Sustainable independent media needs a breakthrough

| January 12, 2010

Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a series of five articles that address the need to develop independent media -- print, broadcast and Internet-based -- in Canada. All six articles will appear on rabble.ca. The first three articles explored the reasons why traditional media no longer provide reliable news and information to the Canadian public, and can be viewed HERE, HERE and HERE. This article discusses what independent media could be like and how it could benefit communities across Canada.

It is hoped that this series of articles will encourage public-minded groups to look into setting up new media projects in their city, town, or region. Interested groups and individuals are invited to send us their comments and questions: editor@rabble.ca and fillmore0274@rogers.com.

Canadians might be surprised to discover the difference between the content of independent media and the news and opinion carried and broadcast by corporate-owned media. By "independent media" I mean any news media -- including newspapers, TV and radio news and Internet-based news -- that are independent of government, not heavily dependent on income from advertising and that do not have a corporate or right-wing bias.

Imagine Canada having national and city newspapers and TV news programs and news websites that report fairly on all groups in society, protect the rights of consumers, and cover business in a way that assesses the benefits for all people, not just business owners and investors. The result would be a journalism that contributes to the creation of a more equitable and just society.

"Considering the current crisis in big media, now is the time to take independent media to the next level," Marie Elliott, a communications student, and Steve Anderson of OpenMedia.ca wrote in an article for rabble.ca. "There is a window of opportunity right now, and that window can and will close if we don't take this challenge seriously."

Independent media outlets would most likely be set up as non-profit entities, with diverse sources of income (and without advertising playing a determining editorial role). In the case of a national media outlet, the enterprise would be controlled by a group of people from across the country. A local media project would be controlled by people living in that community, who would also determine editorial policy.

I want to suggest a few of the many ways in which independent media organizations would approach news differently compared to the coverage provided by corporate-owned media.

Value people over profits and corporations. The journalism practised would challenge a tax system that greatly favours the rich over the rest of society. It would oppose employment laws that allow businesses to avoid paying reasonable wages and benefits. It would promote improvements to the overall quality of life rather than simply emphasizing the creation of wealth.

Report on the substance of politics. The writers would report on a wide range of political opinion, unlike corporate media, which all but shut out even the moderate left, much less truly radical ideas. Journalists would cover what politicians do, not what they say they will do. They would not assume, as do the for-profit media, that political parties are in power to benefit the public.

Carefully monitor Big Business. Given the domination of Big Business over just about every aspect of society, independent media would cover business and corporations in proportion to their huge influence over most governments and society in general. They would keep a regular watch on the activities of business lobby groups.

Effective reporting and investigative journalism could help protect the public from the exploitation carried out by powerful multinational industrial giants such as:

           - Big Oil (especially how it lobbies against climate change legislation).

           - the pharmaceuticals (involved in kickbacks, illegal pricing).

           - agribusiness (how it promotes GMO as a "tool of social control").

Break down the impact of advertising on the issue of climate change. The mainstream media are "disastrous" on climate change, largely because of their dependence on advertising for income. A minority scientific opinion -- the denial of the impact of global warming -- gets nearly as much regular coverage, especially in opinion pieces, as the majority opinion. The prominent denials are closely connected to the business as usual approach of the advertisers. Independent media could approach the vital issue of climate change very differently. With their diverse sources of income, they would be less subject to the pressures of advertisers.

With the need for profits overriding any thought of social responsibility, traditional media outlets run ads for non-essential, luxury items that fuel the out-of-control consumerism that is so seriously damaging the environment. This contradiction overrides concerns about climate change. The production of the unnecessary goods advertised not only depletes already scarce global resources but also produces billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. "We have fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth forever is possible and necessary," says David Suzuki. "This is not sustainable, it is suicidal. . . . We have created a system that is completely out of balance with the real world that keeps us alive . . . ."

Establish an openness to radicals and dissidents. Independent media would attempt to be open to all opinions and ideas that are not in violation of the law. The mainstream media claim to be open to all views but, in reality, carry only a token amount of barely left-wing or independent-thinking opinion articles or columnists. Many prominent, controversial people are only occasionally given the opportunity to express their views.

Take a different approach to international coverage. Independent media could strive to correct the distorted "good guys"/ "bad guys" picture of world politics and its leaders that we are fed by corporate media organizations working to protect the global interests of capitalism. They would report on alternative political systems based on how the systems meet the needs of those particular societies, not on whether the countries might be opposed to capitalism. Independent journalists also could focus more on positive developments in underdeveloped countries.

Independent journalists would need superior skills

Journalists working for independent media organizations would need to have superior skills. Journalists coming from the for-profit sector would have to be "deprogrammed" to free them from the programmed and censored thinking of traditional media newsrooms.

In addition, independent media journalists would need to abandon the totally impersonal corporate media "objective" style of journalism. They would instead report and write in a slightly opinionated, but still fair, way, based on a wide knowledge of the area they have been assigned to cover. Perhaps an ideal model to shoot for would be the style of reporting used at The Guardian newspaper and the BBC News in the United Kingdom.

Little independent news media in Canada at present

Unfortunately, Canada has very few independent media outlets. Some independent news and opinion websites are still developing on the Internet, but we have no independent, non-commercial newspapers.

Elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, a non-profit trust created several years ago publishes The Guardian, The Guardian Weekly and The Observer. Together these are among the English-language's most progressive, independent newspapers. The trust also operates the most popular news website in the English language. Editorial policies of the three papers are not tied to any corporate ideology. The trust owns a number of media properties that rely quite heavily on advertising and that funnel money to the trust, which allows the papers to maintain their fierce independence.

As far as I know, Western Europe has only corporate-owned newspapers. But many papers are not as heavily dependent on advertising, which makes up about 45 per cent of their income, compared to more than 70 per cent in Canada during good times. Many European papers have greater editorial integrity and have a strong following. The contrast can be seen in the sales figures. In Sweden, 75 per cent of adults read a newspaper every day. In Canada, a recent study shows that 77 per cent of adults in the six top Canadian markets read a paper one day a week.

A brighter picture on the Internet

The development of strong, independent news and opinion on the Internet in Canada is in its infancy. Hundreds of Canadian media advocates are operating small independent news and opinion websites or managing their own blogs. Unfortunately, few websites and bloggers are producing original research-based journalism. To supplement their original content, they link to opinion pieces and news from other sites, including for-profit sites.

To my knowledge, no Canadian independent website is paying its own way at the present time. Most sites are heavily dependent on low-paid staff and/or volunteers. Even so, people running their own sites see the tremendous advances being made on the Internet as the triumph of communications democracy over the restrictive, outdated ways of "old media."

Three Canadian websites have considerable potential

Of the many small news and opinion websites that have emerged in Canada over the past few years, three stand out for building a small but loyal following and for the potential they hold for further development.

rabble.ca is a non-profit national site established in 2001 by a group of journalists, academics, and labour and social justice activists. It was founded by Judy Rebick, and open source technology innovators Mark and Tonya Surman. It has more than 140,000 unique visitors per month. 

This site hosts columns, articles and blogs, as well as multi-media features that seen integral to the news function of the website: a discussion board, podcasts, video as well as a live online broadcast function.

rabble publishes both orgininal and mainstream columns in addition, as well as first run articles and blogs. rabble.ca original columns come from Duncan Cameron, Murray Dobbin (shared with The Tyee), Wayne MacPhail, June Chua, Steve Anderson (also shared with the Tyee) and Am Johal. The pickups include Linda McQuaig, Rick Salutin, Naomi Klein and American Amy Goodman. They also publish blogs by figures including James Laxer and Judy Rebick.

Straight Goods was set up by Ish Theilheimer as a for-profit online news site in 2000 when he became frustrated by the lack of quality journalism in the mainstream media. The site has more than 50,000 unique visitors per month.

The strongest features on this sites is also its columnists. Some of these are written as original pieces, and some are picked up from the mainstream media. Straight Goods writers include Geoff Stevens, John Baglow, Jamie Swift, Gillian Steward, Paul Weinberg, Mel Watkins and Charles Gordon.

The Tyee, set up in 2003 by David Beers, a journalist with wide experience, focuses on British Columbia. The Tyee has published some of the best investigative journalism in B.C., and has won several awards. The Tyee has about 164,000 unique users per month.

The Tyee's excellent track record in providing mainstream journalism and investigative reporting shows promise for the continued development of the site. It is also the one Canadian site only slightly dependent on advertising that appears to be within reach of becoming self-sustainable.

Among The Tyee's top contributors are Kim Pollock, Rafe Mair, Bill Tieleman, Michael Geist, Andrew MacLeod, Monte Paulsen and Tom Sandborn.

Because The Tyee covers important stories and issues across British Columbia, it fills in some of the gaping holes left by the provinces' inadequate daily press. Unfortunately, so far no other Internet news site focuses on providing extensive coverage of any other province or city.Because The Tyee covers important stories and issues across British Columbia, it fills in some of the gaping holes left by the provinces' inadequate daily press. Unfortunately, so far no other Internet news site focuses on providing extensive coverage of any other province or city.

The Dominion is a newer site that has promise. It is an Internet-based monthly newspaper published in Montreal by a network of independent journalists as a media cooperative since May 2003. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage of important issues, domestic and international. Interestingly, The Dominion can be read online or delivered as a print subscription.

The Dominion publishes only monthly and, at the moment, neither rabble.ca nor Straight Goods are striving to become the type of broad-based general news service that could benefit Canadians across the country. Instead, they see themselves as being "alternative" sites. While the "alternative" label serves the important function of bringing together hundreds of like-minded people, it also probably prevents the site from attracting large numbers of apolitical users.

Interestingly, many of the original columns and articles that appear on rabble.ca and Straight Goods are not what you would call radical. Indeed, many of them are perfectly suitable for the mainstream media. However, now that traditional news organizations have reduced their even mild left-wing opinion content, most of these authors would not be welcome.

Corporate-owned media struggling to reach profitability

Corporate-owned news organizations are struggling to develop a business model that will allow them to survive and make healthy profits. Media corporations have lost billions of dollars in advertising to Internet-based companies, and the volume of advertising they have managed to hold onto has been reduced considerably by the unexpected severity of the recession.

Facing a bleak financial picture, for-profit media companies slashed their news budgets and have fired more than 2,000 Canadian journalists. So, for the past year or so, media consumers have not only been experiencing the age-old corporate manipulation of the news, but are now being subjected to a severe reduction in the quality of news and the areas and topics covered -- in all three major areas: newspapers, and TV and radio news.

If the yet-to-be created new traditional media business model is still funded largely by advertising, the same type of censored, pro-corporate media that we experience now will simply move onto the Internet. This shift, if it occurs, would be extremely unfortunate. The news distortion that occurs at every for-profit media company is destructive. It marginalizes many groups in society, providing an imbalanced flow of news and information that undermines the practice of democracy. In earlier articles I described some of the evils of corporate-owned journalism.

In an age considered to be modern and sophisticated, it is hard to believe that Canadians (like other people around the world) are dependent on news and information that have been systematically manipulated and censored. It is as though some elite force said to us, "Yes, you can have democracy, but you can have only 70 per cent of the world's information, and we've prepared it especially for you. We don't think you need to have the other 30 per cent."

The big hope for free access to news and information

One possible breakthrough would be hugely significant not only for Canada but also for media in many countries around the world: the creation of a sustainable business model that would allow news websites and other forms of news media to be funded largely by small amounts of advertising, user fees, subscriber fees and other non-restrictive sources of income. This funding would allow independent, non-profit news organizations to compete for audience with for-profit media organizations.

The next article will take us to a key point in this series. I will explain how various print and Internet-based news media models -- large and small -- could be established in Canada. If there are any community groups or individuals concerned about the poor quality of our media, they should start thinking about whether they are interested in becoming involved in a group to explore the viability of setting up independent media projects.

Mr. Fillmore was an editor and producer with the CBC for 18 years and has been involved in several print media projects. A freelance journalist and media fundraiser based in Toronto, he is a founding member of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).He can be reached at: fillmore0274@rogers.com

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