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opinion

Pitching himself to voters pining for simpler times, Doug Ford often comes off as a nostalgia candidate.

In the absence of a policy platform, the Progressive Conservative Leader broadly promises that Ontario’s past glories will be restored through roll-up-your-sleeves industriousness. His belief about how to foster that, other than by getting out of the way, seems to revolve around a salesman’s ideal of customer service − epitomized by a seemingly off-the-cuff vow recently that every phone call to government would be answered by a live person.

As a campaigner, Mr. Ford generally seems to have a similarly retro sensibility. In the run-up to this spring’s election, he is doing old-school campaign rallies more often than some leaders during entire writ periods these days. He appears to consider in-person glad-handing an end unto itself, not fodder for Instagram or Twitter.

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Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

But Mr. Ford this week proved an unsentimental modernizer in one regard: the role of the media in covering election campaigns.

The announcement that he will be Ontario’s first major-party leader in memory to hit the campaign trail without a busload of journalists along has generated enough uproar, from the journalists in question, that even some outside the Queen’s Park bubble might be convinced it’s an affront to democracy. And maybe his campaign’s communications strategy will prove to be that, if the lack of a traditional media tour presages an unwillingness to let reporters ask him questions.

Or maybe, whatever his motives, he is helping drag the relationship between Ontario’s politicians and its media into the 21st century – and doing both sides a favour.

Even for relatively media-friendly parties, the traditional investment in two campaign buses – one for the leader, the other for journalists – is no longer a good use of funds. As mainstream-media budgets have shrunk, not enough outlets are willing to pay for seats through entire campaigns. So media buses wind up largely empty for weeks, while parties foot more of the bill for less coverage.

One alternative, which Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats smartly announced as their plan while Mr. Ford was taking heat for his option, is to put the leader and media on one bus. But while that kind of access makes sense for a third party that needs all the coverage it can get, a frontrunning party is not going to take such a risk – not when it has so many other ways to get its message out.

That’s the other big thing, concurrent to the mainstream media’s diminished resources, that has changed. When newspapers and TV networks were gatekeepers of information, it made sense for parties to try to fashion symbiotic relationships. There’s less incentive to do so in the informational free-for-all we now live in, with a wider array of media outlets and messages tailored directly to voters through social media.

It’s possible for voters who still count on journalists to hold politicians to account to be thoroughly depressed by this. It’s also possible to see it as an opportunity.

It’s debatable whether campaign buses were entirely healthy for the media or its consumers even in their jam-packed heyday; there was obvious danger of pack mentality and claustrophobic disconnect from the real world. But if they were a luxury that could be afforded then, that’s not the case anymore, when there are fewer well-resourced journalists to go around and more original journalism is needed to break through the digital era’s noise.

A journalist’s day on a campaign tour, in Ontario at least, mostly involves being hostage to the mundane: Photo-ops in which leaders go shopping, carefully staged events with prominent backers, stump speeches at campaign offices. Occasionally, unscripted encounters with voters produce fireworks – but now those might be captured on an observer’s smartphone.

The one true bit of value is when reporters get to ask leaders questions, usually once a day. If Mr. Ford’s campaign still holds those sessions and gives enough advance notice – and it will be really bad if it does not, because there remains no equivalent form of regular accountability − most will be within driving distance of Toronto, where most journalists who would be on the bus are based.

Meanwhile, every minute not spent riding around the province being hovered over by press secretaries could be spent covering the election in ways that might have more impact – from examining how issues and local battles are playing out, to fact-checking parties and leaders, to explaining and exposing modern tactics being used to shape opinion.

Mr. Ford could regret freeing up so much of the media’s time. But the change was going to happen sooner or later. Good of him to move it along.

After his tumultuous win as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, Doug Ford sets out to begin his campaign before the provincial election on June 7, 2018.


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