2 Dec 2010

Part VI:
Independent media advocates must develop creative news sites

This is the sixth of a seven-part series that will address the need to develop independent media -- print, broadcast and Internet based -- in Canada.

Fully a dozen years after the Internet began growing and launching thousands of exciting projects around the globe, Canadians have managed to develop only one independent, high-quality regional news site, The Tyee, two long-established alternative political sites – rabble.ca, and Straight Goods – and the small participant-driven co-operative news site The Dominion, “news from the grassroots”. But surely we can do better.

Given that the quality, quantity, and originality of the news that we get from the traditional media is far below what it should be, and considering the mainstream media’s practice of filtering and censoring news – an infringement of our democratic freedoms – we surely do need to do better.

If we take a long, hard look at what now exists and do the necessary research, I believe we should be able to come up with two or three practical models that can be used to set up sustainable news and information production and delivery systems.

Big media companies and news on the Internet

Unfortunately, the same for-profit corporations that control the largest newspapers and television networks in Canada and the United States also dominate Internet news and information.

For instance, The Globe and Mail has one of the most-visited news sites in Canada, claiming it had 2.8-million unique visits in September, 2009.

A very rough average number of visitors for The Tyee (which is not a national site) and rabble.ca is about 150,000 unique visits per month, according to the two sites.

Clearly, the four or five independent and alternative sites are not reaching anywhere close to enough Canadians with the kinds of independent, non-corporate news that we need to get to be more broadly informed about important issues.

The current state of affairs

Certainly, David Beers (The Tyee), Judy Rebick (formerly with rabble.ca), and Ish Theilheimer (Straight Goods) have pumped a lot of time, money, and hard work into their news sites, and we are indebted to them for that. But why don’t more independent-minded Canadian journalists and media companies take up the challenge of setting up viable news sites?

Donna Logan, chair of the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC) at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, agrees that Canada is “woefully behind” in the realm of innovative ideas for transforming the nature of our news media. In an e-mail Logan said that the CMRC’s research concerning various aspects of the media has shown that in Canada, although the situation may not be as dire as in the United States, “the same trends are in evidence – audiences and advertising shifting to the Internet, with the result that revenues to generate original news are drying up for traditional media. Instead of innovating, Canadian media companies are resorting to massive job cuts and out-sourcing.”

Instead of setting up traditional for-profit or non-profit sites, some Canadian journalists have taken up “citizen journalism,” which has grown like wildfire in recent years. Sites such as Orato Digital Journal have followings larger than any Canadian independent sites. But these upstart sites lack credibility because much of the reporting is carried out by “ordinary citizens,” not trained journalists.

Last weekend I looked at the website of NowPublic, “Crowd Powered Media,” www.nowpublic.com, which is apparently Canada’s most prominent citizen journalism site. The Jan. 23 opening-page headline screamed: “Girl, 12, killed after rape; bereaved family threatened.”

Under a photo of a little girl’s body lying face up on a couch, the lead paragraph read: “It is a harrowing tale of rape and murder of a minor girl just because of her religion. The victim was a Christian. The minority Christians face such cruelties as a matter of routine in the world’s second largest Muslim country, Pakistan.” The story was credited to the Pakistan Christian Post.

Trustworthy journalism? Not exactly. Nevertheless, a few months ago a huge, new U.S. citizen’s journalism network, Examiner.com, purchased NowPublic for a reported $25 million. In addition to owning NowPublic in Vancouver, Examiner.com has added local sites in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Calgary.

The conditions are right

Public interest groups, journalists, and Internet advocates should be encouraged by current conditions on the Canadian scene. For example:
  • The public has clearly expressed dissatisfaction with the decline in the quality of the traditional media in the country, with a rising resentment of the increased news filtering and censorship of recent years.
  •  More than 2,000 Canadian journalists, many of them highly skilled, have lost their jobs during the past two years; it stands to reason that at least some of these professionals should be interested in getting involved in a new, creative project.
  • The country has hundreds of highly skilled Internet website developers who would relish the chance to launch a news site.
  • A cohesive, well-targeted project could be funded from a variety of sources. (I will address this crucial issue next week, in the final article of the series.) The Tyee, which pays its staff, is close to being financially sustainable in British Columbia, and at least ten high-quality, non-profit news sites with fully paid staff are now operating in the United States.
News and Credibility

Anyone who establishes a new project will first have to determine the kinds of information that people want – and make sure they are supplying content that is not readily available elsewhere.

Open-mindedness is a key in this endeavour. New technologies with amazing capacities are being developed all the time. What works for one community might be different from what works in another.

New sites will need to deal with two issues that have damaged the credibility of some Internet news sites. First, some sites are criticized for not enforcing the same editorial standards that have been practised by mainstream media for decades. Once some viewers have seen two or three standards violations, they won’t return to a site again.

If Internet news sites are to provide a unique service for the public, they need to find ways of paying skilled, experienced journalists. One of the problems with Internet-based media is that they typically fail to produce original news. A research study carried out in the Baltimore area in July 2009 (and released last week) traced the origins of six major story lines in the city. The study found: “Of the stories that did contain new information, nearly all, 95 percent, came from old media – most of them newspapers.”

The study concluded that most of what digital news outlets offered was repetition and commentary, not new information. While the percentage of stories in Canada coming from old media might not be as high as 95 per cent, the same trend is apparent here.

Still, Canada does have at least two creative – and self-sustaining – sites that meet high editorial standards and that produce original journalism: The Tyee and AllNovaScotia.com.

The Tyee – by far Canada’s most successful and professional independent Internet news operation – has built a strong, loyal audience across much of British Columbia. According to Tyee publisher David Beers, the business model was “evolved on our own, taking cues but not exactly simulating other models, including AlterNet.org, Salon.com, and lessons learned when I worked as an editor at Mother Jones magazine.“

The Tyee, which has a budget much larger then any of the other independent sites, receives financial support from a wide range of sources, and has base funding guaranteed for the next several years. “I am proud that we make a priority of journalistic excellence with impact,” Beers told me in an e-mail. “Our readers have recognized that and rewarded us with their growing traffic and about $85,000 in contributions.”

AllNovaScotia.com is a for-profit, mainly business news service launched in Halifax by David Bentley, whose newspaper became the now-defunct Halifax Daily News, and who started the first Frank Magazine, a cutting satirical magazine.

Kelly Toughill, a professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, believes that AllNovaScotia.com may be unique in North America. “It is the only local news site that was launched behind a paywall [access is only available through a subscription] and has remained entirely behind a paywall,” she writes in an e-mail. “It is also unique because it has been profitable since its very first year.”

Toughill points out a couple of other unique facets of the AllNovaScotia.com business model. “You can’t copy and paste because it is produced in Flash, so not a word of it has ever been given away for free. Secondly, it is online, but is not multimedia. It is a text service. All resources are put into reporting talent, not production.”

“The business model of AllNovaScotia.com “flies in the face of everything we have been told about the future of news,” Toughill says. “Its comparative advantage is its ability to create unique content valued by a very well defined group of readers: business people, politicians, lawyers and the local power elite. (It only recently started accepting advertising.) People pay because they get valuable information that is not available elsewhere. They also operate in a weak media scene with little local competition.”

AllNovaScotia.com has about 4,000 paid subscribers. With a monthly fee of $30, the site is generating in the area of $1,440,000 a year.

Time for a merger?

Because Canada’s progressive community is largely denied access to mainstream media, it is unable to reach millions of people with information and opinion that would allow the public to better understand alternative policies and ideas. As a result, I feel that it is extremely important that the progressive/left community has access to at least one strong, credible, well-funded Internet news websites that would be capable of reaching hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

To better meet the left’s needs, I believe that Canada’s two alternative sites – rabble.ca and StraightGoods – should come together to form one strong alternative Internet website. But, before I explain my reasoning, I want to disclose that, more than a year ago, I had separate discussions with both rabble.ca and StraightGoods concerning the possibility of volunteering with either of them. In the end, I instead decided in favour of continuing with other activities. During discussions with both rabble.ca and StraightGoods, I learned much about their operations. Because of this, both organizations felt that the information and opinions expressed in this article are based on what I had learned from them. They refused to publish anything I wrote for this piece concerning their organizations. While it is difficult for me to separate what I learned from them and what I learned from talking to other people and from my own observations, I do not believe I have used any information that I gained in confidence.

I have long been of the opinion that, while rabble.ca and StraightGoods are important sites run by highly-dedicated people, neither one is coming close to providing the dynamic, wide-reaching site the progressive community needs. The facts cry out for a melding of the two sites in some form or other: Both sites are similar in a number of ways: They have the same goals and objectives; they focus on the same political and social issues; have the same kinds of columnists; and appeal to roughly the same audience.

But the two also have similar problems: Neither of them reaches a large audience, and both lack the resources to pay contributors adequately. Both of them are lacking in promotional resources. Both have small staffs that are overworked and underpaid, and the enterprises often seem to be struggling financially.

On the other hand each organization has unique strengths that would be highly valuable in some sort of a cooperative venture: Rabble.ca has a more professional, attractive site, highly-skilled technical people, a particularly active discussion section, and other features. StraightGoods has highly capable editors, several unique contributors, and good connections within the traditional labour movement.

I think it is time for the two sites to hold discussions and, hopefully, come together and form one, much stronger site. A combined site would be able to reach many more people and have a much greater impact in promoting progressive change. Most importantly, they could have a united fundraising campaign, which could result in a fairly large increase in income. No doubt pride and site loyalties are important to both rabble.ca and StraightGoods, but any issues of this nature should be overcome so that the public can have access to one stronger, better funded site that will have increased resources to put forward the views of Canada’s politically progressive community. In my opinion, the needs of the progressive community outweigh other interests. Both sites have been in operation for close to a decade, and it is should be obvious by now that there is not enough support to maintain two healthy sites.

I would like to ask rabble.ca and StraightGoods to please recognize that what I have written is not intended to harm them but, instead, to illustrate how we could have one much more powerful site. It would be an important and quite remarkable achievement if the staff and supporters of both organizations could work together to form some sort of a co-operative venture or a new, combined site.

New U.S. news websites

Canadians interested in studying Internet news site business models could learn a lot from what is happening in the United States. With the collapse of mainstream media across the United States, many liberal-minded donors have leapt into the void and donated millions of dollars toward the creation of at least a dozen major Internet news and information sites.

The most successful non-profit venture, the Center for Independent Media in Washington, D.C., is headed by David Bennahum, a former Wired Magazine writer, who has raised more than U.S.$11 million for public interest Internet media projects since 2006. The Center has established independent, non-profit Internet news sites on a state-by-state basis in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, as well as in Washington, D.C. More sites are in the works. Other groups have launched similar projects in other parts of the country.

“These ventures are a new feature of American journalism worth watching,” says the 2009 “State of the News Media Report” from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. “For now, our sense is that they represent something complementary to the traditional news media, much in the way that an alternative weekly and city magazine complement, enrich and broaden the journalism in a given city. Yet something new is going on here that could grow beyond that.”

How about a news and information digest?

Meanwhile, an Internet neophyte such as myself can find interesting or pertinent items on a huge number of small or relatively obscure websites, blogs, and elsewhere. But I find it next to impossible to cope with this massive volume of information, even when I feel such a great need for it. I am sure that there are thousands of other people who feel like I do in this regard. Moreover, we would rather not have to surf through site after site to find all of the information we need.

True, search engines, such as Google, retrieve specific kinds of information for people who request it, but what I would most like to see is a news and information website that displays primarily original news, along with some opinion pieces, from the lesser known websites and blogs. The information would be served up on one site, as a kind of online digest – the Internet equivalent of what the printed Utne Reader does for magazines. This kind of site could attract a fairly good audience.

Where can we go from here?

Readers may be interested to hear of two conferences that are taking shape for this spring – meetings that could advance the development of independent media in Canada.

UBC’s Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC) is planning to hold a conference in Central Canada in late spring. During the meetings it will release the findings of research being undertaken by the Consortium. Panel discussions will focus on new Internet media models emerging in Canada, the United States, and Europe. As part of this effort, the CMRC is undertaking a survey on Internet use in Canada and looking at public attitudes toward various new models of operation, including micro-payments, government support, and grassroots journalism, among others.

A second conference, “Making Media Public,” will be jointly sponsored by the journalism and communications programs at York and Ryerson Universities, on May 6 - 8 in Toronto. More than a hundred media advocates from across the country will discuss ways of reorganizing media production. As the conference literature puts it, “In this volatile [media] climate, the need to develop new media models and policies is urgent.”

I would hope that the two organizing groups for these separate conferences will co-ordinate their efforts not just to avoid duplication of effort but also to forge a clear way forward toward the setting up of additional independent sites and creative media projects in the country. * * *

Unless readers raise new issues that I might want to discuss, next week will mark the final and seventh part of this series. This final article will explore possible ways of funding new media projects.

Quick note: I am having ongoing discussions with two groups concerning their interest in setting up a “mini-paper,” the newspaper concept discussed in part five of the series.

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