By Neale McDevitt
For Andrew Potter, yesterday’s announcement that he will be the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), effective August 1, brought him full circle back to the university where he earned his BA in Philosophy in 1993.
Actually, it closed another circle for the former philosophy professor, as the appointment has brought him back into academia after a decade as an award-winning journalist and editor, including the last two years as editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen.
“It feels great coming back to McGill,” Potter told the Reporter in a phone interview yesterday. “Despite the fact that I did seven years of graduate school at the University of Toronto and post-doc at the Université de Montréal, I’ve always felt like a McGill man. I think a person’s undergrad experience really sets the tone for the rest of their academic and intellectual progression. McGill is where I formed my personal interests and started building my network.
“I also played varsity soccer at McGill and I loved being on the Redmen,” he chuckled. “I can’t wait to go and cheer for the team again.”
Ironically, Potter had never planned on leaving the university setting in the first place and was a professor of Philosophy at Trent University when, in his own words, “I completely fell backwards into journalism.
“Out of the blue I got offered a job by the editor of the Ottawa Citizen to be the paper’s national editor. He liked the idea of hiring a philosopher – he thought it was funny,” said Potter with a laugh. “My academic career was kind of stalled at the time so I took it.”
At the same time, Potter had been hired by Maclean’s magazine as a columnist. “I was very lucky because I joined a really great stable of writers,” said Potter, “guys like Paul Wells, John Geddes and John Gatehouse.”
Potter left the Citizen in 2010, to become features editor at Canadian Business magazine. He returned to the Ottawa Citizen to become managing editor in 2011 and was promoted to editor-in-chief in December 2013. Under Potter’s guidance, the Citizen won a National Newspaper Award and a Michener Award for exposing the use of “robocalls” to mislead and harass voters during the 2011 federal election campaign.
Diverse professional experience
His unique blend of professional experience makes Potter an ideal person to take the helm at MISC.
“Andrew Potter has an unusual combination of academic credentials and national visibility as a commentator on political and cultural issues,” said Professor Hudson Meadwell, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts in yesterday’s announcement. “His reputation as a public intellectual in Canada and his experience as an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper will be great assets when he assumes the Directorship of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.”
For Potter, the fit seems perfect.
“I got into journalism out of academia largely because I was interested in communicating academic ideas and research to a popular audience. That is right in the wheelhouse of what MISC is trying to do,” said Potter. “If I’ve had any sort of over-aching mission as an editor, aside from telling good stories and selling papers, it has been to try and bring better and smarter academic voices into our coverage, either through op-eds, interviews or what have you.”
But Potter isn’t interested in trotting out the same old commentators to help fill column space and air time. He wants to break away from what he calls the “Golden Rolodex of Dial-a-Quote academics” who are called upon for a brief commentary on the issues of the day before handing the mic – and the direction of a story – back over to a journalist.
“I will help identify the people doing the research that really needs to get out there and to broker the promotion of those ideas,” he said, “whether it is helping them write an op-ed, getting them in touch with reporters or even turning MISC into a little publisher at times.”
Academics join the social media mix
Potter believes that social media – especially Twitter – has given academics direct access to journalists and people that did not exist before. It is a unique opportunity for them to join in live conversations and not just canned commentary.
“It is fascinating to watch [academics on Twitter] – particularly during an election – because now you have experts on political science, economics, and so on, weighing in directly on debates in real time,” said Potter. “I don’t want to turn academics into Twitter hounds or anything like that, but the world has fundamentally changed and the capacity for academics to intervene in real time on issues of national importance is something we can’t ignore.”
Almost in the same breath, however, Potter pointed out that he isn’t planning on turning MISC into “a newspaper or a publisher of op-eds.”
“We certainly will do some of that, but there are two other aspects of what we do at MISC – quality research and, of course, teaching,” he said. “My challenge will be finding the right balance between all those aspects.”
Another challenge facing Potter will be his own research. “I’ve been out of academia for years now,” he admitted with a chuckle. “I’ve got to start reading lots of books and articles.”
While it is too early for him to pin down the specifics of his future research, Potter, the philosopher, has a pretty good idea of the general topic. “While working as a journalist, I came to realize what an under-theorized field it is,” he said. “Technically and formally it is part of the world of Arts and Letters as an intellectual pursuit, but there is very little theory underlying it.
“If you look at the philosophy of journalism you will find a lot of material on ethics, but no real theory,” continued Potter. “What constitutes truth in journalism? What is the epistemology? What is the metaphysics of a news story? I think examining the philosophical foundations of journalism is a topic worth pursuing.”