Creating Counterweights to Big Media
How to open up Canada's news media in an era of corporate concentration.
The Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications is investigating the state of Canadian journalism, the media's role, rights, and responsibilities in Canadian society, and current and appropriate future policies regarding media concentration, globalisation, and technological change. Two Tyee editors were invited to offer testimony before the visiting Committee on January 31, 2005 in Vancouver, B.C. In order of appearance, here are their comments:
Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet is the title of a recent book by the eminent Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. After interviewing 100 journalists Gardner found them to be "by and large despondent about their profession. Many had entered . . . armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of the stories and the manner in which they should be presented."
"Instead," Gardner found, "for the most part, our subjects reported that most of the control in journalism had passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than of profits."
How apt a description of the Vancouver Sun newsroom where I spent three and half years as an editor. There amidst the moldering morale, I did do some good work with good colleagues. I even shared in two major journalistic awards --before being fired without cause.
Fired, I should say, a month after 9/11, and a week after writing about the need to protect even distasteful free speech in frightening times.
Example for Canada
The experience simply confirmed for me what I already knew. Vancouver is a heartbreaking place to be a dedicated news reporter, news editor, or news reader, because a single company owns the big papers, the big TV news station, and so many other media properties. There is simply not enough competition to keep that owner honest.
By honest I mean dedicated to informing readers, rather than pandering to advertisers or to political allies.
Other speakers today, I believe, have detailed the cost. The slashed staffs. The lowered standards. The embarrassing boosterism. The conflicts of interest. The lack of accountability to the public. The stunted civic conversation that results.
But don't feel sorry for us way out here on the far edge of Canada with our peculiar situation. Feel alarm for where all of Canada may be headed, for B.C. is but an expression of today's trends. Consolidation of titles. Cross-ownership of mediums. Convergence and homogenization of content. Most of Canada will soon enough look the same if your committee isn't successful in crafting and winning a different way forward.
About The Tyee
To that end, I'd like to tell you about one hopeful experiment. It is called The Tyee – a website named for a feisty free swimming salmon in these parts. Our focus is B.C. because I believe that for most people, regional media is more vital and engaging than national. We've been up for 14 months. Our budget is quite small for honest to goodness news media. But thanks to the rich talent and good will of many, many B.C. journalists, The Tyee breaks investigative stories and publishes analysis, slice of life writing, provocative views. This being the Internet, our stories can be read, the minute they are posted, anywhere in the province and beyond. Readers can post their own comments to our stories, and create their own province-wide conversations. The Tyee also provides links to many other stories. The Tyee is free, closely read by opinion shapers including politicians and the media, and according to the Globe and Mail (and a lot of our readers), publishes some of the best journalism in B.C.
This month about 45,000 people read The Tyee at least once, many of them daily.
Our modest success confirms my suspicion that many people are hungry for an alternative to what Canwest offers. And that many other people, once they glimpse what better media they could be getting, develop the same hunger.
So competition is key. But make no mistake, it must be competition for readers rather than merely for advertisers. We have been taught to think the two go hand in hand, but in my experience, the publications healthy for democratic conversation are circulation driven, whereas media that depends too greatly on advertising revenues are the ones prone to hollowing out their original mission, sacrificing their thinkers and diggers and eccentric wits to the bland demands of creating "advertising environments."
Some proposals for change
How then, to foster more reader-driven competition, when Big Media with big money seems intent on drying it up, and hollowing it out? How to give Canada's democracy the media it is going to need to survive and thrive?
Some proposals (the first and last of which are borrowed from SFU Communications professor, and Tyee contributor, Donald Gutstein):
1) Order the CRTC to not approve television broadcast licenses for companies that own daily newspapers in the same market. Prime Minister Trudeau did this in 1982. Prime Minister Mulroney undid it in 1986.
2) Create legislation to break up concentration of media ownership where it is already too high. Canwest's level of ownership in B.C. wouldn't be legal even in the U.S. No one should be able to own all the major newspapers in a major market.
3) Prevent future deals that overly concentrate ownership.
4) Require owners to reveal profit margins for regional operations. The people who pay for subscriptions and advertisements should know if their investments in the local media scene are being siphoned away to Winnipeg, or being reinvested in local quality.
5) Foster media owned and operated by membership based societies. This member "co-op" model lets citizens take the lead in creating and supporting and democratically participating in decisions about their media. But because real journalism is expensive, government could provide money to membership-based media that garners a critical mass of support.
6) Provide tax write-offs to those who join media membership based societies.
7) Create tax incentives for media philanthropy. Some of North America's best publications (very much reader driven) exist because someone with wealth and ideals insures that they do. They would not come close to surviving on subscription and advertising fees alone.
8) Find ways to help alternative media do "convergence." The way for any smaller enterprise to build awareness is to cross mediums: an Internet news site contributing to a radio program, for example, or a magazine team helping to produce television documentaries.
9) Develop a community-based web portal to provide alternative perspectives. The portal could be managed by public libraries, provide CBC news and information to attract a critical mass of viewers, plus access to dozens of alternative news and information sources such as The Tyee, Vancouver Community Network, Working TV, Indymedia, and as many others as want to join in.
If some of these ideas seem impractical, may I leave you with this suggestion: Be bold and creative in your remedies. It would be a mistake, I believe, for Canadians to feel bound by what incremental changes other countries may be trying. We border a giant that offers a vivid picture of how too much media power and wealth in the hands of too few can warp a nation's ability to know itself, to tell itself what it needs to hear in order to solve its problems, and to find its way.
You've heard from a lot of people, and I'll try not to cover familiar turf — concentration of ownership, which is nowhere more outrageous than in Vancouver; the limitations of the Competition Act; the long shadows of media moguls; huge newspaper profit margins; and spineless middle managers. I could add to that heap of grievances, based on 23 years in the media and four years at the Vancouver Sun as a department head and member of the editorial board, with stories that are worse than those in common circulation.
But I won't. I want to look to the future. I want to address the most important question that you're trying to answer: how can we increase the strength and diversity of our media, so that our civic discourse is as open and thoughtful as we can make it?
It's not going to happen through new anti-trust laws that break up CanWest Global Communications. We've had 30 years of hand-wringing on this front, and I don't believe the Canadian government is suddenly going to find the courage to act. Nor is it going to happen through some sort of finger-wagging national media council, telling newspapers and broadcasters what they shall and shall not do.
It's going to happen through new initiatives to create diversity in the form of media ownership. We have in Canada a great tradition in the CBC. We have the Atkinson principals at the heart of the Toronto Star. We have a lively, independent paper in Winnipeg now run as an income trust. And the differences in the way these institutions reflect the world begin with their form of ownership.
You've spent some time hearing about the so-called "democratizing" potential of the Internet. In the last few years, I've watched the flush of excitement about its potential collapse as dramatically as the tech bubble. At the height our swoon for technology's grand promise, CanWest used "convergence" as an excuse to create the situation that so many now find untenable. Now CanWest uses the internet's open borders to defend its right to hold a narrow viewpoint.
And despite all its resources, CanWest has joined Shaw and Rogers in delivering prosaic web sites that don't take advantage of the web's unique possibilities — most particularly the medium's potential for interactivity.
The fact is that traditional media depend on traditional advertising sales, and they are terrified of cannibalizing their own audiences. Sometimes I think they actually want to drive us away from their web sites. This seems particularly true in Canada.
Support new media
Where do I find flashes of Canadian innovation? At the CBC, sometimes, with Radio 3 and with the TV program Zed, which has a smart internet component. Every now and again, someone on the Toronto Star's web site shows signs that they understand the medium. But mostly I find exciting innovation in small, formative enterprises like the B.C. news and commentary web site I'm currently involved in — The Tyee. It gives me the same feeling of excitement and pride that I had during my 11 years editing the Georgia Straight, when alternative weeklies were emerging in a significant way across North America.
Internet news media are still in their infancy. It's axiomatic in TV, radio and print media that local faces matter most, and we know the names of our local stations and newspapers. But by and large, we don't yet know the names of the web sites that reflect our local and regional communities back to us.
This will change, and this is the Senate committee's great opportunity. How can you increase diversity in the forms of ownership of these new faces?
The federal government spends a lot of money on many things in the name of a healthy culture and a vigorous civic discourse. If I give $25 to the Liberal party, the government goes into the taxpayer's wallet and chips in another $75. We want our politics to be driven by citizens, not corporations. If I make a film about a basketball-playing dog that is in some definable way Canadian, governments provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in labour tax credits and other incentives. We want to encourage our own voices. Sometimes these efforts can yield valuable dividends.
However, when it comes to encouraging diverse civic discourse in the media, we don't do much.
Often we do it badly. When we allowed split-run editions of Time and Sports Illustrated the government apologized by indiscriminately throwing piles of cash at Canadian magazines. We certainly haven't shown much stomach for tackling the difficult conglomerate issue, partly because corporations such as CanWest have the good sense to put the likes of prospective prime minister Frank McKenna on their boards of directors.
On some fronts we've done better. In return for a broadcasting licence, broadcasters contribute in some way to the general health and Canadianness of the broadcasting industry. That's a no-brainer. There's the CBC, of course. There's the National Film Board, which was created in the 1930s to silence objections to U.S. films overrunning Canadian theatres. Was it easier to create the CBC and the NFB because those media were relatively new at the time? I think so.
Encourage different kinds of ownership
What if the Senate committee recommended a new kind of support for today's new media? What if the Senate said news and commentary web sites owned by locally based, member-driven non-profit societies were a good idea? What if the Senate said the government of Canada should fund such enterprises in the same way it funds political parties? The world of viable tax incentives is not entirely within my experience, but I'm sure that in Canada of all places we could come up with some effective incentives to encourage this kind of diversity.
The senate committee's research budget would be well spent examining the possibilities.
In my wilder flights of fancy, I wonder what creative means the government could employ to actually change the ownership structure of traditional media. Could newspapers be converted to community-based income trusts, subject to special rules, on terms favourable to existing owners? It makes some sense to me, but it doesn't seem likely.
I am sure about one thing. You can have diversity of ownership in the media and it won't matter a whit if the owners are all wearing the same suit and belong to the same club. The Senate committee needs to put forward concrete mechanisms to promote different kinds of ownership. The simplest and most promising opportunity is to promote the development of new media on new terms. It might even be politically possible.
David Beers is founding editor and Charles Campbell is contributing editor of The Tyee.
For further information, including the The Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications' interim report (April 2004), click here.
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