With this column, I begin a hiatus from newspaper deadlines to take on the role of chancellor at the University of Calgary, effective July 1.
Yes, after 20 years of regularly opining on pipelines and politics, economics and finance, arts, philanthropy and sometimes sports, I am taking an indefinite break from writing to deadline.
I have written mostly about business, finance and economics, but becoming a sports writer was what I aspired to do when I was in high school. In the vernacular of the 1970s, I was a jock — and I also liked English.
It made sense to me, but not to my parents who were of the academic persuasion.
At their urging, I studied economics, which eventually led me to Wall Street and Bay Street and then to the pages of the Financial Post, Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
My road to becoming a journalist was unconventional, with no formal study of the field other than obsessively reading newspapers.
I was, however, emboldened by the number of letters to the editor of said newspapers pointing out gaps in the reporting of business-related events.
It made me realize there was a place for my background in English and economics, coupled with an MBA and work experience in finance, to translate the complexity of the business world into a language that was relevant and could be understood.
To me, that is the purpose of a newspaper — to educate and to inform, though some might say the purpose of a newspaper is to sell newspapers!
Because someone took a chance on me, that’s what I have tried to do for the past 20 years, while raising a family of three boys with my husband, Martin, and looking after my mother in her later years.
Whether it was explaining complicated transactions, macro economic trends, the impact of geopolitics on economies — and especially in the energy sector — deconstructing the financial crisis of 2008 or the 2014 collapse in oil prices — my goal has always been to leave readers with a different perspective and hopefully, a better understanding of a subject or issue.
I have endeavoured to close the gap on energy literacy by explaining its importance to economic growth while exposing the hypocrisy of many who oppose energy development.
Much has been made of the energy sector’s inability to communicate, but it has come a long way since 1997.
Back then there were few, if any, investor relations departments, much less communications professionals. Presentations and speeches were targeted at the buy and sell sides. News was mostly communicated by fax. If you were lucky enough to be at an organization with a Bloomberg terminal, offering real-time news, it felt like you had hit the jackpot.
And then there was the challenge of reaching a CEO or CFO for comment. There weren’t many JC Andersons or Jim Buckees, who would regularly answer their own phones.
It’s a different world today. Companies have communications and investor relations departments and yet, somehow, the messaging has been somewhat sterilized. Some companies are even going backwards — communicating less when investors and stakeholders want to know more.
Such is the power of the equity markets — which has led to an absence of long-term thinking.
The bold moves — along the lines of Suncor’s Project Millennium announced in late 1998, when oil was about to sink below $10 per barrel (US), or Canadian Natural Resources ‘Stampede deal’ when it bought the BP assets for $1.6 billion in 1999 — are now few and far between. There was a glimmer of that audacity in 2017 — when CNRL bought Shell’s oilsands assets and Cenovus bought the 50 per cent interest in the Foster Creek and Christina Lake oilsands projects from its partner, ConocoPhillips for $17.7 billion — but the market, particularly in the case of Cenovus, frowned.
Quarterly earnings and guidance have become the masters of the corporate world. The risk takers and big thinkers are scarce.
Over two decades I have written about the oilsands reaching a point where it transcended the puzzle of production — to being defined as a resource that is part of the global supply matrix. The competition isn’t local or continental anymore — it’s global.
I have watched the rise and fall of the junior oil and gas sector, the development and subsequent disappearance of the instalment receipt financing and royalty trust models, the demise of the mid-cap players and of late have been watching the increasingly rapid adoption of technology and innovation to decrease costs, increase productivity and decrease the environmental impact.
Above all, I have been able to chronicle the dramatic change brought about through the application of fracking to tight gas and oil formations — taking production of both oil and natural gas to levels no one thought possible a decade ago.
It’s safe to say, this isn’t your daddy’s energy sector.
There have been many changes in 20 years but there are two things that have remained constant.
One of my first interviews subjects was Kathy Sendall, the highest-ranking woman in the oilpatch at the time, whom the YWCA was recognizing as a woman of distinction.
I thought, mistakenly, there would be many ‘Kathys’ in 20 years. I thought there would no longer be a need for panel discussions to address the lack of senior women in the energy sector and their virtual absence at boardroom tables.
Much like Encana completely misjudged how fast technology would change the natural gas game in North America, I underestimated how slow the oilpatch would change in terms of the number of women working in the industry.
As the recent round of annual meetings clearly illustrated, institutional biases — beyond only gender — persist.
As a woman I felt I had to work harder to gain credibility from the mostly male oilpatch, financial sector and political realms.
Luckily, I had a great role models. My late mother had been a trailblazer in her own right, as a tenured professor at the University of Alberta in the 1970s, so I had a taste of what to expect. My father’s voice was always in the background, reminding me to ‘make haste slowly’ — Festina Lente.
The other piece that has not changed — if not gotten worse — is the lack of progress on the development of energy infrastructure. When I started writing in 1997, the Mackenzie Valley pipeline was on ice — but no one thought other projects would face the same fate. Surely lessons would be learned, approaches changed and success achieved.
But, as we know today — that is not in evidence.
Some of that is explained by the rise of opposition from Indigenous peoples and environmental groups. Dramatic change in the media landscape has also played a role.
It used to be we all started conversations from the same knowledge base: the local paper, television or radio. Today, the fragmentation is beyond grasp; removing traditional filters and allowed citizens to find information that serves to polarize, rather than inform, debate.
In response to these changes, which have affected media bottom lines — especially in the newspaper world — the response has been to cut to the bone, do more with less. But that model is doomed. There isn’t a business that has successfully cut its way to prosperity.
Google made more than $2 billion in advertising revenue in Canada last year. Arguing that no one wants to advertise is disingenuous. Companies are spending record amounts on advertising and marketing but have chosen different platforms on which to do it — and traditional media should ask why, and what should be done differently?
Like so many sectors, the news business is being disrupted. But today — perhaps more than ever — we need honest and fulsome reporting, just as we have needed it throughout history in times of crisis.
What differentiates real journalism from the world of fake news and the blogosphere are the editors people like me are accountable to on a daily basis.
I have had the good fortune to work with a number of wonderful editors — who helped me to develop my craft, offered guidance and constructive criticism when needed and allowed me to push boundaries without flying too close to the sun. Mentorship remains a critical part of any ecosystem of society; we can’t forget that. My editors were my teachers and mentors.
I am keenly aware I have put a few noses out of joint over the years, but as Churchill once said: if you haven’t made any enemies, you have never stood for anything.
I have had the privilege of meeting, interviewing and getting to know many individuals across a very wide spectrum and from different parts of the globe — business and political leaders, community builders and thought leaders, people smashing barriers not only in the energy sector, but also in science, medicine, social services and philanthropy. Each one has helped to inform my perspective and my voice.
There have been difficult times, such as witnessing the passing of individuals who made a difference in politics and business — or the challenges presented by more than one economic downturn. But there is a resilience in this province that’s producing new leaders.
There is an adage that says journalists are only as good as their last column — and I am immensely grateful to everyone who trusted me over these past 20 years with information that was sometimes sensitive but always insightful.
It helped me to fulfil the objective I set for myself when I became a journalist: to educate and to inform. And not to betray.
Deborah Yedlin has been a longtime Calgary Herald columnist
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