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OPINION: It's always good to get grounded by students

Digital disruption is now a way of life. You can lean into it or you can run for cover.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

An old friend asked me to speak about our business to his creative industries class at Ryerson University a few weeks ago. He's been teaching business students about the digital economy there for years. Some of you may know him. Daniel Hawes is a Sudbury boy most famous for his CBC animation series Chilly Beach. It appeared on the Comedy Network in Australia and also made it to the streaming network Hulu in the U.S. along with three years on CBC. He produced the show just down the street from us and has done many other projects around the world since then. Chilly Beach was the precursor to what has turned into a robust and energetic television and moviemaking scene in Northern Ontario, which has seen the likes of TV series Letterkenny and Hallmark Studios employ hundreds of Northerners to create TV and films at a scale one could not have imagined 20 years ago.

I talked to Dan's students about attacking the digital economy with gusto but also trying to reclaim their humanity from the detritus of social media. We talked about what it means to come into a world where you are constantly reminded to build your personal brand. It means you spend a goodly amount of time creating viewable settings that put you in your best light. It means your first inspiration can be to think about your brand and how you look and not what you believe in or who you are. It can be 24/7 performance art and competition, which is exhausting and discombobulating.

That same day, I attended the annual Ontario Community Newspapers Association dinner in Toronto where they celebrate the Better Newspaper Awards for Ontario. We had our best year ever. We won best newspaper in our class (Northern Life), best website in Ontario (, best editorial (about our local battle over the location of a new entertainment centre), best online breaking news story (special weather downburst report), best online special initiative story (our live election night coverage) and best front page design (forest fire coverage outside of Sudbury).

As I told those kids earlier, we have our feet firmly planted in print and digital expression and see a future in both.

In Sudbury, we have more reporters than any other newsroom in the city, including Postmedia, Rogers radio, CTV news and CBC radio. With that group, we produce a variety of magazines, events, newspapers, and websites. We are betting the future on content and believe there is life for digital, print and live event configurations.

Local reporting in Northern Ontario has been in retreat for a long time. National media organizations have slashed their staff trying to stay ahead of changing media consumption habits. Apart from ourselves, there is only one growing media organization in Northern Ontario and that is Village Media in Sault Ste. Marie. They have expanded into 18 markets across Canada with a powerful website configuration and content strategy that is turning heads. The key is their innovative commercial website platform and dedication to traditional journalistic principles. As original investors in the technology, we are pleased to be affiliated with the VM network in Northern Ontario, which includes sites or affiliations in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Elliot Lake, ourselves in Sudbury, North Bay and Timmins. We share news, innovation and advertising, and it is a winning formula, bringing Northern Ontario closer together.

Digital disruption is now a way of life. You can lean into it or you can run for cover. Sometimes you need to do both. The hard part is bending the technology sufficiently to be subservient to our best instincts and not masters of our worst.

As I wrapped up my remarks to those terrific young students, I thought to myself, what would I do in their shoes? I had no clue. When I got started it wasn't easy, but neither was it so complicated and unhinged.

They seemed ready for the job. We are in their hands.