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Archive for November 2017

In British Columbia, There’s a Good News Story about the News

A digital news ecology is flowering through ‘coopetition’ — as Media Democracy Day will showcase November 18.

By David Beers

Hidden by gloomy tales of the decline of North America’s news media is a success story in southwestern British Columbia.

Here, a cluster of digital outlets have flowered by paying for top notch investigative and solutions-focused reporting. They are forging new business models and training the next wave of journalists.

Taken together, they form a news media ecosystem in which surviving means competing but also collaborating. Yes, each vies to break stories and attract money. But they also sometimes republish each other’s pieces, pool resources or team up.

“Coopetition” is one way to describe this style of ecology.

Who are its creatures? They include: The Tyee founded in 2003 in Vancouver. Megaphone Magazine, Vancouver’s street paper and website founded in 2006. DeSmog Canada, founded in 2013 in Victoria. Discourse Media, founded in 2013 in Vancouver. Hakai Magazine, founded in 2015 in Victoria. TheNational Observer founded in 2015 as an arm of the 2006 Vancouver ObserverThe Global Reporting Centre founded in 2016, a non-profit growing out of the International Reporting Program at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

It’s a remarkable list, representing millions of dollars in journalism budgets, a combined staff larger than the Vancouver Sun-Province reporter pool, numerous major awards, a steady stream of high-impact work, and millions of page views per month.

Some of the big ground broken in this little region:

  • The Tyee launched the 100-Mile Diet, helping spark the local food movement, and has reported early and continuously on fixing the housing affordability crisis. With no paywall, it’s nearly majority reader supported, with some philanthropic funding plus investment from a labour-tied fund.
  • The National Observer’s energy sector investigations have rocked Ottawa and forced resignations. It mixes revenues from paywall subscribers, philanthropies and other sources.
  • Discourse Media, which specializes in deeply reported projects it terms “collaborative”, is now offering its readers a chance to co-own the company as it aggressively pursues growth.
  • The non-profit Global Reporting Centre, whose mission is to innovate how global journalism is practiced and cover neglected issues worldwide, has crowdsourced storytellers to document the rise of xenophobia.
  • Hakai Magazine, backed by the Tula Foundation and tied to Hakai Institute, covers coastal science, ecology and communities. It pays top rates for stories from around the world, and has an in-house team producing frequently viral videos.
  • A single video interview about Site C dam published by non-profit DeSmog Canada drew 1.6 million views. It mixes funding from readers and philanthropies.

While these orgs aren’t muscling aside B.C. megafauna like the CBC, Globe and Mail, Postmedia and Huffington Post, they serve as “tip sheets” for those newsrooms, who often pick up their stories and run their own versions. In this way the smaller fry contribute to the public conversation by means rarely highlighted.

Increasingly, too, B.C.’s small independents are collaborating directly with traditional media:

  • The Tyee has partnered with the CBC on series about Indigenous education best practices, and affordable homes,
  • The National Observer is producing with the Toronto Star, Global News and others a major project tracking oil industry influence, in partnership with investigative journalism students from across the country,
  • Discourse Media helped research a Maclean’s feature on Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons,
  • DeSmog Canada worked closely with Aboriginal People’s Television Network Investigates on a Site C piece,
  • And Megaphone is joining with the CBC on a series about preventing overdoses.

What is emerging here is a good news story about the future of news, one worth paying attention to across Canada and beyond.

As the collapse of advertising revenues is threatening to kill Canada’s major newspaper chain, B.C.’s indies are far less dependent on ad dollars for their survival.

At a moment when trivial click-bait is said to rule, experiments in BC are instead pumping out in-depth, public interest journalism.

And the net result is a more fully informed citizenry, a healthier democracy.

Why did B.C. become home to Canada’s most vibrant news ecosystem? Credit the wellspring of creativity here — the province’s beauty and potential has long attracted change makers.

Credit, as well, a backlash empowered by digital tech. For decades, corporations headquartered in Central Canada have owned this province’s news giants and their content reflected it. The pent-up appetite for home grown media spawned upstarts rooted in B.C. culture and interests. That can irritate some outsiders. Alberta Oil magazine fretted that the “The Vancouver School” of journalism was too effectively making the case against pipelines connecting the oil sands to B.C.’s coast.

A more detailed map of media innovators in this province could include people behind many projects based elsewhere. British Columbians helped start, for example, the political site Ricochet, the foreign policy site OpenCanada,and The Conversation Canada, where academics share their findings in opinion pieces.

Fold in, too, B.C.’s advocates using media to mobilize and educate, groups including The Dogwood Initiative (environment), Karmik Opioid Crisis Response (drug harm reduction), Affinity Bridge (digital democracy), Fresh Voices (vulnerable youth), OpenMedia (Internet freedom) and many more.

For anyone interested in diving into this region’s dynamic scene, Vancouver Media Democracy Day offers a perfect opportunity on November 18 at the public library’s central branch downtown. Most of the entities mentioned above, and many more, will be on hand. Some will showcase their work. There will be workshops, roundtables, networking.

B.C. is home to an expanding media sector needing people to help it grow. If that’s news to you, Media Democracy Day is the place to plug in.

David Beers, an adjunct professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University and of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, is a co-organizer of Media Democracy Day 2017, and founding editor of The Tyee.

What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Solutions Media’?

This year’s Media Democracy Day in Vancouver looks for answers in a range of experiments.

By David Beers

Only one in nine Canadians say they have “a great deal of trust” in mainstream news media, according to an Ipsos poll conducted last year. The percentage is even lower among younger people aged 18-34. What’s eroding that trust?

Perceptions, no doubt, that too much media is soft on facts, strong on spin, even…fake.

But here’s another potential reason. Too much of our news media focuses on “What went wrong yesterday and who is to blame?” Too rarely does our news media investigate: “What might go right tomorrow? And who is showing the way?”

Yet citizens yearn to learn about examples of positive change. If we don’t know what is working, we can’t vote and push for more of it. Identifying potential solutions to our society’s challenges is key to our public conversation.  Solutions seekers skilled in the ways of media – reporting facts, explaining ideas in clear words and pictures – are vital to a healthy democracy.

So vital, that Solutions Media is the theme for this year’s Vancouver Media Democracy Day (MDD) – a day of workshops, roundtables and design jamming to be held November 18 at the Vancouver Public Library from 10 am to 6 pm.

When I and other MDD organizers we went looking for Solutions Media in our region we found several strands.

The first strand is solutions-focused journalism practiced, some days, by the CBC and corporate media, but increasingly done by digital independents such as Discourse Media, The National Observer, DeSmog Canada, Megaphone Magazine, Hakai Magazine and, a North American pioneer in this area, The Tyee Solutions Society. These entities report on solutions at least three ways.

  1. They may report on a successful local experiment which could be scaled up — for example, the lives saved by the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, now being replicated across Canada.
  2. They may tell us about solutions happening elsewhere — for example, the fact that all of Holland’s electric trains run on wind energy, as reported in Victoria-based Hakai Magazine. Could wind and tidal power change the energy equation in B.C?  
  3. Or journalists might live the solution and bring it alive through personal storytelling. That’s what J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith did when they launched the 100-Mile diet – and the local food revolution – on The Tyee back in 2005.

A second strand of Solutions Media includes social innovators who use media creatively to solve the issues they are tackling. Media Democracy Day will showcase some of these, including how Affinity Bridge employs data visualization to tell First Nations success stories; how Dogwood Initiative used digital tools to press for reform of B.C.’s political donations “wild west;” and how Karmik uses social media to alert youth about safe practices amidst the opioid crisis.  

A third strand includes news model innovators — actors striving to find solutions to the crisis in media itself. How, in an era when Facebook and Google are sucking up most ad dollars and traditional news business models are crumbling, can we re-invent media to fit this new era?

To see if we can come up with creative solutions to this very question, Vancouver MDD will be hosting an interactive “design jam” led by Vancouver Design Nerds – an organization founded in 2004 that “promotes, facilitates, and supports positive social, environmental and urban transformation by providing a platform for face-to-face creative collaboration.” The MDD design jam will come up with concrete ideas for making media more trustworthy and sustainable – attendees are invited to not watch, but participate in the solutions-making.

Digital tools and engaged citizens are driving a new era for Solutions Media. Vancouver’s Media Democracy Day, this year and going forward, wants to be a hub and showcase for the vibrant scene in this corner of Canada.  


David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society, and an adjunct professor at University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.