Thoughts on Covering Montreal’s First Formula E

Hey y’all. We did it. We survived Formula E weekend.

It’s the morning after Montreal’s inaugural Formula E weekend, and so much has already been written and said about the event – not to mention the weeks of setup and construction that disrupted a large part of the city.

I don’t want to get into big picture questions like, “was it worth it?”, or “was it a success?” Rather, I’d like to share a bit of personal perspective on how the Formula E impacted my work, and what it was like covering the event.

Welcome to the Jungle

On the Friday before Formula E weekend, I was driving back to CBC with my cameraman down René Lévesque, which was littered with orange cones, concrete barriers and fences. As we sat idle in traffic, I remarked, “The only thing that’s missing are speakers all around downtown blaring ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ on repeat all weekend long.”

My cameraman laughed, then stopped laughing, then looked around, then thought for a moment, and finally said “actually, yeah, that would fit.”

We knew it was coming, but we didn’t really know what was coming. The plans for the Formula E track were communicated to residents of Montreal’s east end well in advance, and the same was true for employees at CBC Montreal and Radio-Canada.

But it wasn’t until I walked to work the morning after crews had started converting a stretch of the island into a race track that the enormity of the disruption actually dawned on me.

20170719_054244
Here I am, stuck in the middle with ALL OF US.

The headaches started almost immediately after the concrete barriers were installed. Aside from the legitimate frustration from Montrealers about the cost of the event (which has been covered in detail in the news media), we were now seeing traffic jams, road closures, and residents being cut off from parts of their neighborhood.

It was immediately clear to me: this was going to piss a lot of people off.

Working Offsite

One of the consequences of holding the Formula E race in front of CBC/Radio-Canada was an impact on our news-gathering operations. Sure, reporters and staff were given credentials and passes to access the “race site” (i.e. our workplace), but a lot of thought and work had to be put into ensuring we could still do our jobs effectively.

So several days before the race weekend, our news vans and cars were transferred to the parking lot of the nearby Palais des congrès, so they could be deployed without having to navigate the urban hellscape that a stretch of René Lévesque had become.

A few days after that, a temporary, offsite newsroom was set up at the convention center, where reporters could work remotely.

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The temporary CBC/Radio-Canada newsroom during the Formula E.

A note on this particular part of the operation: kudos to everyone involved in planning and setting up the temporary newsroom. The first morning I walked in, I was greeted to a clean, functional workstation that was properly connected to our servers. In the back part of the room, makeshift recording studios had been set up with quality microphones and baffling, as well as editing suites.

I said it all weekend, and I’ll repeat it here: considering what a raging dumpster fire this experience COULD HAVE BEEN for journalists, I’m deeply grateful for, and impressed by, the work that went into supporting us.

LET’S GET READY TO GRUMBLE

After spending a few days reporting on unhappy residents and business owners around the race track, I was assigned to cover the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the race track.

The event was attended by a Formula E director and various city officials, including, of course, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre.

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Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre with Formula E official Alberto Longo.

By this point, it was clear that the mayor had reached the limit of his patience with reporters. The line leading up the event had been, in a nutshell, “stop complaining, look at how amazing all of this is – just be happy.”

Clearly, this was going to be a first-rate event, and all these pesky journalists were just pissing on the proverbial parade, with bothersome questions about the use of taxpayer funds, and the race’s impact on quality of life.

Once the ribbon was cut, one reporter began to ask the mayor about an article that had been published that morning, claiming that the city had paid more than was necessary for the all-new concrete barriers that lined the race track.

Before the journalist could finish his question, Coderre cut him off and sarcastically asked “oh, so you read an article, and now that makes you an expert on concrete barriers?”

I wish I could say that this moment was surprising, but it was in fact par for the course.

Journalists are often accused by politicians of “chercher des bibites” – looking for problems where there aren’t any. While there’s a larger discussion to be had about sensationalism in the news media, I can say with confidence that my colleagues and I didn’t fall into this trap in our Formula E reporting.

The charge implies that reporters are catapulting non-issues to create a frenzy, but anyone who actually took the time to go down to the race track in the lead-up to Formula E would have plainly seen that the event was having a clearly negative impact on residents.

We weren’t turning over rocks, looking for a microscopic iota of a hint of some kind of problem. We weren’t rubbing our hands together in the newsroom, cackling away at the prospect of disaster around the Formula E. We were simply asking valid questions about how it was impacting the city, and if anything could have been done differently.

Personally, I think the Formula E is an interesting event. Actually buying tickets and sitting on metal stands in the sun-soaked heat to see race cars zoom by for seconds at a time isn’t my idea of a slam-dunk weekend – but if it is, then more power to you. And, hey, electric cars are neat!

You can be for the intent and spirit of an event, but still raise questions about how that event is executed. And that’s exactly the type of question one of my colleagues asked the mayor on the first day of the race. But, once again, he didn’t get a chance to finish before the mayor cut in and shot down the very idea of criticizing the Formula E.

“You had your fun all week long,” the mayor responded, implying that we had spent our time reveling in misery and negativity, and in turn, displaying a very cynical view of the role reporters fill.

I Honestly Don’t Know What to Tell You

On the eve of the race, I was confronted with the perfect example of a problem finding me, as opposed to the other way around.

I was walking home after my shift, and came up to the obstruction on Berri and René Lévesque that was caused by the race track cutting into the intersection. This wasn’t surprising, since barriers had been set up there days ago, and I’d been forced to make a slight detour around the track to get back onto René Lévesque.

What did surprise me was the space that was now left for pedestrians to make their way around. The moment I witnessed this, I pulled out my phone and starting shooting video, knowing that the images would speak for themselves.

That second tweet went “mini-viral”, I suppose, and was retweeted by several citizens, journalists and members of the city’s opposition party. Let me be clear: my intention wasn’t to produce clickbait, or to boost my Twitter followers; in fact, I was surprised to see that my Twitter handle started trending in Montreal the night I posted these videos.

But I guess I shouldn’t have been, considering the very real anger and frustration underlying the Formula E among citizens. Every morning and night that I walked to and from work, I heard complete strangers openly complain to one another, and strike up conversations about what a burden this event was on them.

24 hours later, I made the same walk back home, and once again, came up to the intersection of Berri and René Lévesque. Here’s what I saw:

Now, please don’t think I’m self-aggrandizing here. I honestly don’t know if my tweets led to the situation on this intersection to be rectified. All I know is that I reported on a problem, people noticed, and a day later, the problem was fixed. If my posts had anything to do with it, well, that’s great.

But the point is, my colleagues and I didn’t spend the Formula E hoping for the event to implode. We weren’t rooting for failure, or ignoring the positive aspects of the race. We simply did our jobs, and asked questions that were in the public interest.

Until next year, I guess – when we’ll undoubtedly do the same.

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Quite the view for a live hit, wouldn’t you say?
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