then can the sector turn to long-term rebuilding strategies, which must include reinvestment strategies.

Role of growing creative sectors

Recent disasters, natural or man-made, show that help for devastated communities tends to come from those who have been for the most part unaffected by the situation. For example, over 90 countries provided logistical and financial assistance to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, much like many nations across the word were quick to come to Beirut’s rescue after last summer’s horrific explosions. On the surface, this may seem hardly applicable in a context of a global pandemic that has impacted most people in some shape or form.

However, when it comes to the cultural and creative industries, a handful of sectors such as the video game industry and streaming platforms such as Netflix have actually experienced record growth over the past months.

We suggest that those companies that have weathered the storm, if not flourished during the pandemic, should launch joint initiatives, production support, sponsorships and dedicated programs for individual artists or small organizations.

Furthermore, the collective expertise among these sectors could support digital transformation initiatives for those that did not previously rely on online outreach. This includes the development of tailor-made, but scalable immersive experiences that allow audiences to engage with creatives in a digital first, or hybrid digital-offline context.

A conductor’s assistant sits among empty seats during a rehearsal of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra at the Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, Belgium, July 1, 2020, before the symphony was scheduled to reopen after months of closure due to COVID-19. Photo credit: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo.

Safer, more accessible venues

In addition to reinvestment, infrastructure considerations and dedicated communications efforts have an important role building up sustainable arts communities and enterprises. Redesigning venues to make them more accessible, but also much safer for both patrons and artists is significant. In addition, what’s needed are government programs to support not just artists’ productions, but also cost of living and rent stabilization subsidies.

Beyond this, government investment to promote audiences’ consumption of artistic goods and services also matters. Once the pandemic is over, overcoming the stigma of mass gatherings and the public’s residual fears is also likely to be an everyday communication battle, one in which the entire cultural sector will need to come together in a concerted effort to encourage people to go out.

University space for incubation

Likewise, while the rest of the economy was taking a battering, universities remained reasonably safe and privileged despite the collapse of the international student market. It is also the responsibility of universities to help by offering spaces and programmatic support for experimentation and incubation of creative projects, as well as reskilling programs and research initiatives into the future of these sectors.

The current pandemic has shocked many of us into an awareness of the threat posed by disasters particularly given the world’s interdependence and complexity. This is why we need to develop much more sophisticated contingency, rescue and recovery strategies, in which stakeholders other than just governments are compelled to come together and support each other in times of crisis.

Daring reads by the first generation of Canadian Jewish women writers

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: John Reeves. Image (cropped) courtesy Archives & Special Collections, University of New Brunswick. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Poet Miriam Waddington (left) participated in the rise of modernist Canadian poetry and Helen Weinzweig (right) wrote the classic feminist novel ‘Basic Black with Pearls.’

How do you get through the dark winter months of a pandemic? By reading exciting work by long overlooked Canadian women writers.

Consider the first generation of Canadian Jewish authors who wrote in English. Readers will know the poet Irving Layton — whose death we commemorate on Jan. 4 — as well as novelist Mordecai Richler and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, all of them Montréalers.

But you may not know the women who published poems and prose alongside their more recognized male counterparts.

Prairie writers Miriam Waddington, Adele Wiseman and Fredelle Bruser Maynard and Torontonians Helen Weinzweig and Shirley Faessler were among the pioneering figures who produced daring work out of their own experiences as women.

My research on Canadian Jewish writers has led to a deep appreciation for the work of these accomplished women who deserve recognition for their contributions to the field.

Who were these women and what did they publish?

Miriam Waddington

‘Driving Home,’ by Miriam Waddington. Photo credit: Oxford University Press.

Winnipeg-born Waddington (1917-2004) participated in the rise of modernist Canadian poetry.

A prolific writer, she published 14 volumes of verse during her lifetime. Waddington’s poetry is deceptively accessible: it is personal but never private, emotional but not confessional, thoughtful but never cerebral.

Waddington wrote layered verse always from a gendered position, first as a social worker who saw aspects of herself in her most vulnerable clients. She detailed intoxicating romance and mature love, the pleasures of marriage and motherhood, the experience of raising two sons to adulthood and the ineffable pain of divorce.

As she moved through middle age, Waddington wrote of her ancestral past, the death of her ex-husband and loss of close friends, and later of growing old. Her poems of a Winnipeg childhood, modern urban life in Montréal and Toronto, visits to London, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow, of art and writing, probed irreconcilable differences of place and identity, politics and work.

At the core of Waddington’s poetry was a moral quest for knowledge and understanding. A two-volume critical edition of her collected poems was published in 2014.

Adele Wiseman

‘The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman.’ Photo credit: University of Manitoba Press.

Wiseman (1928-92) was also born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End when it was largely Jewish.

She is best known for her two novels that mine the Prairie landscape and the Jewish culture that was her inheritance. Both works are set in insular communities whose practices reflect traditional Judaism.

The Sacrifice, published when Wiseman was 28 in 1956, received the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. This tragic novel revealed her interest in characters who challenge normative behaviour and affirmed Wiseman’s belief in community. It centres on the murder of a woman by its devout protagonist Abraham who misinterprets her flirtation.

Crackpot is the epic story of Hoda, an obese Jewish sex worker, who services the boys and men of her North End community. Hoda is garrulous and outspoken, determined and resilient. Tested by fate and the son she must give up at birth, she remains one of literature’s most memorable characters — for playwrights, poets and readers alike.

Today, Crackpot is universally admired, but in 1974, the year it was published, the Canadian audience had little taste for its novelistic treatment of unconventional sexuality and incest.

Fredelle Bruser Maynard

Fredelle Bruser Maynard at her home at 25 Metcalfe St., in Cabbagetown, in Toronto, in the mid-to-late 80s. Photo credit: Rona Maynard.

Born in Foam Lake, Sask., Maynard (1922-89) spent her youth in Winnipeg. Her two memoirs, written with honesty and poignancy, foreground her experience as a Jewish woman.

Raisins and Almonds (1972) evokes Maynard’s childhood and family life on the Prairies, where she recalls growing up feeling “Jewish and alien” in rural Western towns during the 1920s and 1930s.

She continues her story in The Tree of Life (1988) with an emphasis on relationships with her mother and sister, her artist husband Max Maynard — who was an alcoholic for the duration of their 25-year marriage — and her writer daughters Rona and Joyce. A brilliant student who earned a PhD in English from Radcliffe College in 1947, Maynard also exposes the gender norms of the time that prevented her from pursuing an academic career.

Helen Weinzweig

Born in Radom, Poland, Weinzweig (1915-2010) immigrated to Canada at the age of nine with her divorced mother. Her novels and stories are dark, spare narratives that critique the institution of marriage.

The experimental novel Passing Ceremony (1973) blends surreal and gothic styles to present a sombre picture of the ritual of marriage. It communicates Weinzweig’s belief in the paradox that tragedy always lurks beneath the seemingly innocuous conventions of everyday life.

Basic Black with Pearls (1980), which won the Toronto Book Award, is a “feminist classic.” Written as a highly subjective interior monologue, it too examines the vacuousness of traditional marriage. An ingenious work of puzzles, the novel’s clever use of transformations and masks sharpens the interplay of reality and illusion at its heart.

“My Mother’s Luck,” another monologue included in the short story collection A View from the Roof (1989), records the difficult life of a dynamic character based on Weinzweig’s own mother.

Weinzweig’s fragmented, discontinuous stories propel readers toward a heightened awareness of the contradictions of contemporary life.

Shirley Faessler

‘A Basket of Apples.’ Photo credit: Now and Then Books.

Faessler (1921-97) was born and raised in Toronto’s Kensington Market when it was a Jewish enclave, and used this setting for her fiction.

The novel Everything in the Window (1979) describes the marriage of Sophie Glicksman and Billy James, a convert to Judaism. Set during the 1940s, it draws readers into a vivid world of contrasting sensibilities: the Jewish openness in Sophie’s family versus James’s gentile politeness.

On the back cover of A Basket of Apples (1988), Alice Munro proclaims Faessler “a witty and uncompromising writer.” Munro admired the nine stories in the collection, six of which return to the Glicksman family.

In a 2014 edition of the six Glicksman stories, linked via chronology and a consistent first-person female narrator, a cast of lively characters of the 1930s and 1940s speak to us across time through Yiddish-inflected English.

Readers will enjoy the rich diversity of Canadian Jewish experience reflected in the poetry of Waddington and the prose of Wiseman, Maynard, Weinzweig and Faessler. The work of these authors remain evocative and relevant — perfect for long winter evenings.

All I want for Christmas is a Hollywood blockbuster

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Some movie fans who await Christmas Day movie openings will be stuck in the middle of cinema closures due to COVID-19 and streaming restrictions. Here, a still from ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’

This year’s Christmas movie superhero will shelter at home with viewers in the United States. But Canadians will have to wait a while longer to stream the eagerly awaited and long-delayed Wonder Woman sequel.

WarnerMedia has announced it will launch Wonder Woman 1984 in both movie theatres and on HBO Max on Christmas day in the U.S. But it’s not being released for streaming in Canada at this time. In Canada, the movie will only show in whichever movie theatres remain open after second-wave COVID-19 closures.

Going to movies during the Christmas holidays has been a time-honoured tradition and, before COVID-19, a financially important one for movie theatre owners planning to attract crowds.

The days of enjoying the company of friends among strangers in movie lineups seem as remote as the paradise of Wonder Woman’s Amazon island. Instead, we need the TV remote for Amazon Prime.

The movie business was already hard-hit by COVID-19, and the decision to simultaneously release a would-be Christmas blockbuster in cinemas and via streaming hit the industry like a bombshell. Warner Bros. plans to launch all its 2021 movies the same way as Wonder Woman 1984 in the U.S.: both in-cinema and exclusively on HBO Max for 31 days.

For film fans like me, beyond how COVID-19 puts the financial viability of making and showing movies at risk, what’s also threatened is discerning hype from promise as we consider how to keep movies part of holiday traditions this year. The fact that parsing streaming options has now become an integral part of movie watching may seem like yet another impact of COVID-19. But, in reality, commentary about what to watch and how new media technologies shape viewing has always enthralled audiences.

Early days of movies

In the early days of moving pictures, theatres were open on Christmas Day, unlike Sundays and other days off. The Chicago Tribune published special holiday advertising in 1915, wishing “a Merry Christmas to motion picture fans.” In 1922, Universal promoted a special “Yuletide Joy Week” for its pictures.

Movie ads on Christmas Day in 1915. Photo credit: The Chicago Tribune.

Through my research into the interplay of movie-going and newspapers, I’ve found theatres offering special charity picture shows and children’s matinees during the holidays as early as 1903.

Since the 1940s, Hollywood has released special movies on Christmas Day to make the most of captive audiences with people on holidays. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut who wrote A Kosher Christmas recently discussed a Jewish history of movie-going at Christmas with Vox:

It was a day off from work, so what do you do? You can stay home, or you can go to the nickelodeons, or the Yiddish theatre. Eventually, decades later, you could go have a meal in a Chinese restaurant.”

To refer to a phrase that’s inspired tongue-in-cheek headlines for its resonance with age-old movie review clichés, “if you see only one movie a year,” it’s likely to be during the holidays, and perhaps with the entire family.

Box office charts

This Christmas, as many people’s movie watching will involve channel surfing from their couches, it’s clear the whole system of deciding what to watch has shifted during COVID-19.

Before now, simply knowing what movies screen in theatres and how such movies fare in box office rankings have functioned as one kind of quality control.

A computerized tally of movie theatres’ box office revenue began in 1969, giving Hollywood an equivalent of radio’s “hit parade.” On April 16, 1969, Variety reported how it had been working “closely … with a computer service bureau, so that the chart, as it will appear in the paper, is actually a printout from an IBM 360 that already stores and updates its weekly input of information on each picture and title as well as by market and theatre.”

The article explained how the new chart would sample 650 to 800 theatres in 24 key markets in the U.S. and Canada to produce a weekly list of 50 top-grossing films tabulated through movie ticket sales. The sample captured five per cent to seven per cent of all movie theatres, but enough to accurately and quickly predict the total earned across all of North America.

Some viewers may judge a movie by its box office success, while others turn to film critics’ opinions, award nominations or websites that aggregate reviews.

Movie commentary

The first newspaper commentary about cinema goes back to reporters getting previews of new technologies that could project moving pictures.

In my research on publicity for Thomas Edison’s early film projector, the Vitascope, I found news published across the U.S. from a press screening held early in April 1896, three weeks before the first pictures were shown to an eager, paying public in New York. I found stories about cinema in town and village newspapers where movies didn’t appear until a year or more later.

Reporting about cinema has made many of us “movie-crazy” ever since, including reports on past crises that confronted the movie industry with each new home entertainment — radio, then television, cable, home video and now streaming.

Today, commentary provided by movie critics, industry-sanctioned signals like awards, film festival runs or tips from trusted sources have become more important than ever. How else would we know which of the endless options are worth watching and where to watch?

Even before COVID-19, the movie industry faced challenges from home entertainment. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Coming soon?

There’s likely to be little holiday movie-going in 2020. Some wonder if there will be a future for movie-going at all if cinemas can’t turn a profit until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available — and if streaming habits don’t subside with the pandemic.

Vanity Fair reports that the pandemic’s cinematic ripples are projected to delay some planned releases for years, with Avatar and Star Wars sequels now postponed to between 2022 and 2028.

Still, it’s unfathomable that Disney would launch those blockbusters online — although it’s easy to imagine rebranding a bankrupt chain of cinemas as a local, miniature Disney++ theme park.

My advance ticket for Star Wars Episode 12 in December 2028 is all but in hand, but I’ll also eagerly await the reviews.