At a critical time when the new media environment is being molded and the traditional news industry is in a state of decline, creative approaches to journalism are urgently needed. Since my last column on the decline of journalism, the bleeding of jobs and the threat of local news outlets fading to 'black' continues. Along with a slew of recent layoffs, Canwest is attempting to sell off parts of its media empire and CTV is simply closing stations down. Journalists have even become active in reporting about the slaughtering of the media industry, resulting in what TheTyee describes as a "collective auto-obituary."
If news financed by big business is failing, what alternatives do we have?
Public backing of public journalism
The Conservatives appear determined to cut financial support for, and/or further commercialize, the CBC and other public broadcasters. The CBC is a pillar of our media system and needs increased financial support from the public, not more cuts and uncertainty.
In addition, funds such as the Canadian Magazine Fund and Telefilm could support newsgathering and reporting and add to the range of eligible projects to include online independent journalism. This could be combined with a new Internet Broadcast Fund, supported by a telecom levy, something I've called for in another column.
Having a more directed fund is not unheard of. The BBC is funded in part by television license fees. The acclaimed Australian community broadcasting sector is funded in part by federal grants via the Community Broadcasting Foundation. In the Netherlands, non-profit member-based media associations receive government funding and airtime in proportion to their membership numbers. The objective of the program is to ensure that the diversity of the multicultural society is represented in public discourse.
In conjunction with other support mechanisms, we could also use the "Local Programming Improvement Fund" (LPIF). The CRTC announced the LPIF last year, which will be supported by a percentage of cable and satellite revenues and is expected to amount to $60 million in the first year.
Regardless of the sources of financial support, it is essential that all available funds go directly to media makers and media outlets for news production, and not be handed over to big media with no strings attached. The last thing we need is for public funds to be used to compensate for financial decisions of the Aspers.
Foundations, labour groups, NGOs and individuals can also play a role in renewing journalism by financing public trusts or specific charitable journalism funds that could support innovative journalism projects. Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun recently asserted that while running newspapers as public trusts might work in the U.S., it won't work in Canada because we lack major endowment funds. While our philanthropy sector is notably smaller than that of the U.S., we are certainly not without civil society organizations and philanthropists who could step up to support journalism in this critical period.
There are several journalism experiments already supported from these sources. The independent, non-profit online news organization, Rabble.ca for example, combines support from individuals, and advertising with funds provided by a group of "Sustaining Partners" made up of NGOs, unions and foundations. The Tyee has a specific charitable investigative journalism fellowship fund that supports some of its journalism. Recently, Saskatchewan saw the launch of an independent provincial newspaper called the Sasquatch, which is to be run and supported by the non-profit magazine publisher Briarpatch Inc. THIS Magazine and The Walrus are also published by charitable foundations.
While it's true that these outlets need more support, Yaffe's dismissal of community-supported journalism is premature at best. Rather than announcing that it's dead on arrival, we should be challenging both individuals and civil society organizations to ramp up their support for independent public service journalism in this critical time.
Journalists in the driver's seat
One way we can help fill the current void in journalism is to support initiatives where journalists themselves are taking over media production. For example, the Dominion Newspaper is attempting to form a media cooperative that will produce a national newspaper. Both readers and media workers will be members and given a voting share in the coop. They also plan to help fill the void in local journalism by launching local branches that would both function autonomously and produce local stories as well as contribute to a kind of confederation-based national newspaper.
Journalists are also taking more immediate action. When Journal de Quebec media workers were locked out in 2007, they launched their own free daily newspaper, distributing 40,000 copies every weekday until the lockout ended. When the workers at the profitable Journal de Montreal were locked out this January, they quickly launched their own news website called Rue Frontenac. These ground-up initiatives suggest that journalists are capable of ditching big old media in favour of new worker-run outlets.
Employees at Hamilton's local CHCH television station are attempting to buy the station and run it a bit like a hospital: the station would be owned by the community and governed by a board of directors made up of community leaders. The station's owner, Canwest, plans to sell or shut down the station due to its poor financial situation. The community will need to raise $500,000 and have access to the Local Programming Improvement Fund to run the station.
CHCH is one of many local Canwest and CTV stations that the media giants are poised to unload. The precarious state of local TV and journalism in general should be seen as an historic opportunity to re-imagine what journalism should look like in the 21st century.
Be disturbed, get creative
To save journalism in Canada, we'll need to use every tool at our disposal. It's worth keeping in mind that the most important journalism institution in Canada, the CBC, was born in the era of the Great Depression. In recounting his successful campaign to establish a national network of publicly owned, yet locally run, radio stations (CBC Radio), Graham Spry declared, "our greatest ally was undoubtedly anxious, disturbed and alert Canadian public opinion". Are we anxious, and disturbed enough by the state of journalism yet?
Related Tyee stories: