8 Dec 2010

Series Discusses Failures of Mainstream Media
and the Challenges Facing Public Interest Journalism

Mainstream media is failing to meet the needs of Canadians. News organizations lack the resources to cover many important stories and investigative journalism has all but been eliminated. Too often, corporate-owned media continues to filter and censor the news.  With traditional media failing society, can public and alternative media make inroads and provide Canadians with quality news, information, and opinion?

This seven-part series was written at the height of the mainstream media collapse, during the winter of 2010, but many of the observations still apply today.  Corporate-owned media has gone through a dramatic reorganization during which editorial staffs were decreased by as much as 40 per cent in some cases. This series discusses how public interest, non-profit media can expand in Canada.

The articles are as follows: 

Part 1: Canwest latest ‘media giant’ to exploit news operations
Part II: Why we must limit the influence of corporate media
Part III: Globe’s pro-business reporting example of bad journalism
Part IV: Sustainable independent media needs a breakthrough
Part V: Could a ‘mini-paper’ nip at the heels of mainstream press?
Part VI: Independent media advocates must develop creative news sites
Part VII:  Funding for non-profit media or public interest activities 

7 Dec 2010

Part 1:
Canwest latest 'media giant' to exploit news operation

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

The long-anticipated collapse of the Asper family's Canwest Global media empire -- which included 11 daily newspapers, the Global TV network of 11 stations, 13 specialty TV channels and more than 80 websites -- in October 2009 was the latest development in the shameful history of corporate-owned media in Canada.

Canwest and other media corporations claim to care about quality journalism, but they've deceived Canadians for decades -- censoring news to protect their profits, pandering to the interests of the corporate world, and neglecting to invest adequately in their news operations.

The Aspers have been the worst of a bad lot. In a bid to create one of the world's largest media companies, Leonard Asper unwisely used every penny of credit he could get his hands on to buy other media companies, including some in Australia and Turkey. But then millions of dollars in advertising left the Canwest TV network and newspapers for the Internet and, at the same time, businesses began to reduce their newspaper ads. So, revenue problems, added to the company's debt difficulties, created a financial crisis for Canwest. In response, Leonard, in a desperate effort to save the family's empire, knocked the stuffing out of what already had been largely mediocre news operations across the country, rendering the papers and the TV network bone-bare and demoralizing hundreds of employees.

The Canwest cuts are the largest ever carried out by a corporate media company in Canada. While many people lost their jobs or had their pensions reduced, about 20 top executives received bonuses of about $490,000 on average in addition to their already substantial salaries. The Aspers' debts include $50-million owed to us -- the Canadian taxpayers -- as well as payments due to the Canada Media Fund, which was established by the federal government as way to help small, money-losing TV stations.

Poor quality papers and low salaries


Over the years, other "bad boys" have exploited their Canadian media properties instead of investing adequately in their news operations. I know this personally, having spent the first four years of my career writing for three of the worst newspaper companies in the country: the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the Thomson-owned Charlottetown Guardian, and K.C. Irving's Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B

I recall the Telegraph-Journal as being a dreadful place to work in the late 1960s. Despite the fact that K.C. was a billionaire and that the company made millions from its near-media monopoly in the province, everyone in the Saint John newsroom was poorly paid. I suspected one editor didn't make enough to look after his family of five. Most journalists lived in fear of the newspaper's publisher, Ralph Costello. Every evening, when Costello trudged his way through the newsroom, making his ritual stop to have a sip at the water cooler, the place went totally silent. The paper, void of personality, was often used to either promote or protect the Irving Empire. One night as we were getting ready to publish a photo of a police checkpoint at the New Brunswick-Quebec border, we had to blackout the image of an Irving Oil sign that happened to appear in an upper corner of the photo.

For decades powerful media corporations like the Irvings have decided what news Canadians should read, hear, and see. By reading just about any Canadian daily newspaper it's not hard to see how the values of corporate-owned media are quite different from the values and interests of the majority of Canadians. Corporate media tend to favour right-wing political ideas, pay a lot of attention to the views of the powerful and rich, but not make a priority of dealing with issues such as income inequality among Canadians or poverty reduction. (How corporate-owned media filters the news to suit their own interests will be dealt with in Part 2 of this series of articles.)

An example of corporate-media priorities: During November, a number of newspapers gave page after page over to business experts chattering about the various burps of the financial markets, while a landmark report that one in 10 Canadian children live in poverty was covered in one story in most papers, with no follow up. When media gives little attention to an issue such as child poverty, they're abandoning one of their vital roles -- helping protect the rights of those in society who are powerless to protect themselves.

Corporate-owned media losing its hold on the public

But times in the media world are changing, and the stranglehold corporate media has had on the news is changing too! Corporate-owned media, particularly the newspaper sector, is struggling financially and is losing readers. At the same time, the Internet is becoming the preferred source of news for a growing number of people. Traditional media -- and by this I mean corporate-owned newspapers, TV and radio -- are losing millions of dollars in advertising because Internet sites such as craigslist provide free classifieds. And when a newspaper sets up its own website, an ad that sold for $1,000 in its paper brings in only about $100 on the Internet. Then there are the millions of dollars traditional media has lost because of the poor economy.

So far the country has had only one daily newspaper close, the Halifax Daily News, because of economic problems. On the TV side, CTVglobemedia closed its station in Brandon, and Canwest Global closed down operations in Red Deer.

One way that Canwest and Torstar, the corporate owner of The Toronto Star, are going to save money is a little unsavory: They're firing highly skilled production workers and editors and contracting out their jobs to companies that will pay other workers much lower wages. Almost certainly other papers will do the same thing.

The entire television sector is in flux with the television companies and cable firms fighting over whether cable should pay to carry television signals, and the CRTC seemingly afraid to make a decision for fear it will be overruled by the government. With more specialty channels coming into the mix all the time, and the prospect of a lot more people watching programming directly via the Internet, the three main networks that the public relies on for most of its TV news -- CTV, Global and the CBC -- are likely to lose viewers, have financial difficulties, and face the prospect of further cuts to their news budgets.

Budget cuts result in poorer quality of news

Because of severe budget cutbacks, most newsrooms across the country are operating with far fewer resources than in the past, and its showing.

A scan of several daily papers reveals a serious shortage of in-dept, thoughtful articles dealing with important issues. There's weak reporting by inexperienced journalists, gaps in coverage, and a failure to follow up on big stories. At the same time, considerable space is given over to dubious material: page after page is devoted to crime of all sorts, entertainment, fawning profiles of prominent people, U.S. stories written as though we were Americans, and too many "man bites dog" stories. Many weekly newspapers -- once a source of interesting, colorful local information -- have been snapped up by media corporations, and their unique character has been destroyed.

The quality of much of the country's TV and radio news reporting has also fallen off. In particular, both CTV and Global national and local TV news programs are loaded with stories picked up from the U.S. networks that are basically "filler" and of little interest to most Canadians. Serious journalism is ignored in favour of "infotainment." At the CBC, corporation executives turned Newsworld into a hyped, superficial, all-news channel, despite the fact that Canadians already have access to four similar channels. Graham Spry, the father of the CBC, has probably rolled over in his grave more than once because of the deterioration of the once-proud news service.

Will new owners invest adequately in Canwest papers?

Meanwhile, the fate of 10 former Canwest daily papers -- which could be considered the backbone of daily journalism across much of the country -- is in the hands of creditors who are looking for buyers. Historically, the papers have been vital to the development and well-being of their communities. Included are the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Montreal Gazette, The Ottawa Citizen, the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, the Vancouver Province, The Vancouver Sun, the Victoria Times Colonist and The Windsor Star.

The Globe and Mail reported in October that National Post president Paul Godfrey, formerly head of the Sun chain of papers, had secured the support of enough investors to make a bid for several or all of the 10 papers. Torstar, publisher of The Toronto Star, may bid for some of the Ontario papers, so there could be some rival bidding. No matter who acquires the papers, the most important question is whether the diminished economic realities will allow the new owners to restore the papers' editorial departments to their previous levels of operation.

Circulation drops over the decades

Of all our traditional media, we should be most concerned about the future of daily newspapers because they're the source of most of our news, even the news that's available from dozens of Internet sites. Unfortunately, the decline of daily newspapers in Canada is mirrored in their declining circulation. This falling off of sales didn't coincide with the growth of Internet use -- as a matter of fact, it began almost 60 years ago. Research carried out by Kenneth Goldstein of Communications Management Inc. of Winnipeg shows that during the 1950s the number of newspaper subscriptions exceeded the number of Canadian households. Last year, the equivalent of only 35 per cent of households had paid subscriptions.

Roger Parkinson, a former publisher of The Globe and Mail, said in an e-mail exchange that daily papers are in financial trouble because the traditional for-profit media model is broken. He said the costs of newsprint, printing and paper distribution are too expensive in light of the reduced revenue expectations. The papers with the best chance of surviving, Parkinson said, are "very high quality national papers with a thin, high demographic, highly educated audience who want and need specialized, high quality news and analysis, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail."

Future of traditional journalism can't be predicted

Some of the world's leading media experts say they don't know what the future holds for traditional journalism. Chris Elliott, managing editor of the U.K. Guardian, which operates the world's most successful news web site, said in an e-mail message that he doesn't know how much quality journalism will be possible. "I think we will just need to have a lower cost base for many years while the revenue models re-calibrate. When Woodward and Bernstein broke Watergate in 74/75, the [Washington] Post had 320 journalists. Two years ago it had 90, now it has around 60 I believe. I think that says it all."

A huge unknown factor is whether traditional media companies will be able to obtain large amount of money from charging for website content. Various marketing schemes are being developed that allow Internet users to get the first few stories free, but then they'd have to pay per article at a certain point. The editor of The Financial Times in the U.K., Lionel Barber, predicts that "almost all" news organizations will be charging for online content in less than a year.

If Barber is right, and if there aren't too many news outlets that continue to give away information for free, traditional media companies will be able to tap into additional revenues, but it's still too soon to say if those revenues will be enough to support quality journalism.

The public entrusted the corporate media decades ago with the responsibility of providing quality journalism. If, as the economy picks up, traditional media companies are unable to provide Canadians with news and information of high quality, what then? If corporate media manage to develop a new model that allows them to make reasonable profits, will they restore their news departments to the levels of a year ago? The history of media cutbacks in Canada shows that once journalists have been let go, they're not usually replaced even when companies become highly profitable.

Citizens groups need to set up independent news outlets

With media companies unable to provide the news we need, and not knowing if they'll rebuild their news services, I believe that the time is ripe for groups of people to explore setting up inexpensive, independent media outlets that could provide their communities with quality news and information. Non-profit media outlets could provide an alternative to corporate-owned media and their right-wing bias.

Considering the many challenges we face -- from massive income disparity here at home to the crisis of global climate change -- it's important that people who care about the future get involved in creating a more open and democratic media that would make a priority of dealing with society's most important issues. Responsible media is one of the four cornerstones of democracy so it should be operated by people who have the public's best interests at heart. (My belief that the best, and perhaps only, way for us to have trustworthy, independent media in the future, will be to have partial arms-length support from government, will be discussed later in the series.)

People from all backgrounds -- universities, faith-based organizations, labour organizations, community groups, journalism schools, as well as journalists -- could work together to create new, exciting media projects.

6 Dec 2010

Part II:
Why we must limit the influence of corporate media

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

WARNING: News from corporate-owned media is bad for our country's health!

Traditional for-profit media, including our daily newspapers, radio and TV news, filter out all kinds of information they don't want us to get our hands on. This filtering process includes many kinds of stories, including reports that would offend advertisers but, if carried, would alert the public to things such as improper corporate behaviour. Corporate-owned media also slant the content of stories so that, for instance, some stories paint a negative picture of organized labour, protest groups or some environmental organizations.

On the other hand, what corporate media does allow to pass freely through the filter are all kinds of stories that tout capitalism as being good for everyone. They endorse free-market economic practices, even though such policies tend to make the poor even poorer and the rich richer. For instance, between 1980 and 2005, a period when unrestricted capitalism dominated life in the country, median earnings among Canada's top income earners rose more than 16 per cent while those in the bottom fifth saw their wages dip by 20 per cent.

News editors know which topics can't be covered

Traditional news departments follow unwritten but well-understood guidelines concerning what they should not cover. Most people in the newsrooms have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in corporate ideology that they seldom suggest a story that falls outside of the guidelines.

When a contentious story comes along, its fate is determined away from the newsroom, behind closed doors. And management sees to it that only the editors they approve of make key decisions about what stories are covered in the news. In response to a survey conducted in 2007, some 60 per cent of a cross-section of more than 600 journalists from for-profit newspapers, TV and radio said that the values and politics of their corporate owners had an effect on the editorial agenda of their news organization.

"The people that get promoted to positions of responsibility in a newsroom," says author and columnist Linda McQuaig, "tend to be people who share the views of those who ultimately own the paper, or are willing to go along with those points of view." She has first-hand knowledge of how the newspaper power structure works from her years as a business reporter for The Globe and Mail. "If you don't [share such views], you don't tend to get promoted into those positions."

Serious news censorship to protect profits began more than 100 years ago, when newspaper owners found that they could get rich from selling advertising. They quickly stopped publishing stories that would in any way offend their advertisers. While this practice still helps the media companies' bottom line, it prevents the public from having access to all kinds of information, including reports that might alert someone to problems at a company they're doing business with, or to a company using bad business practices.

Nowadays, traditional media companies occasionally carry individual stories about the transgressions of corporations. When there are such stories, they are usually buried in a paper's business section. When a corporation is convicted of a crime, most traditional media editors would say that it involved "just one bad apple in the barrel." But, in truth, there are countless bad apples in the barrel -- corporations charged and convicted of price fixing, bribery, industrial espionage and tax fraud, among other wrongs.

Media covers street crime, but not corporate crime

But Canadian media companies do not cover the world of corporate crime in a way that would alert the public to the extent of the problem or that would act as a deterrent to corporations. The media companies apparently prefer to have lots of reporters covering criminal courts or following the police as they catch petty criminals, but not reporting on corporate criminals who cost the North American economy billions of dollars each year.

Meanwhile, a small but long-established U.S. magazine, Multinational Monitor, does report on the activities of big corporations. Each year it publishes a list of "The 10 Worst Corporations." Six of the ten companies on its most recent U.S. list also do business in Canada. An Internet search of several Canadian newspapers turned up no coverage of the cases cited by the magazine.

In the same way that the traditional news media show little interest in reporting on corporate crime, they make little effort to investigate and alert the public to situations concerning faulty goods and products. If newspapers wanted to attract readers and show they care about consumers, they could take their journalists who write "puff pieces" for the Cars or Homes promotion sections and have them investigate possible consumer fraud situations. Obviously, media that are primarily driven by advertising revenue are not going to take on this kind of journalism. This is simply another conflict area in which for-profit media cannot -- or will not -- provide the kind of service that the public needs.

Powerful people get lots of media ink

The corporate media give inordinate weight to the views of powerful people in business and people in positions of authority. But they pay meagre, and almost never positive, attention to people from less powerful groups, such as the poor, white-collar workers, unionized workers, feminist groups and environmental organizations. The result is that organizations representing the interests of millions of Canadians have little if any voice in the mainstream media.

Corporate media have done their bit to advance the decline of the organized labour movement. When reporting on labour, news media tend to focus heavily on the "damage" done by strikes while sparing only a few lines, if that, for explanations about the workers going on strike, for example, to prevent "take-backs" by companies or government. Ed Finn, a long-time labour journalist with The Toronto Star and now editor of The CCPA Monitor, the publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says that the media treat organized labour unfairly: "Most union conventions get no press at all. Coverage of a labour-related story (usually a strike) is left to general reporters with little or no knowledge of unions, union history or structure, collective bargaining, labour laws, or any other aspect of labour relations."

Because alternative economic or social views -- such as those of the labour movement -- are seldom presented in a positive light in traditional media, the public can only assume that either there are not any alternative ideas or, if there are, they must be impractical.

Management often interferes in the news decision process

Although it is acceptable for media owners to decide which political party their company will endorse during an election, as a rule managers should not interfere in the day-to-day news decision-making process. They should certainly never change the meaning of a story. But both actions are regular occurrences. This sort of interference is just as prevalent at the CBC as it is at corporate media organizations. Here are some quickies:

• During the tense times in the 1970s when the future of Quebec was hotly debated, Toronto Star desk editors frequently changed the copy of their Quebec reporters so that the stories would reflect badly on the separatist movement.

• I worked with CBC-Radio's The World at Six for two or three years. During that time, perhaps a couple of times a week a CBC mid-level manager would wander over to the line-up editor, make a comment or two or ask a question, and, presto, the nature of a story would be changed.

• Over the past three years in Toronto, both the Star and Globe and Mail showed their dislike for NDP mayor David Miller and his politics by running story after story critical of the mayor.

• Many years ago I was publisher of the weekly muckraking newspaper The 4th Estate in Halifax. The city's daily paper, The Chronicle-Herald, was very proudly Nova Scotian. In fact, publisher Graham Dennis was so concerned about protecting Nova Scotia's reputation that he censored and would not publish certain stories that reflected badly on the province. This was a great boon for my little weekly, as a couple of frustrated and angry Herald reporters more than once arrived at my office bearing copy for unprinted Herald stories in their hands. We got some nice exclusive front-page stories that way.

The Globe: The best and the biased

The Globe and Mail, the newspaper that I and some 325,000 people read and rely on every morning, is perhaps both the best but also the most biased of the dailies in the country. I say the best because its various sections have so many skilled reporters who provide what is probably the best journalism anywhere. I say the most biased because, first of all, its Report on Business -- the most influential news section of its kind in the country -- is an extremely partial publication that lacks the ethics to background its stories with pertinent information. You could even say that the RoB does not operate in the best interests of the majority of Canadians because it publishes unbalanced journalism that paints a false picture of many important issues, and its pages harbour rabid right-wing columnists who if they had their way, it seems to me, would have children working in the coal mines again.

Secondly, a large majority of the op-ed pieces and columns in the main section of the Globe are right-wing, often coming from corporate-financed front groups like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute who are usually pushing ideas that are not in the public interest. Add to this the Globe's safe and conservative editorials, and the right-wing views of regular columnists Christie Blatchford, Rex Murphy, Marcus Gee and Margaret Wente, and you have a publication that is not the reasonable, balanced publication that the Globe purports to be, but a truly right-wing publication.

Adding this all up, I'd say that the country is in need of a balanced and responsible daily newspaper.

Chill causes journalists to censor their work

Two powerful ideologies -- ultra-conservatism in politics and free-enterprise corporate ideology -- have reached into the newsrooms of the country and left a chilling effect. The range of free expression that both journalists and columnists/panelists feel comfortable in occupying has narrowed considerably. Self-censorship is now a widespread problem. Journalists tend to suggest only stories that fit into the accepted norm, which might help explain why most Canadian dailies are so vacuous these days.

Columnists and commentators have adopted a different method of self-censorship to try to protect themselves. It used to be that many journalists who had the luxury of their own column, or the chance to appear as a commentator on a political program, expressed their opinion in no uncertain terms. Now many columnists and TV panelists blather on about a politician's strategy to get out of a tight spot, or speculate about what a politician might do next to advance their careers, but that's about it.

One of the most surprising, and disappointing, examples of self-censorship appears week after week on CBC-TV's The National. The highly touted Thursday night panel, with host Peter Mansbridge joined by panelists Andrew Coyne, Chantal Hebért and Alan Gregg, offers an extremely well-informed group who can talk with great clarity -- but about things that don't mean a damn in Weyburn or Weymouth. A lot of the time they talk "spin" about "spin." I don't know if they actually realize the reason why they perform in the way they do: that is, because of the wider environment of self-censorship in which such programs have operated in for so many years. Except for hard-core politicos, the segment leaves most real folk no better informed about real issues then when they tuned in.

It is probably impossible to rid the news media of self-censorship. But considering that self-censorship is a practice that severely undermines freedom of the press in Canada, there is surely a worthwhile task here for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and PEN Canada. The two groups could conduct an informal investigation of conditions at several media outlets to determine the extent of chill and self-censorship. This could be followed by the publication of a report, which would bring the problem out into the open and possibly even lead to a decrease in self-censorship.

The public is well aware that journalists are not able to report freely. A 2008 public survey conducted for the Canadian Newspaper Association (CAN) by the Canadian Media Research Consortium reported that only 37.3 per cent of those questioned believed that journalists can freely report the news.

Independent media would be much better for us

Journalism in Canada should not be so firmly in the grip of corporate-owned media. The news filtering and information manipulation that goes on every day infringes on our right to have access to all media, and not just the stories and reports that editors hidden somewhere allow us to see. Moreover, when you take into consideration all the censoring that occurs and pro-business bias, our traditional media would be much different if it were independent and not relying on advertising revenue.

Unfortunately, thousands of fine, hard-working journalists are in this up to their necks. Journalists and editors have become so accustomed to living by the unwritten laws of corporate journalism that they turn a blind eye to how they are really part of what has to be considered a conspiracy -- a massive, well orchestrated effort to prevent the public from obtaining fair and balanced information that is vital to the functioning of society and democracy.

Part III:
Globe's pro-business reporting example of bad journalism

This is the third of a seven-part series that will address the need to develop independent media -- print, broadcast and Internet based -- in Canada.
Staff reporters at the country's most prominent business news publication, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business, are at it again -- distorting an important issue: the possible sale of Ontario Crown corporations by neglecting to include vital information that could have balanced their reports.

But before I get into the specifics of the story, I want to provide some background concerning the growth of biased business journalism in Canada in recent years. While journalism catering to the business community has been a specialty area for many decades, I recall when media companies began to focus heavily on business journalism.

In 1978 I was one of a small group of journalists who helped establish the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), now the Canadian Association of Journalists (CJFE). Our "how-to" conferences and other activities were a hit with many journalists, and we were cautiously supported by several media companies and the CBC. The mainstream seemed to have an interest in expanding investigative journalism.

But by the mid-1980s conservative and right-wing ideas had become dominant in Canada, and most large media companies, instead of providing investigative and in-depth journalism, were greatly expanding the space for business journalism to attract increasing amounts of advertising dollars. A number of excellent journalists I knew were not able to land good jobs in the regular news sections of newspapers and reluctantly took work as business journalists.

Of course, capitalist newspapers have long existed primarily to sell advertising. To make certain that corporate advertisers would support the business sections, media companies perfected a particular brand of journalism that would not offend advertisers and that matched the narrowly focused, pro-business opinions of the corporate world. Most business news stories and columns carefully catered to the needs of businessmen and investors. Fawning profiles of "the champions of business" regularly appeared. The sections tended not to include information that was critical of business or in conflict with corporate ideology, or that dealt with the interests of other groups.

Today this brand of business-biased journalism is widely practised throughout the country. Virtually all of Canada's 98 city newspapers as well as the two national dailies have special business sections that sometimes are larger than the paper's regular news sections. One small-city chain has a weekly page called "Money." At least half a dozen magazines are devoted entirely to business, and the country has hundreds of business trade publications. In addition, dozens of U.S. business publications flood across the border into Canada.

With the exception of some safely targeted investigative journalism and some policing of usually rogue businesses, most of these publications are biased and strongly pro-business in their standard mode of operation.

Globe coverage illustrates the pro-business model

The Globe's coverage of the possible sale of Ontario Crown corporations in mid-December provides an excellent case study of what is wrong with most business journalism.

In the Globe's Dec. 16, 2009 front news section, two journalists who normally write for the RoB authored a front-page story: "Ontario looks to unload Crown corporations."

The story, which was attributed to "unnamed investment bankers," said the Ontario government was considering various ways of selling either all or part of a number of Crown corporations, including the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Hydro One and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. The objective would be to raise money with the goal of reducing the province's $24.7-billion deficit.

The idea of governments selling Crown assets is controversial. In recent years neo-liberal governments in many Western countries that believe in privatization and an unfettered market economy have sold off dozens of Crown corporations. Sales have taken place over the protests of a large percentage of the population who believe that government should control vital public resources, such as power generation and transmission, transportation, water regulation and culture, as well as agencies that require strong oversight, such as gambling and liquor.

The Globe story dealt extensively with how the government could proceed with the sale and what its strategy might be. According to these writers, "The potential paydays for the government could be huge should it move ahead." They failed to seriously discuss any of several arguments against such sales. They did not quote anyone who might have provided balance to the story, and failed to point out that, earlier in his political career, Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty was opposed to such sales.

Curious to find out why such an important front-page story so seriously lacked balance, I emailed a few questions to Globe Publisher John Stackhouse and the two RoB reporters. In response to my question about why no dissenting opinions were included in the story, one of the reporters emailed back that this was because they "were writing to a tight space" and to meet a deadline. He said that future articles would "look at the trade-off between selling assets and raising taxes to fund deficit spending," as well as other matters.

But on the very next day the Globe again failed to produce a balanced picture of the Crown corporation selloff idea. A follow-up news story in the RoB, written by one of the RoB reporters and a news department reporter, was nearly as poorly balanced as the first story. A column by Adam Radwanski assured readers that "Talk of selling Ontario assets is completely serious."

And a Globe editorial concluded that the province should sell the corporations "if the price is right."

Articles all but ignore opposing point of view

Over the two-day period, the Globe devoted 90 column inches to this story. It gave only seven of the 90 inches to criticism -- and token criticism at that -- of the sale idea.

Incidentally, all three of the letters to the editor that the Globe published on this issue were opposed to the concept of selling the resources. The Toronto Star, a more liberal paper, ran a lengthy story and an editorial that cautioned against rushing into a sale. Surprisingly, to me at least, the avowedly right-wing National Post strongly condemned any sale in an editorial.

How the Globe handled this important story presents a classic case study of how business news publications and business sections in Canada tend to publish biased and unbalanced stories.

No obligation to balance stories: It is clear from this Globe story -- and many others handled in a similar way -- that RoB reporters are under no obligation to balance the information in their stories. Articles tend to be written from the point of view of the business community, and in a way that favours business interests.

No "experts" with alternative opinions included: None of the four Globe items included significant or in-depth comment from any one of a number of Canadian economists who have expert knowledge concerning the privatization of government assets.

Long-term financial benefits not considered: The articles gave no comparison of the financial benefits that could arise from the government operating the agencies over, say, a 20-year period vs. the benefits of selling part or all of the assets. (Three of the Crown corporations in question had profits totaling nearly $2 billion in 2008, and a fourth had a profit of $1.7 billion in 2007, the most recent year for which financial information was available.)

Alternative income sources not discussed: the Globe stories failed to discuss any possible alternative revenues for the province, such as whether high-income earners should have their taxes increased to help meet Ontario's deficit. High-income earners are paying less in total taxes compared to a few years ago, which is one of the reasons for Ontario's deficit. A once "fair" tax system has been dismantled to the point that, as economist Marc Lee has pointed out, "astonishingly, the richest 1% of families also now pay a lower tax rate than the poorest 10%."

This failure to write about taxes as a possible source of revenue suggests that the reporters working on the privatization story did not see raising this possibility as being relevant enough to be included in a business story. I disagree. I believe that every story should be balanced and written in way that appeals to any reader, not just those with a special interest in business.

One-sided journalism is practised routinely by business reporters and columnists across the country. In addition to providing readers with a distorted picture of the news, this "censored" form of journalism fails to hold the corporate community to the same high standards followed in the regular news sections of newspapers. For instance, business journalists rarely include in their articles information concerning areas such as possible ethical breaches of paying a fair wage, environmental damage, occupational hazards and, particularly in international business, human rights violations.

I do not believe that there should be a soft, almost patronizing style of journalism for the business community, while other news reporters are expected to be balanced and fair in coverage aimed at the general public. Given that it is practised knowingly, and on a regular basis, this kind of business journalism must be considered to be unethical.

Footnote: Globe's news stories may have been misleading

While the Globe's news stories said that the main reason for selling of the Crown resources would be to decrease the Ontario deficit, Radwanski's Dec. 17 column suggested otherwise. "In a sense, the scale of the deficit would be more an excuse than the real reason" for selling the government's assets, he wrote. Even before the extent of the deficit was known, "a good number of influential Liberals were arguing the government should respond to its fiscal woes by getting out of businesses it doesn't need to be in -- be it power transmission, liquor sales, gambling, or some combination thereof." Radwanski said that the current argument revolved around whether the government needed to pay attention to its core activities.

Surely the journalists who wrote the news story published on the same day as Radwanski's article must also have been aware of the reasons for the possible sale that the columnist put forward. Yet in the second story the only reason they cited was the pat, easy-to-sell idea of deficit reduction. Had Radwanski's "real reason" for selling been raised, a much different message would have gone out to Globe readers as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the same Globe story picked up by the Canadian Press and dozens of websites -- and that story would have been harder for the government and the backroom boys to sell. No doubt the people behind the story leaked to the Globe -- those "unnamed investment bankers" and others lurking behind the scenes -- were very pleased that the deficit-reduction version of the story was the one that got the public's attention.

I am not at all surprised at the way in which the RoB staffers handled this story. But I must also wonder -- with the slick investment bankers involved in advising the government on whether to sell, with talk of powerful non-elected Liberal backroom boys influencing government policy, businessmen surely licking their chops to get a piece of the multi-billion-dollar action, and with the premier flipping his position on the sale of Crown corporations -- what kind of story might have been developed if this story had been turned over to a crackerjack investigative reporter.

Pro-business journalism should be abandoned

While I have no firm evidence to back up this observation, it is my impression that a high percentage of the people who read the regular news pages of newspapers do not bother to read the business sections. They too find the business journalism style of writing to be poorly balanced and set apart from their own everyday interests and concerns.

Newspapers do have it in their power to make changes that would overhaul business journalism and bring it into the sphere of interest of the general public. This could happen if the media corporations abolished the word "business" in the title of their special sections and instead gave them a different name -- maybe something referring to the concept of "community development." The biggest change would be to abandon forever the concept of business-specific journalism and instead engage all readers in the political and social economy in all its manifestations.

4 Dec 2010

Part IV:
Sustainable independent media needs a breakthrough

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

Canadians might be surprised to discover the difference between the content of independent media and the news and opinion carried and broadcast by corporate-owned media. By "independent media" I mean any news media -- including newspapers, TV and radio news and Internet-based news -- that are independent of government, not heavily dependent on income from advertising and that do not have a corporate or right-wing bias.

Imagine Canada having national and city newspapers and TV news programs and news websites that report fairly on all groups in society, protect the rights of consumers, and cover business in a way that assesses the benefits for all people, not just business owners and investors. The result would be a journalism that contributes to the creation of a more equitable and just society.

"Considering the current crisis in big media, now is the time to take independent media to the next level," Marie Elliott, a communications student, and Steve Anderson of OpenMedia.ca wrote in an article for rabble.ca. "There is a window of opportunity right now, and that window can and will close if we don't take this challenge seriously."

Independent media outlets would most likely be set up as non-profit entities, with diverse sources of income (and without advertising playing a determining editorial role). In the case of a national media outlet, the enterprise would be controlled by a group of people from across the country. A local media project would be controlled by people living in that community, who would also determine editorial policy.

I want to suggest a few of the many ways in which independent media organizations would approach news differently compared to the coverage provided by corporate-owned media.

Value people over profits and corporations. The journalism practised would challenge a tax system that greatly favours the rich over the rest of society. It would oppose employment laws that allow businesses to avoid paying reasonable wages and benefits. It would promote improvements to the overall quality of life rather than simply emphasizing the creation of wealth.

Report on the substance of politics. The writers would report on a wide range of political opinion, unlike corporate media, which all but shut out even the moderate left, much less truly radical ideas. Journalists would cover what politicians do, not what they say they will do. They would not assume, as do the for-profit media, that political parties are in power to benefit the public.

Carefully monitor Big Business. Given the domination of Big Business over just about every aspect of society, independent media would cover business and corporations in proportion to their huge influence over most governments and society in general. They would keep a regular watch on the activities of business lobby groups.

Effective reporting and investigative journalism could help protect the public from the exploitation carried out by powerful multinational industrial giants such as:

           - Big Oil (especially how it lobbies against climate change legislation).

           - the pharmaceuticals (involved in kickbacks, illegal pricing).

           - agribusiness (how it promotes GMO as a "tool of social control").

Break down the impact of advertising on the issue of climate change. The mainstream media are "disastrous" on climate change, largely because of their dependence on advertising for income. A minority scientific opinion -- the denial of the impact of global warming -- gets nearly as much regular coverage, especially in opinion pieces, as the majority opinion. The prominent denials are closely connected to the business as usual approach of the advertisers. Independent media could approach the vital issue of climate change very differently. With their diverse sources of income, they would be less subject to the pressures of advertisers.

With the need for profits overriding any thought of social responsibility, traditional media outlets run ads for non-essential, luxury items that fuel the out-of-control consumerism that is so seriously damaging the environment. This contradiction overrides concerns about climate change. The production of the unnecessary goods advertised not only depletes already scarce global resources but also produces billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. "We have fallen into the trap of believing that economic growth forever is possible and necessary," says David Suzuki. "This is not sustainable, it is suicidal. . . . We have created a system that is completely out of balance with the real world that keeps us alive . . . ."

Establish an openness to radicals and dissidents. Independent media would attempt to be open to all opinions and ideas that are not in violation of the law. The mainstream media claim to be open to all views but, in reality, carry only a token amount of barely left-wing or independent-thinking opinion articles or columnists. Many prominent, controversial people are only occasionally given the opportunity to express their views.

Take a different approach to international coverage. Independent media could strive to correct the distorted "good guys"/ "bad guys" picture of world politics and its leaders that we are fed by corporate media organizations working to protect the global interests of capitalism. They would report on alternative political systems based on how the systems meet the needs of those particular societies, not on whether the countries might be opposed to capitalism. Independent journalists also could focus more on positive developments in underdeveloped countries.

Independent journalists would need superior skills

Journalists working for independent media organizations would need to have superior skills. Journalists coming from the for-profit sector would have to be "deprogrammed" to free them from the programmed and censored thinking of traditional media newsrooms.

In addition, independent media journalists would need to abandon the totally impersonal corporate media "objective" style of journalism. They would instead report and write in a slightly opinionated, but still fair, way, based on a wide knowledge of the area they have been assigned to cover. Perhaps an ideal model to shoot for would be the style of reporting used at The Guardian newspaper and the BBC News in the United Kingdom.

Little independent news media in Canada at present

Unfortunately, Canada has very few independent media outlets. Some independent news and opinion websites are still developing on the Internet, but we have no independent, non-commercial newspapers.

Elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, a non-profit trust created several years ago publishes The Guardian, The Guardian Weekly and The Observer. Together these are among the English-language's most progressive, independent newspapers. The trust also operates the most popular news website in the English language. Editorial policies of the three papers are not tied to any corporate ideology. The trust owns a number of media properties that rely quite heavily on advertising and that funnel money to the trust, which allows the papers to maintain their fierce independence.

As far as I know, Western Europe has only corporate-owned newspapers. But many papers are not as heavily dependent on advertising, which makes up about 45 per cent of their income, compared to more than 70 per cent in Canada during good times. Many European papers have greater editorial integrity and have a strong following. The contrast can be seen in the sales figures. In Sweden, 75 per cent of adults read a newspaper every day. In Canada, a recent study shows that 77 per cent of adults in the six top Canadian markets read a paper one day a week.

A brighter picture on the Internet

The development of strong, independent news and opinion on the Internet in Canada is in its infancy. Hundreds of Canadian media advocates are operating small independent news and opinion websites or managing their own blogs. Unfortunately, few websites and bloggers are producing original research-based journalism. To supplement their original content, they link to opinion pieces and news from other sites, including for-profit sites.

To my knowledge, no Canadian independent website is paying its own way at the present time. Most sites are heavily dependent on low-paid staff and/or volunteers. Even so, people running their own sites see the tremendous advances being made on the Internet as the triumph of communications democracy over the restrictive, outdated ways of "old media."

Three Canadian websites have considerable potential

Of the many small news and opinion websites that have emerged in Canada over the past few years, three stand out for building a small but loyal following and for the potential they hold for further development.

• rabble.ca is a non-profit national site established in 2001 by a group of journalists, academics, and labour and social justice activists. It was founded by Judy Rebick, and open source technology innovators Mark and Tonya Surman. It has more than 140,000 unique visitors per month.

This site hosts columns, articles and blogs, as well as multi-media features that seen integral to the news function of the website: a discussion board, podcasts, video as well as a live online broadcast function.

rabble publishes both orginial and mainstream columns in addition, as well as first run articles and blogs. rabble.ca original columns come from Duncan Cameron, Murray Dobbin (shared with The Tyee), Wayne MacPhail, June Chua, Steve Anderson (also shared with the Tyee) and Am Johal. The pickups include Linda McQuaig, Rick Salutin, Naomi Klein and American Amy Goodman. They also publish blogs by figures including James Laxer and Judy Rebick.

• Straight Goods was set up by Ish Theilheimer as a for-profit online news site in 2000 when he became frustrated by the lack of quality journalism in the mainstream media. The site has more than 50,000 unique visitors per month.

The strongest features on this sites is also its columnists. Some of these are written as original pieces, and some are picked up from the mainstream media. Straight Goods writers include Geoff Stevens, John Baglow, Jamie Swift, Gillian Steward, Paul Weinberg, Mel Watkins and Charles Gordon.

• The Tyee, set up in 2003 by David Beers, a journalist with wide experience, focuses on British Columbia. The Tyee has published some of the best investigative journalism in B.C., and has won several awards. The Tyee has about 164,000 unique users per month.

The Tyee's excellent track record in providing mainstream journalism and investigative reporting shows promise for the continued development of the site. It is also the one Canadian site only slightly dependent on advertising that appears to be within reach of becoming self-sustainable.

Among The Tyee's top contributors are Kim Pollock, Rafe Mair, Bill Tieleman, Michael Geist, Andrew MacLeod, Monte Paulsen and Tom Sandborn.

Because The Tyee covers important stories and issues across British Columbia, it fills in some of the gaping holes left by the provinces' inadequate daily press. Unfortunately, so far no other Internet news site focuses on providing extensive coverage of any other province or city.Because The Tyee covers important stories and issues across British Columbia, it fills in some of the gaping holes left by the provinces' inadequate daily press. Unfortunately, so far no other Internet news site focuses on providing extensive coverage of any other province or city.

• The Dominion is a newer site that has promise. It is an Internet-based monthly newspaper published in Montreal by a network of independent journalists as a media cooperative since May 2003. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage of important issues, domestic and international. Interestingly, The Dominion can be read online or delivered as a print subscription.

The Dominion publishes only monthly and, at the moment, neither rabble.ca nor Straight Goods are striving to become the type of broad-based general news service that could benefit Canadians across the country. Instead, they see themselves as being "alternative" sites. While the "alternative" label serves the important function of bringing together hundreds of like-minded people, it also probably prevents the site from attracting large numbers of apolitical users.

Interestingly, many of the original columns and articles that appear on rabble.ca and Straight Goods are not what you would call radical. Indeed, many of them are perfectly suitable for the mainstream media. However, now that traditional news organizations have reduced their even mild left-wing opinion content, most of these authors would not be welcome.

Corporate-owned media struggling to reach profitability

Corporate-owned news organizations are struggling to develop a business model that will allow them to survive and make healthy profits. Media corporations have lost billions of dollars in advertising to Internet-based companies, and the volume of advertising they have managed to hold onto has been reduced considerably by the unexpected severity of the recession.

Facing a bleak financial picture, for-profit media companies slashed their news budgets and have fired more than 2,000 Canadian journalists. So, for the past year or so, media consumers have not only been experiencing the age-old corporate manipulation of the news, but are now being subjected to a severe reduction in the quality of news and the areas and topics covered -- in all three major areas: newspapers, and TV and radio news.

If the yet-to-be created new traditional media business model is still funded largely by advertising, the same type of censored, pro-corporate media that we experience now will simply move onto the Internet. This shift, if it occurs, would be extremely unfortunate. The news distortion that occurs at every for-profit media company is destructive. It marginalizes many groups in society, providing an imbalanced flow of news and information that undermines the practice of democracy. In earlier articles I described some of the evils of corporate-owned journalism.

In an age considered to be modern and sophisticated, it is hard to believe that Canadians (like other people around the world) are dependent on news and information that have been systematically manipulated and censored. It is as though some elite force said to us, "Yes, you can have democracy, but you can have only 70 per cent of the world's information, and we've prepared it especially for you. We don't think you need to have the other 30 per cent."

The big hope for free access to news and information

One possible breakthrough would be hugely significant not only for Canada but also for media in many countries around the world: the creation of a sustainable business model that would allow news websites and other forms of news media to be funded largely by small amounts of advertising, user fees, subscriber fees and other non-restrictive sources of income. This funding would allow independent, non-profit news organizations to compete for audience with for-profit media organizations.

The next article will take us to a key point in this series. I will explain how various print and Internet-based news media models -- large and small -- could be established in Canada. If there are any community groups or individuals concerned about the poor quality of our media, they should start thinking about whether they are interested in becoming involved in a group to explore the viability of setting up independent media projects.


3 Dec 2010

Part V:
Could a 'mini-paper' nip at the heels of mainstream press?

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

While I have many criticisms of traditional, corporate-owned newspapers, I am still saddened to some extent by their decline. I'm one of those people who prefer to get my news the old-fashioned way -- sitting in my favourite chair early in the morning, a cup of tea close at hand, and being able to cuss The Globe and Mail's business section!

But the cost of producing a Globe and Mail or any other traditional paper is quite staggering. Media corporations and other businesses, mainly in the United States, are spending millions of dollars trying to come up with a new business model that will allow them to have both money-making newspapers and Internet-based news operation. For my part, for several weeks now I have been trying to come up with an idea that would make the cost of publishing some sort of newspaper more manageable.

Traditional daily newspapers are extremely expensive to operate. The technology is stuck in another era. Newsprint has become very expensive, and the companies need to be able not only to maintain a huge printing plant and staff, but also cover the cost of distributing tens of thousands of copies of a paper by trucks and delivery staff. They have to cover the high salaries paid to executives and sales staff. On top of all this, investors expect profits of 20 per cent-plus.

The idea I finally came up will not save The New York Times or the CanWest dailies, but it could nevertheless provide communities with a manageable, inexpensive small newspaper.

What I will call the "mini-paper" would have small pages -- 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches - just about the same size as a magazine such as Maclean's. After the content and news have been determined, it could be laid out using PageMaker or a similar layout program. These programs allow full-colour, quality production. Cost: about $600 for the program.

A mini-paper would not be bound together like a magazine or folded like a newspaper. Instead, the individual pages would be brought together in a Word attachment and e-mailed to readers and subscribers. From there, it would be equally as simple. Subscribers would open the attachment and then print out their newspaper, affix a simple binding they would be provided with and read it at their convenience.

Does this sound rinky-dink? Perhaps. It is not modern and high-tech like an iPhone or Twitter, but it could perform the basic job of distributing much-needed news and information at a time when the traditional media are seriously failing us.

All of the articles and other information published in the mini-paper would be posted on a website. Unfortunately -- because the project needs to be paid for in part by subscriber fees -- this material could not be made available to the public for free, at least immediately.

The "mini-paper": inexpensive to publish

A mini-paper would be incredibly inexpensive to publish. There would be no requirement for newsprint, a huge printing plant or large delivery system.

The mini-paper is definitely not the right vehicle for publishing a daily newspaper. But I could see it being used to produce, say, a twice-weekly paper, consisting of perhaps 18 or 24 pages. Still, a single edition could include as many pages as the sponsoring organization wants to publish.

The keys to ensuring the success of a mini-paper would be defining a target geographic area, determining what kinds of important information are not being delivered by other media, and then focusing on publishing exclusive information to satisfy that need. I believe people would pay for such a service. (I will discuss how the mini-paper and other media projects could be funded later in this series.)

Given how cheaply the mini-paper could be produced, such a publication could break even financially and compete on some levels with a daily newspaper.

What are the disadvantages? Are readers willing to go to their computers and print out their copies every morning? Would the quality of reproduction from their printers be good enough? Would subscribers balk at the prospect of using their own paper? It would take time and a certain amount of investigation to come up with the right formula.

I welcome feedback on this idea. If anyone would like to seriously look into the possibility of establishing a community mini-paper, please get in touch with me.

Entertainment weeklies could add news supplements

Before moving on to discuss how people could set up a group to look into establishing an independent media project, I would like to offer one other newspaper idea.

Canada has at least 18 well-established weekly and bi-monthly entertainment newspapers in cities across the country. With daily newspapers performing so poorly, there could be an opening for some of these papers to develop larger news section or publish newsmagazine inserts.

Here's a list of the ones I know about:
  • St. John's: The Scope
  • Halifax: The Coast
  • Montreal: Hour
  • Montreal: Mirror (owned by media corporation Quebecor)
  • Montreal: Voir Montreal (French language)
  • Ottawa: (X)press
  • Toronto: NOW
  • Toronto: EYE WEEKLY (Owned by media corporation Torstar)
  • Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph: Echo weekly
  • London: SCENE
  • Niagara region: PULSE NIAGARA
  • Winnipeg: UPTOWN (owned by the same company that owns the Winnipeg Free Press.)
  • Saskatoon: Planet S
  • Edmonton: SEE magazine
  • Edmonton: VUE weekly
  • Calgary: fast forward weekly
  • Vancouver: Georgia Straight
  • Victoria: Monday magazine

This project might be accomplished in one of two ways. The newspaper owners could add special news sections on their own; or a number of people could come together as a group, develop a proposal for a news section, and negotiate a contract with the owners to have a supplement appear in the middle of a paper. A tabloid of, say, eight pages could carry a lot of news and information.

The good thing is that editorially these papers seem to be less susceptible to the corporate agenda followed by mainstream news media.

Research would have to be carried out to determine whether either of these ideas would be viable. But it seems to me that if a publisher increased the size of the paper's news section, even more people would now pick up the publication because of its double whammy -- news and entertainment.

Assuming that a community group is able to raise funds to back a semi-independent project, the community-owned supplement would probably be more financially viable than something added by the paper itself. The project would be operated on a non-profit basis, and organizers would be able to draw on a number of sources of income, such as memberships, subscription fees, donations from individuals, foundation grants and special fundraising events.

Carefully assess the need for a project

I have a number of ideas for anyone who would like to look into the possibility of setting up an independent media project. The first step would be to bring together 15 or 20 people who represent a cross-section of your community. At this meeting you could informally discuss whether there is a real need for a new media organization.

If a group decides to proceed, members could conduct a survey to determine, among other things, what people in the community feel they are not getting from the for-profit media, and what form of media -- print or Internet-based -- they would prefer. You also could try to find out to what extent they would be prepared to help support a new citizen-owned media outlet over a two-year, start-up period.

Any group -- left, right or politically centre -- could launch such a project. The enterprise could be owned or co-ordinated by a group of citizens, a university, a journalism school, an association of faith-based groups or any one of a number of independent community organizations.

A note of caution: once you do determine that there is a real need for a new media project, don't allow discussions and plans about editorial content to dominate the process. A lot of promising media projects have collapsed or failed to reach their potential because they were dominated by journalists who gave too much attention to content -- and not enough to business development.

The excitement of getting involved in a new media project

The corporate media have fired about 2,000 Canadian journalists over the past few months -- which means that a lot of highly skilled editors and reporters are out there looking for work. For some journalists there is nothing more exciting than getting involved in the launching of a new media project, particularly if it is a bit of an underdog. I speak from personal experience.

Over the years I have worked in every major area of media, but what I have enjoyed most, and found the most rewarding, was the opportunity to work my butt off for seven years, seven days a week most of the time, as publisher of a spunky weekly newspaper in Nova Scotia that regularly challenged the establishment.

Frankly, I think journalists who don't have a mortgage or a family to help support should consider kicking the "corporate media habit." Instead, they could get involved in creating journalism projects that can help improve people's lives and help change our communities. They would be much happier, and they would be making an important contribution to society.

The possibilities are endless -- and a group forming a new media project may not move ahead exactly as I am outlining here. But I will mention a few other necessary steps.

•  Early in the process, set up a non-profit corporation. This would mean that any surplus at the end of the year would go back into the project. Restricting the use of any surplus in this way also removes the temptation for group members to switch their priorities to focusing on making money.

•  The group should establish a structure best suited to its needs. I suggest a core development group of no more than 10 people, backed up by a larger group of general members who could be called on to perform various tasks, such as help conduct the survey. The core group should include, or have access to, people with a number of skills: project planning, research, financial management and budgeting, marketing and fundraising.

•  After a group has obtained funding (see next article in this series), you could consider hiring a person who could implement the decisions of the management team. You will want to avoid getting into a situation in which volunteers are unable to provide the time needed to keep a project moving.

The creation of even one new sustainable, independent newspaper project anywhere in the country would be a huge, unprecedented accomplishment. It could be the forerunner of other projects that would challenge the corporate media's control of our news and information.

The e-reader offers traditional media some hope

Companies in many parts of the world are spending millions of dollars perfecting the e-reader -- a device that allows people to download newspapers and books that can then be read on a portable tablet. Media corporations in the United States pray that the device will save their industry: a total of 142 daily and weekly U.S. newspapers closed during 2009 alone. More than 90,000 people in the print publishing industry in the United States lost their jobs.

When Amazon introduced its Kindle e-book reader last year, there wasn't much excitement in the newspaper industry because its screen was only the size of a mass-market paperback novel. But when Skiff unveiled its new e-reader earlier this month, there was tremendous reaction across the industry. Measured diagonally, the Skiff touch screen is a whopping 11.5 inches.

Skiff did not reveal its price for the e-reader, but it will probably cost several hundred dollars. Amazingly, 52 e-readers are coming on the market this year, and the products that survive will be affordable. The papers are so desperate that they may pay for the devices themselves. The New York Times said last year that it was losing so much money on subscriptions that it would be better off financially if it gave every customer a $252 Kindle to enable them to download the paper directly from the Internet.

The e-reader could bring significant changes to the newspaper business. Some U.S. papers are finding that readers are prepared to pay subscriber fees to get their newspaper via an e-reader instead of reading it online. If the e-reader becomes the next piece of technology that everyone must have, and if people are prepared to pay subscriber fees, this transformation could well be the final nail in the coffin of the old newspaper business model.

If the e-reader is successful in a big way, there will probably be much less free news and information from the traditional media on the Internet. If for-profit media end up operating to a much greater extent from the Internet in the future, the corporate media companies that continue to produce newspapers will become more reliant on subscriber fees and less reliant on advertising. This could mean that the news pages of traditional papers might become more balanced and not so corporate-dominated.