Mediacheck

Idea #2: Voter-funded Media

Mark Latham wants readers to control the purse strings.

By Rob Annandale 23 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Vancouver-based journalist Rob Annandale is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, the Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one every weekday from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and publish a selection.]

For a former financial executive, Mark Latham doesn't have a whole lot of faith in the invisible hand's power to give us the news we need.

Who can blame him? Two companies control half of the country's daily newspapers. Both plan big layoffs and one of the two, CanWest, is in 10-figure debt. South of the border, the company that owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune has declared bankruptcy.

And even before the economy went into the tank, media critics accused the industry of prioritizing financial over journalistic considerations.

But Latham believes he has developed a model that will increase the media's public accountability while creating additional revenue.

"I don't think you can get good enough media for free," the founder of votermedia.org told the Tyee. "But the way you design the way media get revenue will affect the information you get."

Voter-funded media evolved from Latham's earlier work on corporate governance and is based on the simple premise that money persuades. Allow the public to make media funding decisions and news organizations will become more accountable to readers, rather than the advertisers or government who currently control the purse strings. The result, according to Latham, should be a knock-on effect leading to a better-informed electorate, better elected officials and better public policy.

Anyone could vote online to decide which news outlets should get a portion of a designated pool of public money. In theory, the funding model would free news organizations from the thrall of corporate advertisers while avoiding the risk of government control. But that doesn't mean Latham wants to do away altogether with the dominant free-market system or the more traditional kind of public funding that keeps the CBC going. Instead, he sees voter-funded media as a third option that would foster greater media diversity.

Latham has tested his idea at UBC and Langara College during student election campaigns, in Vancouver during the six months leading up to last month's municipal vote and now, province-wide ahead of the May election. Though he has struggled to attract and retain regular voters, he said he has been pleased with the wisdom of those who have participated. (Full disclosure: The Tyee finished tops in the Vancouver Election Blog contest. It initially encouraged readers to vote for it but ceased the practice several months before election day.)

Not so fast

Some media experts are sceptical.

Ross Howard, a journalism instructor at Vancouver's Langara College, readily admits there are problems with Canadian media. They don't question society deeply enough, they don't cover the media well, there is too much corporate concentration and journalists working for major companies are sometimes "inhibited or self-censoring."

But he worries the public could value entertainment over the need for a watchdog and imagines a scenario where "52,000 teenage boys would all get online and vote for Monster Truck Magazine."

Latham argues that even individuals who spend their time and money on infotainment may rationally decide to allot public funds to a service they recognize as essential, even if they only use it for 15 minutes right before an election.

"The value of media is not measured by the amount of time you spend watching it," Latham said.

Stephen Ward, the former director of UBC's School of Journalism who is now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, likes the idea of public input into the distribution of media funding, but also worries about the outcome of a "popularity contest." What's more, he wonders if voting on the finished product might not mean the evaluation is coming too late.

"It's too based on what people have already done or are doing when, in fact, we know that one of the things wrong with our journalism is that we don't do stories about many, many stories in many, many parts of the world," he said. "So how does that get onto the agenda?"

Latham admits there will be growing pains but believes time will allow media organizations to develop a track record that will let the public vote accordingly. He argues readers may reward an initially unpopular editorial stance five years down the line.

"After it's been running for a while, I think what you'll see happen is new media will grow that are serving this source of revenue and they will build reputations that will appeal to the voters so that they'll get more revenue," he said.

For a few dollars more

The source of the money for voters to distribute could pose another challenge.

"The idea is the funding should ideally come from that voting community if that voting community has a pool of funds, whether it's corporate funds or tax funds," according to Latham. "It would be in the interests of the members of that community to fund a blog ranking because they'll get better information for their voters."

But Kathleen Cross, a lecturer in communications at Simon Fraser University, believes Latham will have a hard time convincing people the media require more public funds.

She thinks objections are likely from both the public and those within the media industry concerned, perhaps mistakenly, that such funds will translate into government control.

"There's a lot of resistance to channelling public funds into something that supposedly doesn't have accountability," she said. "When you look at the kind of critiques of the CBC in the last 10 to 15 years, it would be even more so with this kind of a system."

And yet, media subsidies are not uncommon in Europe where Cross says a number of countries tax commercial media revenues and redirect the money to organizations that do not rely on advertising.

The CBC aside, Canada has some modest federal subsidies of its own, such as the Canada Magazine Fund, which promotes Canadian content and the Publications Assistance Program, which provides postal discounts for magazines and non-daily newspapers.

Howard would like to see such subsidies increase "massively" and thinks it would be useful to see federal funding agencies test Latham's idea for a year without actually disbursing funds.

"I'd like to at least see if, through a website, you can test this proposition that Canadians will repeatedly vote in favour of what they like in the way of media and that when you total it up, it won't all just be entertainment media," he said.

Tomorrow the world

Despite her reservations, Cross called Latham's idea "bold" and said it could serve as a partial antidote to the advertising-based system, which often produces coverage that is "problematic and unrepresentative."

Ward points to the year-old ProPublica, funded by an American private foundation and specializing in investigative reporting, or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which gives money to approved projects, as other ways of promoting alternative journalism. He doesn't want to discourage creative ideas but suggests Latham's model needs some restructuring.

Latham is the first to acknowledge voter-funded media is a work in progress. Right now, his primary focus is creating a new website, or "building a better mousetrap" as he puts it, in the hopes of adding to the disappointing 450 voters who participated in his first large-scale trial.

But the fact that voter-funded media is still very much at the experimental stage isn't keeping Latham from dreaming big.

He envisions a system where each country, province, municipality and its corporate stockholders, labour unions and professional associations could weigh in.

"The idea is to have a blog ranking and competition -- a separate competition -- for every voting community in the world."

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