Paul Wells won the Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism at the Annual Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll 2024.

Wells is the dean of political and public policy reporting in Canada, and now operates his own buzzing Substack and podcast. In his acceptance speech, below, he talks about why the work that he and his colleagues do is more important than ever: 

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow wonks, clerks past, present and future. I am so grateful for this honour. For years now this has been the journalism prize that I have wanted most. In fact, I wanted it so much that lately I had taken care to be heard, remarking in public that I hadn’t won it yet. 

This is a terribly geeky thing to admit but I feel like I can admit it here. It’s a geeky room. You’re my people. How did the Hyman R. Solomon prize for public service journalism come to be so important to me? First, because it offers a kind of absolution by association. I decided that if I could ever get myself listed alongside such wonderful reporters as Graham Fraser, Chantal Hebert, Edward Greenspon, Mark MacKinnon, and really every other previous winner, then people might start to think and I had been doing something right. 

Second, because public policy reporting has always been the kind of reporting that I wanted to do. It’s useful work. It reminds us that it’s not enough to hope for a good outcome or to hold the correct opinions. Good policy journalism is more concerned with results than with intentions. Because a government that cannot effectively achieve its desired outcomes will eventually discredit the values it sought to defend. 

2024 Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll live blog 

I know all about this award’s previous recipients but I had to do some research on Hy Solomon. He passed away in 1991. Three years before I moved to Ottawa. He was the Financial Post‘s Ottawa bureau chief. And before that, it’s Washington correspondent. He was said to be so well-connected that he could analyze government programs before they had even been announced. And he was a masters division marathon runner who ran the Boston Marathon twice. 

I think Hy Solomon would have been surprised as we all have been by the changes in our business in the last 20 years. Public figures and businesses and large organizations no longer have to go through reporters to reach the public. They can use social media, email lists, direct mail, YouTube and more. This historic change has the effect of demoting everyone in my line of work. 

Politicians are right. They can go around us. It doesn’t much matter whether we love that or hate it. It’s just a fact. But I’ve got a question: When politicians, businesses and other organizations go around us, are they doing it to get the truth to you by a shorter path? All of the truth? Well, let’s see. 

It’s easier for governments today than it has ever been to tell you why they have missed every greenhouse emissions target they ever set. Have they used that power to provide those explanations? Government could have gone right around me to tell you which foreign regimes sought to intimidate diaspora communities from exercising the rights that should belong to everyone in Canada. Or why precisely most of the Canada Digital Adoption programs shut down two years early. 

These days, no government needs the help of The Globe and Mail or Le Devoir to tell you who’s getting richest off of connections that are valuable only because Ottawa is far too complicated for ordinary citizens to navigate. And nothing is stopping the people who know from telling the rest of you what Jenni Byrne does within a party that might soon form the federal government what her mandate is and what its limitations are, if any. 

If any government or party or business wants to tell you those things, I sure can’t stop it. But somehow they don’t volunteer this sort of information. So people like me still have to ask and persist and search and observe and use all of our wits to get that information and make it available to citizens. So that you can function as citizens and not just as audiences. 

Listen to Paul Wells on WONK: On building a news empire, and not being mean

It’s no surprise that the message people become more impatient every day with the news people, as the message people build their ever larger message armies and refine their message arsenals. It’s true that we’re lousy at relaying your message. And that’s because we’re in a different line of work. We’re in the news business. 

And since so many organizations are working hard every day to get further and further into the advertising business, some of us just want to have to stay in the news business. 

I am grateful to the Public Policy Forum for encouraging me. And by extension, so many of my colleagues in this vital work which has become the work of my life.

Hear from more PPF honourees:

  • Former astronaut and cabinet minister Marc Garneau talked about serving his country and the clarifying force of ‘a rocket about to unleash seven million pounds of thrust.’
  • Emerging Leader Award honouree Raven Lacerte discussed the national movement she launched to end violence against women: ‘I am standing up for my daughters. Who are you standing up for?’
  • Jayna Hefford described launching the wildly successful PWHL: ‘It’s not about hockey. It’s about changing society. We’re creating change for the next generation.’
  • Murad Al-Katib pushed for a more ambitious Canada: ‘I want to scale businesses and I want the future to be there for our generations to come.’
  • Janice Charette extolled the privilege of a life in public service: ‘We need to celebrate those that are actually in the arena.’
  • JP Gladu explained how Indigenous nations are key to unlocking Canada’s potential: ‘The Canadian balance sheet is starting to shift. Which side of the ledger do you want to be on?’