Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks: Inco and the Sudbury Media in the 1970s – by Mick Lowe (Part 1 of 3)

This article (original title – Hacks, Flacks and Superstacks) was first published in the August 1976 issue of Content magazine. Mick Lowe is a well-known retired Sudbury journalist with a keen insight on labour issues. From 1975 to 1988 he worked as a freelance journalist, becoming a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail.

In 1977 he became a staff reporter for CBC Radio News where he helped to open the network’s Northeastern Ontario News Bureau. From 1995 – 2002 Mick Lowe was a regular columnist for Northern Life.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
-Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 11

Sudbury, Ontario – Early on Good Friday morning, April 16, 1976, James D. Cullen was killed while working the graveyard shift at Sudbury’s Frood Mine. In itself, there was nothing unusual about Cullen’s death. He was, after all, the fifth worker to die on the job at Inco since the first of the year. But the cave-in that killed James Cullen triggered a chain of events that few could have foreseen.

The Good Friday accident, an angry union, and an alarming injury rate (3,000 reported accidents in the first half of the year) combined to touch a raw nerve somewhere in the upper regions of management at Inco, a company that is acutely sensitive to its public image, especially in Sudbury. The result was a bitter, behind-the-scenes battle for the hearts and minds of the people in this city.

 A large part of the public here are the Cullens, and the 20,000 people like him who comprise the work force of the nickel industry.

Strangely, after spending two years as a journalist in Sudbury, I can’t really say that I know these men, for in the local media they have no aggregate presence as miners, family men, or even as trade unionists. If the hourly-rated employees of Inco and Falconbridge Nickel Mines have any image at all then it is a private one, voiced by some media people over drinks in the local lounges, of the ham-handed, thick-headed “dumb miner” who works underground because he is too stupid to do anything else.

 On the other hand, the image of Inco Ltd., Canada’s largest and most profitable mining company, is all pervasive. As surely as the turning of the season, Mother Inco is ready to sponsor, underwrite, document, and endow life in the Sudbury basin. In the winter there are the Inco bonspiel and the Inco Cup ski competitions, in the summer the Inco Regatta and Inco golf tournament at the Idylwylde Golf and Country Club, a favorite haunt of the company’s top management and the city’s small professional elite.

In the spring there are Inco scholarships, awarded to the deserving sons and daughters of company employees, and in the fall the opening of the Sudbury Theatre Centre which is heavily supported by corporate donations. Year round there is an unending stream of gifts to charities, hospitals, relief efforts, and sporting organizations.

Nor are the local media ignored. Sometimes Sudbury’s print, radio, and television companies receive money for the straightforward sale of advertising space and time for Inco promotional activity. But often the relationship is more subtle – Inco’s sponsorship of local radio and television programming runs well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Inco buys the air time for its own production, pays the productions bills, and buys promotional “spots” leading up the specials as well.

The public gets carefully-selected documentation of life in the community, the company gets still more good PR, media people get work, and the stations turn a tidy profit in addition to logging those all-important local-programming hours that are so vital in CRTC considerations when the time for license renewal rolls around.

Apart from regular news programming, much of Sudbury’s local radio and television production is sponsored by Inco, and each of the city’s two locally-owned television stations received roughly $300,000 from Inco’s PR department in 1975. At CKNC-TV, for example, Inco sponsors a 39-part half-hour prime time series entitled Inco Presents. A high quality production, Inco Presents ranges from a look at the lifestyle of city firemen to the native artists on Manitoulin Island. CKNC has two employees on its payroll, a writer and a producer, who work exclusively on Inco programming.

Across town at CKSO-TV, Inco sponsors Fin, Fur, and Feather, a program devoted to the outdoors and aimed at fishermen, hunters, and conservationists. Like Inco Presents, Fin, Fur, and Feather is a weekly prime-time half-hour series that runs throughout the programming season. CKSO also carries Inco Showcase, a half-hour series on the city’s classical music students. At CKSO-FM, the company sponsors Candlelight, a nightly half-hour program of mod music that follows the CBC’s World at Six and knocks out the first half hour of As It Happens.

Candlelight contains a brief (and usually condescending) safety message. “Safety, on the road and in the home,” but never on the job. Sudbury’s lone FM outlet also caries the one-hour weekly Memories and Music, a program of interviews with Inco pensioners who reminisce about company, area, and family history, but never about the city’s long and colourful trade union history.

CKSO-AM carries the Inco Community Bulletin Board five times daily, “Brought to you by Inco, working for the good of Sudbury.” At CKSO and CKNC, Inco is the largest source of advertising revenue.

At CHNO, the city’s other English-language AM station, Inco contracts are also substantial. Last winter the company commissioned and sponsored a 20-hour series on Sudbury morning entitled Kaleidoscope. Devoted to the history of the city’s many ethnic groups, the programs were written by CHNO newsman, Ken Curtis, who received $200 a week for his services over a four-month period. Curtis estimates that Inco paid CHNO $150 a week for the one-hour time slot, plus five one-minute promos six days a week. Over a four-month period Kaleidoscope brought CHNO upwards of $7,000.

Sudbury’s only English weekly newspaper, Northern Life, carries at least one page of Inco advertising a week in its average 18 advertising pages, and it receives occasional special contracts for multi-page promotions of tourism or a holiday pull-out section of Inco-sponsored Christmas carols, complete with music.

The billboard industry, too, receives its share of Inco business – the “Be Careful” safety campaign that started last winter still occupies dozens of billboards throughout the city.

Last on the list of Inco’s advertising outlets is the city’s only daily, The Sudbury Star. The Thompson-owned paper receives job postings and straightforward notices regularly, but Inco’s share of the paper’s total advertising revenue is comparatively small.

There are numerous Inco-sponsored special events presentations and shorter clips, like the company’s Summer Scene tourism promotion that until recently ran five nights a week on CKNC between The National and local news, giving Sudbury’s CBC-TV affiliated newscast a “here’s the local news as brought to you by International Nickel” flavor.

The nexus for all these diverse activities is the public affairs department located in Inco’s Ontario Division headquarters in Copper Cliff.
With a full-time staff of 12 and a million-dollar-a- year budget, the Inco PR department dwarfs most of the city’s news gathering agencies.

A clue to the importance the company accords its PR department is revealed in the corporate structure. The director of public affairs, Ontario Division, is one of five departmental directors who rank reasonably high in the management hierarchy. Yet the public affairs director answers not to one of the vice-presidents one notch above him but directly to Mel Young, the executive assistant to Sudbury’s top manager, Inco Ontario Division President Ronald Taylor.

The inquiring reporter attempting to cover Inco quickly learns that the company’s attitude toward the press is well-disciplined and tightly-controlled. More than most large corporations or government agencies, the flow of information is carefully funneled through the public affairs department in either Toronto or Sudbury. From the senior vice-president at Inco’s world headquarters in New York City down to the lowly shift boss 2,200 feet underground in Sudbury, even the blandest query will meet with the same response: “Have you talked to our public affairs department? No? Then I really have no comment to make.”

Until 10 weeks ago, the man at the hub of this Sudbury media web was Donald Hoskins, Inco’s Ontario Division public affairs director. A former Manitoba broadcaster turned PR man. Hoskins was “Mr. Inco,” the company’s television face, radio face, and sole spokesman.

Hoskins arrived in Sudbury four years ago, and he quickly remade Inco’s stodgy Sudbury image into its current community-oriented and dynamic presence.

It was Hoskins, too, who vastly increased the amount of money Inco spends in the local media, along with an elaborate system of personal gift-giving to Sudbury reporters and editors. Everyone in the media, from the rookie reporter to station managers, receives gifts from Inco – trinkets like pens, pins, and small Christmas presents. Everyone is invited to the annual Inco Oyster-Hoister, a Hoskins-instituted annual free food and booze party for the media. But the most expensive favors, like the “debauchery trips,’ are usually reserved for management. With a year or two, individual editors or news directors will have spent a few thousand dollars on the Inco tab during sprees that are a part of the perquisites of a media management position in Sudbury.

Broadly speaking, the media people here fall into one of two categories: they are beginning or ending careers. The city has in fact produced some of Canada’s best journalists, and newsrooms in the area are still filled with good, young reporters. But the best turn over quickly, and they leave complaining not about the city or its people, but about low wages and a management that stifles initiative in reporting, especially on business and labor.

How does all of this affect the practice of daily journalism in Sudbury? What follows is the 25-day journal of one reporter working the Inco beat in the shadow of the superstack. It opens in the aftermath of the Good Friday death of Inco miner James Cullen.

Continued in next posting.