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Ian Gill: Fearless Journalism Essential to Democracy

Canada’s media industries are in a tailspin. As many as 10,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the past decade and newsroom closures or contractions are an almost weekly fact of life across the country. In a new book, No News Is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse — And What Comes Next, veteran reporter Ian Gill chronicles a decline that is bad for democracy. Then again, the collapse of mainstream media is making room for new, mostly online journalism to flourish. Gill generously counts DeSmog Canada among the bright lights of Canada’s new journalism. Here are a few telling excerpts from his book:

Journalists aren’t easy to love. They are less trusted than police, schools, banks, and the justice system, and only marginally more trusted than federal Parliament and corporations. But what journalists do is important, and it isn’t just the business of rooting out liars, holding policy-makers accountable, probing the public accounts, championing the underdogs, or hounding the overlords. It is all of those things, but it is more importantly the practice of using stories as a way to help people make sense of their world…

Yes, debates happen in this country’s legislatures, our rules of conduct are enforced in our courts, and our commerce is carried out, sometimes in public, often in private, and most of the system works for most of the people most of the time. But not always, and not for everybody — which is why our public square needs to include spaces where we can challenge the status quo, encourage dissent, listen at the margins, and champion new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world, new ways of understanding our place in it. We need new places to share those stories in multiple and evolving ways.

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(What upstart on-line media) do much better than mainstream media … is irritate the hell out of people, especially those in government and industry who are bent on maintaining the status quo. Out west, a particular target of the Observer and the Tyee is the oil and gas sector. So concerned is this industry about the influence of these relatively small players that Alberta Oil magazine ran a lengthy feature in early 2016 in which it characterized their work as constituting a “Vancouver School” of activist journalism that industry ignores at its peril.

 “Together with lesser known and more dubious websites like the Commonsense Canadian and West Coast Native News, the Observer and the Tyee are part of an emerging Vancouver School of media that is challenging traditional journalism and finding a ready audience among eco-activist readers. More importantly, their influence is starting to spread beyond the borders of the Lower Mainland, and rallying Canadians against energy infrastructure projects outside B.C., such as the $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline.” The notion of a “Vancouver School” of journalism disrupting Canada’s polluters-in-chief has an ironic ring to it, coming from an oil patch that has been crafted more along the lines of the Chicago School of economics.

But if the Vancouver School has been good at questioning the business practices of some of the biggest companies in the land, it has done less well at monetizing that work. Even less successful in Canada have been commercial attempts to launch new web entities that make a virtue of well-reported public-interest journalism. Flame-outs in that category include the Mark News and OpenFile. One survivor is iPolitics — backed by private investors and still afloat after several years. The Tyee, meanwhile, is hardly robustly funded but has seen success in diversifying its revenue sources and becoming less reliant over time on initial investors.

The Tyee was singled out in “Survival Strategies for Local Journalism,” a 2015 story in the New Yorker, for its “model of diversification” as a route to sustainability. The Vancouver Observer has also had some success with crowd-funding, as has a terrific online terrier focused on climate policy, the BC-based DeSmog.

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Robust, independent, and fearless journalism is essential to the proper, engaged, pluralistic, accountable, and transparent functioning of our democracy. Or, to quote from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, news and information are “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.” 


Canadian philanthropy is delinquent in its almost total absence of support for good journalism, abdicating what should be a leadership role in enabling widespread and effective dissemination of progressive thought in a country that spent a decade being beaten black and Tory blue by Stephen Harper. 


Progressive organizations and forces have been losing the battle for narrative, and the lack of diverse and independent media constricts the passages through which it is possible to argue for positive social change and policy reform. 


While one would like to think that all journalism is, by definition, public-interest journalism, the fact is that most of it is not, and public-interest journalism has suffered most of all from a combination of spending cuts and the ensuing declines in content and competence in our mainstream media. 


Our ability to help shape a culture of innovation, and to advance transformative change in Canada, is hobbled by the narrowness of a national conversation that is constantly circumscribed by economic and political forces that are the antithesis of a transparent, engaged and fully functioning democracy. 


It is especially urgent for Canadians to continue and indeed to expand upon the conversation with Aboriginal communities that was started — but by no means finished — by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 


With the accelerating urbanization of Canada, rural communities — and especially Aboriginal reserve communities — are hardest hit by the service declines in our media. 


A new, Reconciliation-centric narrative for Canada is unlikely to emerge with anything like the moral and intellectual force that the times demand without a media landscape that reflects the diversity, creativity, and cultural complexity of the country, and the many demands of and on its citizenry. 


Existing media tools for disseminating knowledge and practice — particularly in areas of policy reform, and even more when spotlighting social complexity, poor service delivery, and outright dysfunction — are mostly ill suited to the task. 


Our major newspapers, in particular, are in thrall to big business — energy industries most of all, but also developers, finance industries, and other natural-resource players — sectors that, ironically, are becoming less and less reliable as sources of revenue for media.

Ian Gill, who founded Ecotrust Canada in the 1990s, recently returned full-time to journalism as president of Discourse Media, a Vancouver-based digital startup: http://discoursemedia.org/ Follow him on Twitter @Gillwave

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