// Sarah Mansour

An important event surfaces into the public awareness. You hear about it from a friend. You go on Twitter and some form of it has been tweeted and re-tweeted by posters you know and don't know, all connected by this shared event. You sign-in to Facebook, and someone you know has already posted a video. You watch and comment. It all happens within minutes. Thus is the most common cycle of life for spreading information in our society today. What does this say of the state of the media industry?

Are Newspapers On Their Way Out?

The role of the internet in our consumption of news has become a common part of our reality. The way we access media has changed dramatically over the past few years, yet the economic model that delivers most media to us has not really adjusted to reflect this change. The model of printed media is mostly one involving market dominance, and as a 2011 report from Columbia University entitled “The Story So Far” states, “The monopoly or oligopoly that most metropolitan news organizations enjoyed by the last quarter of the 20th Century meant they could charge high rates to advertisers, even if their audiences had shrunk. If a local business needed to reach a community to promote a sale or announce a new store, the newspaper and TV station were usually the best way to do it. Even if the station or newspaper could deliver only 30 per cent of the local market, down from 50 per cent a decade earlier, that was still a greater share than any other single medium could provide.

Newspapers depend on subscriptions and advertising, and generate added revenue from services such as classified ads, which are being replaced by free online equivalents like Craigslist. On a public scale, we are responsible for keeping media services like the CBC running by paying taxes. On a private scale, we support private media sources through our buying power and choices, for when buying a product, the company providing it is generally owned by another; for example, Maclean's magazine is owned by Rogers.

The integration of digital media has been a shaky one, with the challenges of consolidating issues like subscriptions or free access, regulation or inclusivity, advertising or activism. We are drawn to the urgency of access and the variety of news on the internet, almost always for free, but there is reason to doubt the internet as a reliable and consistent source of news. If a thousand people
tweet it, does that make it true? If nothing else, our spending habits are an indication of where our support lies. In 1975, Canadians spent more to purchase daily newspapers than they spent on subscriptions to television channels and programs. By 2005, for every $1 spent on daily newspapers, Canadians were spending more than $6 on TV and more than $4 on internet access.

However, these figures don't take into account the increase in TV programming options and cost, and the variety of internet activities unrelated to news. A report issued by the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRS) on the state of the media in Canada further compares our activities related to media consumption, finding that the Internet and TV held most our attention, though we weren't necessarily getting news updates or detailed reports. The report shows our habits of browsing for entertainment, lifestyle, and special interest stories on the internet, but for coverage of politics, finance, and local news, we still turn to newspapers.

Reliability of Media

Although most of us might agree that we can't live without the internet, it seems that we don't consider it a reliable source of news. A survey in the CMRS report revealed that only 34 per cent of the participants agreed that most or all of the information on the internet is reliable, while 58 per cent put their trust in newspapers. This may seem surprising, considering that our immediate inclination for finding information is often just to “Google it”. Are we, as Canadians, still sceptical of the internet?

According to an article in, 37 per cent of surveyed Americans chose the internet as a reliable news source, compared to 16 per cent choosing newspapers. “When it comes to newspapers and how they have been impacted by the internet, there is a consistent and significant ideological factor. Conservatives and Republicans don't like or trust newspapers, and Independents are not big fans either. However, if all Americans were Liberals or Democrats, you would be buying newspaper stock,” writes John Zoghby, columnist for Forbes.

Zoghby is referring to the economic model that newspapers currently run on, which depends on gaining revenue by selling advertising and from continued subscriptions of a broad range of readers. It's not that people have stopped reading, but that they have merely switched to technology. The New York Times, one of the major American news publications, has 30 million online readers, but a weekday circulation of less than 900,000 newspapers, which made up 80 per cent of the paper's revenue in 2010, according to a NY Times press release. Newspaper advertising has kept the NY Times in business, but the paper is missing out on opportunities for generating revenue from its online readers.

The staggering difference in volume between NYT's online and offline readers has to do with how our reading habits have changed. Many of these online readers are often casually browsing the free site, compared to dedicated subscribers of the print media who invest in the whole package, considering that they can't buy one article or section of the paper.

“The digital world has changed the revenue dynamics for publishers,” writes Matt Shanahan, analyst, in his blog for Scout Analytics. “In the print world, a publisher’s shipment of physical media was the basis for generating revenue. In the digital world, consumption of media is the basis for revenue … In other words, engagement is the unit of monetization.” It is this difference that separates online and offline readers – offline readers all follow one consumer behaviour in terms of advertising – they pay for a paper and read it. Online readers have more control in getting what they want quickly and ignoring everything else, including ads, and avoiding subscription fees by finding free sources.

A New Way to Fund Information

“In the current model, for private sector media, it's paid for by people picking up a newspaper and spending time reading it … advertising revenue is very important. So that tends to encourage media that grab individuals' attention and what grabs people's attention is not necessarily the same media that's good for the broad public's interest. It's the more sensational stuff like bloody murder or sex scandals” explains Mark Latham, founder of Latham is a financial economist working on political reform of democracies and corporations. He focuses on voter information systems, especially the economic incentives (or lack thereof) for public interest political journalism. He has developed a funding model which has been successfully implemented in UBC's student society for the past five years.

“We can reduce corruption and improve the policies of our governments and corporations by creating a better information system for voters,” said Latham in a 2009 publication paper entitled Global Voter Media Platform, explaining the concept of VoterMedia. Although the project started in the corporate world, Latham was inspired by the growth of the blogosphere to implement VoterMedia with online communities. Voters can rank blog competitors dealing in political matters relevant to their community, and winning blogs receive financial compensation. This promotes accountability in media production suited to the interest of the public. The main goal of this model is to improve our education level on electoral issues by encouraging the support of blogs with high-quality content that is useful for making voting decisions.

Implementing the model at UBC has given Latham the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness and sustainability of such an economic model in promoting quality media production. The project's initial funds were a donation from Latham, but now the program is funded by the UBC student union. One of the blogs that started as a result of this program, UBC Insider, continues to engage students at UBC in the university's ongoing political debates and issues. In fact, the blog writers went on to work with the elected representatives, involving them directly in the dialogue.

Jason Ng, blogger for The Social Capital, explains the challenges of creating homogenous content for a university that hosts 45,000 students representing diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and levels of engagement. VoterMedia has helped “bring together students that were not interested, necessarily, in student politics before. And helped them realize that a lot of the issues that affect UBC … go beyond students who have a direct interest in politics, and really affect all the students that are part of the community for the years that they're here,” says Ng.

Latham is now testing the project for the upcoming municipal elections taking place in five municipalities in the Vancouver Lower Mainland on Nov. 19, 2011. Blog sites reporting on North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, or Richmond will compete against other blog sites within the same municipality. The highest ranking site, chosen by readers, wins a prize of $1,000 allocated for each municipality to use as funding for creating, contributing to, and up-keeping the blog. Despite the draw – getting paid to blog – participation has been a bit disappointing so far. It is indeed a new concept and promoting it can be a challenge.

“The average person is busy with their lives and may not have spare time, may not know how to start a blog, write a blog, and may not feel they have enough to offer. You have to have someone who feels that they have some opinions that are worth people reading about and [has] enough confidence to put themselves out there,” says Latham.

From the experiment at UBC, and his point of view as an economist, Latham explains that VoterMedia, through the quality of the blogs, will support in-depth commentary and detailed analysis, which people will often not spend a lot of time reading or researching.

“Knowing that it's behind there, that analysis will then indicate certain politicians you should vote for in the election, and voters will tend to follow that advice. Once VoterMedia build[s] their reputation for doing a good job on that analysis, voters will vote [for the distribution of] the money, voters will follow their recommendations, but others will not spend much time reading their analysis; that's the difference,” explains Latham.

Media Has Room For Democracy

The very core of Latham's concept depends on democracy. For the program to work, anyone can enter their blog, but only the best, as chosen by the majority, will be rewarded. Every aspect of it depends on the full participation of the content providers and the voters. Community sites that allow readers to rank site content and share their input by rating, voting and commenting are nothing new, however. On forums and websites such as Reddit, a post or comment with higher votes gains a higher position on the page, elevating its relevance for the site's audience, which can be quite diverse.

However, these systems have mostly been implemented for entertainment-based services and forums. Even if the subject leans on the side of heavy social commentary providing a community service, there is rarely a financial factor to drive competition. In the realm of political news, bloggers and innovators in media often go unrewarded for their work, unless sponsored by a certain party. The way that democracy factors into their efforts is through recognition, evidenced by the number of hits on a site and the widespread distribution of blogs through social media.

Gala Milne, coordinator for Media Democracy Days, has been involved in the conversation for almost two years and is a strong supporter of civic engagement and the concept of media democracy. Media Democracy Days is a panelbased event kicking off its ten-year anniversary in Vancouver this year. Interest in the event has helped it grow to a 3-day combination of film screenings, panel discussions and workshops.

“The media is where people get their information, form their opinions, and perceive themselves in the world and make sense of themselves. It's through reading and consuming different media sources that we're able to do that and learn what's going on. When you have information coming at you from a number of sources, providing a complex view of the world, hopefully we're able to create democratic frames of mind just by being exposed to more diverse opinions,” says Milne. She considers everyone a contributor to what we consume as media and cites initiatives like Shit Harper Did and Lead Now as a new direction in civic engagement.

The internet remains largely uncensored, which makes it the ideal platform for anyone to participate in. “How do we get more people to vote? How do we look at language, in terms of framing issues of gender and women rights?” asks Milne, adding that websites of this nature help draw in more diverse audiences, particularly young people. “These organizations were largely encouraged and able to gain as much steam and support through social media [and] the internet, and the panel [at Media Democracy Days] looks at how social media acts as a catalyst in creating more engaged citizens.”

Question Everything

Although information on the Internet, beyond established and trusted sources, remains largely unregulated, Milne suggests that it is up to us to read and question what we are reading. The slogan for Media Democracy Days is “Know the Media, Be the Media, Change the Media”, a message that should resonate with anyone trying to wade through the overwhelming information available through publications on the internet, blogs, events and alternative printed media.

Milne says the key is to keep eyes open and question everything. Events such as Media Democracy Days are “encouraging people to know the media system in which they live, be the media in terms of participating and being involved, and changing the media, and in that way asking people to raise their awareness and increase their education about issues happening within the media.” In BC, we can turn to resources like Open Media, AMES, and the Media Education Foundation that are aimed at increasing people's understanding and awareness of the media.

Vancouver is rich in locally-produced media resources such as the ones Milne lists. The Tyee for example, is an online local news source that was born out of Media Democracy Days in 2003, and has grown to feature a diverse selection of journalists from BC. A relevant resource, the website has a “featured blogs” section which links to BC-based blogs that focus on a variety of subjects, ranging from advocacy, to marketing, to travel, and to global culture. The Tyee is also featured on and currently holds the top position in the Vancouver Voter Community.

Media Education Foundation is another organization that gives educational institutions licenses to stream documentaries on topics such as commercialization and gender. These organizations are part of breaking down the veil that the media puts up, according to Milne. They help make complex issues seem digestible and understandable.

The resources are out there. Milne explains that it is up to individuals to educate themselves and be part of the changing media landscape: “Change comes from inside. Whether it's becoming involved in groups [like Open Media and The Tyee], or becoming an investigative journalist; whether it's voicing your opinion on the state of Canadian media, or showing up to things. Change happens gradually, and it's true that first the idea is knowing and being, [and] then working towards change.”

// Sarah Mansour
// Illustrations by Caitlyn Neufeld

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