With a mandate to "make democracy work better," Montreal-based OpenNorth.ca built an online database of contracts awarded by the City of Montreal and programs to allow citizens to scrutinize local budgets and identify their political representatives.
This fall, the non-profit plans to create a portal so citizens can more easily file Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to access information gathered by governments at public expense, Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen told the Montreal conference JournalismStrategies.ca last weekend (April 19 to 21).
Changing nature of journalism
The conference brought together about 100 activists, academics and journalists to consider ways to revitalize active citizenship at a time when the scope of traditional/legacy media reporting is narrowing. As ownership become more concentrated, new media platforms are changing the nature of journalism and alternative media struggle to survive, expand and respond to their audience.
Access to information is key to a healthy democracy, explained Cayla-Irigoyen in revealing OpenNorth's plans. Paul Knox, a Ryerson University journalism professor, made a plea for such a portal, stressing the need to "reinvigorate" use of FOI and Access to Information requests in response to governments that maintain a culture of secrecy and increasingly deny and delay information requests.
Conference presenters and participants came from a wide range of media organizations, from those with a shoestring budget (campus and community radio stations, community television stations, some Internet news sites) to those with better but often threatened funding (TVOntario and the Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network).
In a bid to expand alternative news coverage among low budget radio stations, the National Community Radio Association created GroundWire, a half hour news program that is aired on 30 member stations and produced by each of them in rotation, Anabel Khoo of York University's CHRY radio station told the conference.
Local and 'hyperlocal' media
OpenFile.ca is an investor-backed news service operating in six Canadian cities in which citizens suggest stories that they want covered and then are linked up with journalists who investigate. The value of OpenFile is its "ability to grow the story" for the audience, explained founder Wilf Dinnick.
Another format created to respond to local information needs is consider-this.ca, a small "hyperlocal" news site in Cobourg, Ontario. Founder and journalism professor Robert Washburn stressed the need for local incubators that provide some technical training in order to facilitate contributions from citizen journalists.
In contrast allnovascotia.ca, launched by David Bentley (a co-founder of the satirical Frank magazine), is an online local news source produced by professional journalists but behind an expensive paywall. The profitable and established site is text only; it posts only short, hard-news stories and lacks any social media reach, noted Kelly Toughill, dean of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.
As we shift into a digital future, there is a pressing need for "a discussion of the definition and the value" of regional and local news, Christopher Ali, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, told the conference.
This imperative has been recognized by regulators in both the United States and the United Kingdom in major reports that examine the impact of the changing media landscape on local and regional news. Canada, however, has not undertaken any similar exercise, he noted.
Journalists can help focus attention and prioritize issues in order to "inform, engage and empower audiences," Simon Fraser University professor Robert Hackett told the conference. He pointed out that peace journalism is an important alternative to the standard journalistic approach to covering wars and conflicts.
While some activists say there is no need to support or reform traditional public media like the CBC, arguing that access to the Internet is sufficient to ensure a good information flow, draft recommendations from the conference acknowledge the need to find ways to support and strengthen the CBC (see reimagineCBC.ca) and other community and alternative media.
Traditional media still matters
The importance of traditional media is underscored by the fact that, as Hackett told the conference, 60 per cent of Canadians still turn to television as their primary source of news.
Canada ranks near the bottom of western nations in terms of per capita financial support for public media ($27.46 a year compared to Norway's $139.39). It does, however, rank above the United States, where the telecom industry ranks second only to the pharmaceutical industry in terms of the number of lobbyists registered in Washington, according to Craig Aaron of freepress.net.
In Quebec, an advertising price war between media giants Transcontinental and Quebecor has led to significant cuts in field reporting in weekly newspapers, Dominique Payette told the opening session of the conference.
"This causes me a lot of worry because we know local information is important to build citizenship," Payette said in an interview. (Payette's 2011 report on the future of journalism, commissioned by the province of Quebec, called for more state support of journalism but was controversial in its call for the creation of a class of professional journalists.)
Tony Burman, a former CBC executive who worked for Al Jazeera English from 2008 to 2011, said that on his return to Canada he barely recognized the CBC because of the way it has commercialized, trivialized and Americanized so much programming and limited its coverage of the world.
The conference's last formal session outlined the achievements of openmedia.ca which has organized petitions and actions to push back against moves to introduce metering of Internet usage (the Stop the Meter Campaign garnered 300,000 signatures) and internet surveillance (Stop Online Spying).
Ann Silversides is a freelance writer based in Perth, Ontario. She was thrilled to be in Montreal -- the land of student activism -- and to hear from activists and journalists who are working on ways to reveal and communicate stories that don't get enough attention in mainstream media.