Canada's for-profit mainstream media is in a state of crisis and failing to meet the country's needs, several concerned media critics told of a conference aimed at promoting alternative independent public media last week:
• "The cutbacks at mainstream media are so severe that communities across the country are getting only bare bones news," Lisa Lareau, president of the Canadian Media Guild, told the conference.
• Canadian content on television is suffering, said Monica Auer, an administrative lawyer who has worked with both the CBC and the CRTC. "In 1999/2000 a total of 189,000 hours of original Canadian content was produced. In 2007/08, it was only 160,000 hours."
• "The less in variety and diversity at most of the country's news outlets can't help but produce a citizenship that lacks the basic information it needs to be informed and take appropriate action concerning many issues," said Peter Murdock, vice president of media for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers' Union of Canada.
Concerned about the weak state of media in the country, participants in Making Media Public: Global Crisis and Local Opportunities, which took place in Toronto from May 6 to 8, formed a loose affiliation that will share information on how public/independent media can be developed and expanded as an alternative to the for-profit corporate media sector.
Listserv and Wiki information systems will be set up to share knowledge and ideas among Canadians who are interested in supporting public media.
"The public doesn't really know how many important stories are being missed now because the media is just not reporting on its own crisis," said Lareau, who delivered one of the strongest presentations at the conference. "It's the smallest communities that are being hit the hardest.
"There are barely any specialty reporters left covering areas like city hall, and fewer complex stories are being done. Investigative reporting is just about a thing of the past," she added.
More than 120 advocates of independent media and some 15 organizations attended the conference, which was organized primarily by staff and volunteers from York University's Department of Communication Studies and the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture. Sessions were held at both York and Ryerson University.
Along with academics from the fields of communications and media, some of the diverse groups attending included:
Shameless Wire -- a journalism program for young women and trans youth;
Media Rare -- an Internet portal devoted to promoting progressive politics and a sustainable economy;
Le Couac -- a satirical Montreal-based monthly paper; and
Citizens at City Hall -- a Hamilton volunteer community group that encourages civic engagement. Several also participated.
Keynote speaker James Hamilton, an associate professor in communications at the University of Georgia, said that he is opposed to corporate control as well as heavy government funding for the media. "There are flaws in the commercial media model," he said. "The old model is unstable and unsustainable."
He said one of the reasons the model is broken is because investors are seeking big returns. In Canada, until media companies began running into trouble, corporate media profits had been 25 per cent and higher for many years.
Hamilton said that because of the problems facing for-profit corporate media, there are excellent opportunities for independent media to develop in both Canada and the U.S. However, other participants pointed out that many more new and innovative media projects are being developed in the U.S. than in Canada.
Likely reasons for the surge in new media development in the U.S. are that the American mainstream media has been hit much harder than media in Canada by the recession, that the U.S. government provides tax breaks for donations to many non-profit groups that operate media projects, and that U.S. foundations have a much stronger tradition of providing large sums of money for media projects compared to Canadian foundations. (See footnote below.)
The conference was considered a way to connect and build this in the Canadian context.
"We wanted to allow groups to network and find areas for future collaborations," said Sonja Macdonald, a York doctoral student in communications who was one of the organizers. "We feel this was achieved, and with the establishment of the listserve and the wiki, people will be able to connect and move forward to work on specific issues."
As a result of discussions at the conference, it appears that new working relationships will be developed in at least three areas:
• Lobbying the CRTC and the Heritage Department for increased support for the public media sector;
• Closer cooperation among media labour groups and academics to attempt to improve conditions for freelance journalists; and
• The likely formation of a working group on how to get university students across Canada involved and connected to each other, in terms of communication and information policy research and/or advocacy issues.
Conference participant Dr. Becky Lentz, an assistant professor in media and public policy at McGill University, offered to help set up the working group. Anyone interested in learning more about this area can view the blog and website.
Many of the groups and individuals attending expressed the hope that another conference will be held in 2011. Sonja Macdonald said the organizers feel that it would be good to see another group come together to hold a future conference. "This would offer a different approach and perspective to keep the conference fresh and in line with timely issues.
"Possibly a second conference could be held somewhere other than Toronto, as this would change the type of participants involved, and lead to a more inclusive national collection of affiliations to develop," she said.
Others said they would like to see the event lead to the establishment of a permanent network or group that would help develop independent media as well as organize an annual conference.
Anyone wished to be added to the listserv or wiki list, should visit this site for instructions.
Footnote: As it happens, leading U.S. public media advocacy groups were attending a conference in Washington, D.C. last week called, Free Press Summit: Ideas to Action. One of the conference goals was to develop policies that will encourage the U.S. federal government to support public media. The conference, funded by a large U.S. foundation, was organized by Free Press, a non-profit group set up in 2002 by leading U.S. independent media advocate Robert McChesney and others to work on reforming the media. The conference site features a 48-page report that examines public media around the world. Incidentally, the report says that countries spending considerably more money per capita on public media then Canada include Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and Slovenia.
Nick Fillmore, a former journalist and producer with the CBC, is now a freelance journalist and helps develop media projects in Africa. He was a panellist at the Making Media Public conference.
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