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Media Democracy Days: the future of journalism

Where is journalism headed? How can publications sustain themselves in an age when readers can easily access news for free? Can journalism continue its role as a public service continue while owners are watching the bottom line?

These questions and more were at the heart of this year's Media Democracy Days at the Vancouver Public Library. Leaders of Vancouver's scene gathered on Saturday for a passionate discussion about the state of media today and where it is headed in the future.

Vancouver Observer publisher and editor-in-chief Linda Solomon moderated the debate, beginning the discussion by pointing to the many hurdles facing people working in media today.

“Corporate ownership of media in the last 10 years, rather than decreasing, has increased,” Solomon said. She highlighted the increasingly conservative tone of Canadian media due to media concentration, as well as the lack of reliable information in corporate-owned voices. She also pointed to the problem of underrepresentation of women in the media: less than a third of top media management positions are held by women, according to a BBC report.

David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee, spoke of the challenges of creating an economic viability of online media in a time in which even excellent publications were going out of business or selling out.

“Eight years on, the Tyee and people I see as swimming along with us in independent media – I feel that we are still just edging our way forward, without any clear map at all,” he said. In his view, the terrain for independent media was becoming ever more perilous. 

Beers spoke of the recent demise of Public Eye, a new website founded by award-winning investigative journalist Sean Holman. He praised the site as a “shining beacon and example of what could be done with the Internet” and lamented that even a publication of its high calibre could not find a way to remain financially sustainable. 

He also mentioned the example of The Huffington Post, which shocked the world when founder Arianna Huffington sold it to AOL for $315 million earlier this year. Although the site continues to be a forum for progressive, democratic voices in the U.S., many at the time felt that some of its integrity would be compromised under ownership of a giant media corporation.

In an age when everyone can read online content for free, how would a news website sustain itself? Beers said he calculated how much readers would have to pay The Tyee in order for his publication to break even, and came up with the figure of 11 cents per visit – 16 cents per visit for B.C.-based readers only. If readers could put in just a small sum each to support the news site, he felt that it would become a "sustainable, permanent fixture in the media landscape."

Peter Klein, a veteran American journalist, talked at length about a combination of two endangered species of journalism – international investigative reporting. He explained the political shifts that caused international narratives became less in demand (the end of the Cold War) and the proliferation of smaller networks that have led to a splitting of the market pie into smaller and smaller slices. Investigative journalism, he said, has become "prohibitively expensive" for most smaller publications.

“We have stories sitting out there waiting to be found," he stressed. "Nobody's even finding them because no one bothers to look."

While his report on digital waste dumping in Ghana and its toxic effects on residents was produced by PBS's Frontline, he highlighted the difficulty of offering news as a public service today.

Georgia Straight editor-in-chief Charlie Smith spoke about his publication's long history of independence, recounting how it rebuffed buyout efforts of media giants including Southam Inc. and Canwest.

Smith advised journalists -- especially younger ones -- to enrich their knowledge on complex topics by periodicaly reading long, in-depth nonfiction books.

“I encourage you not just to read papers or even websites,” Smith said. “Read big, thorough, nonfiction books.” Mentioning titles by acclaimed writers such as George Monbiot (Heat), Donald Gutstein (Not a Conspiracy Theory), Joel Bakan (Childhood Under Seige). He spoke of how his previous reading on psychology helped the Georgia Straight bring original coverage of the June Vancouver riots that broke away from “media clutter” that explained why youth were behaving so irrationally.

Karen Pinchin, the founding editor of OpenFile in Vancouver, talked about the difficulty of being a journalists today, having watched many people “fall away over the years” due to staff layoffs and decreasing job security. She talked about the new business model of online news and “crowd-sourcing” news by allowing people to contribute “files” on story ideas for Open File's many freelance journalists.

“Some of the things I feel will contribute to the future of journalism is more research, better mentorship ... and collaborative projects," she said. 

Panelists responded to questions from the audience, and the discussion ended on an uplifting note when Beers addressed VO reporter Alexis Stoymenoff's question on how young journalists can continue working in this field today. He spoke of his own experience as a budding journalist in the early eighties, and the options that exist for budding journalists today in the age of online media.  

“Back in 1982, when I was wanting to be a journalist, I knew that I could not work in a newsroom -- I was just not constitutionally cut out for it,” Beers said. “The world, to me, looked similar to the way the world looks to you now because the newsroom job was taken off the table.”

“But back then, six editors in North America were going to determine my fate...I was like those sea turtles, you know, they let out like a thousand of them on the beach,” he joked, as the crowd burst into laughter. 

“Birds come and get half of them, the fish get another half. And in the end there's like two turtles out there. That's why I'm a journalist. It's not skill – the other ones were getting eaten."

"The internet has changed things so that you are able to become a public person, a public voice. Show off your expertise. Read the books that Charlie [Smith] was telling you about. You're able to pick an area, become very strong intellectually in it and become a voice, through the internet."

He said that although journalists today face many obstacles to survive, they have a greater freedom and capacity to make their voices heard than ever before.

"You don't need to rely on the six gatekeepers, right? But you still need to make that swim ... this new flowering of democratic voice makes it, to me, a much richer, much more exciting time than back in '83."

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