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Founding Director, RJRC

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

April 13, 2018

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Who holds officials accountable when cities like Thunder Bay, Ont., rife with political and racial tensions, have no local reporters?

There’s $50 million in federal government money on the table in Canada to support local journalism in the country’s under-served communities over the next five years.

What’s the best way to spend it?

Last month’s federal budget announcement is an acknowledgement that access to reliable, timely, relevant local news is a growing problem. Data from The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced tool that tracks changes to local media, shows that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008. Over the same period, only 75 new operations were launched.

We are starting to hear about the consequences of what I call “local news poverty” — situations where the critical information needs of communities are not being met.

When Postmedia and Torstar Corp. announced the closing of three dozen newspapers in late 2017, local mayors worried aloud about how to keep their citizenry informed. In Thunder Bay, Ont., a city churning with political scandal and racial tensions, the local newspaper at one point had no local reporter on staff to hold officials accountable. Wire copy and short items by the paper’s two photographers filled the pages.

The federal government did not dictate how its $50 million will be spent: It said only that the money will fund “independent non-governmental organizations.” And so the search begins for ideas worth supporting.

‘Local democracy reporters’

Experiments aimed at strengthening local news are already underway in other jurisdictions. In the United Kingdom, the BBC is paying the salaries of 150 journalists who are embedded at newspapers, radio stations, online sites and other local media organizations. These “local democracy reporters” cover local political and civic news and their stories are shared with more than 700 media outlets that have signed onto the Local News Partnerships Program.

The recently launched Report for America initiative aims to place 1,000 reporters in U.S. newsrooms over the next five years to fill gaps in community coverage. Report for America, funded by the Google News Lab, foundations and individual donors, pays half of each reporter’s salary; local news outlets and philanthropists must cover the other half.

The $50 million could be used to create a made-in-Canada version of these initiatives, but paying the salaries of legions of journalists isn’t sustainable over the long term: five years from now, when the federal funding is gone, the reporters will be gone too.

The money would be better spent on projects that build capacity in local newsrooms. The Local News Lab, another foundation-funded project in the United States, explores strategies for building a stronger local news environment in New Jersey. Drawing on this work and experiments in local newsroom sustainability across the country, it produces reports offering practical advice on everything from running effective crowd-funding campaigns to putting out a newsletter.

These resources help startups and other struggling local news outlets avoid common mistakes, and they are worth supporting. But a $50 million investment should also buy a more concrete, lasting contribution to quality news coverage.

Stories with strong local angles

The establishment of a Local News Data Lab would be a good start. The idea is borrowed from two recent data journalism initiatives in the United Kingdom. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit brings together experienced BBC data journalists and reporters seconded from the local media.

The local reporters build their skills as part of a team that uses data that is publicly available or obtained via freedom of information requests to produce national stories with strong local angles.

One recent project that made data on the decline of local bus services available to local news partners in an easy-to-use format resulted in dozens of local stories. The Shared Data Unit also provided local journalists with a background briefing document that outlined why the bus network was in the news, why the issue is important and what the data shows.

Graphs, question-and-answer interviews with experts and examples of localized stories were also included.

The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 and run by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is another U.K-based project that focuses on data journalism. Last year the Bureau’s journalists worked with local reporters and the volunteers in its network to produce a national story chronicling how victims of domestic violence were being turned away from cash-strapped crisis shelters.

The investigation, based on open government data, FOI responses, a survey of shelter managers and interviews with women who rely upon the shelter system, resulted in more than 30 local stories.

Political donations database

But we don’t need to look so far afield for an example of how a Local News Data Lab could enrich local journalism here in Canada. Reporter Zane Schwartz, this year’s Postmedia annual Michelle Lang Fellow, performed a great public service last week when he released Canada’s first centralized, searchable database of political donations.

Schwartz spent a year gathering six million records for provincial and federal donations — many of them in formats that were less than user friendly — and organizing them into an accessible database.

His subsequent story points to contributors who exceeded provincial caps on donations, donations to Yukon politicians from supporters who don’t live in the territory and numbered companies that make for a less-than-transparent system.

Schwartz invited engaged citizens and other media outlets to explore the data. Journalists who query the name of local constituency associations or their federal and provincial representatives are almost guaranteed a story.

A Local News Data Lab run by experienced data journalists could make this type of collaborative, investigative local storytelling an ongoing reality in Canada.

Possible partners?

If it operated under the auspices of a school of journalism, student interns could work with the professionals and get hands-on data journalism experience. Or it could collaborate with an organization like The Canadian Press — the national wire service’s news subscribers would be a ready-made network of local partners.

Sure, there will be instances where newsrooms won’t produce stories even when they are spoon-fed local data and a how-to-do-it story recipe. But overall, there will be more local investigative stories about issues that matter.

Student internships, newsroom collaborations and training opportunities for reporters in the field will build much-needed data journalism skills in local news organizations across the country.

The ConversationAnd if the lab proves its worth after five years, other funders may step up to keep it going. The Local News Data Lab will not singlehandedly solve the problems of local journalism in Canada. But public money invested in it would be money well spent.

Special to the RJRC

April 9, 2018

Data journalists are rethinking how they present data-driven stories as it becomes clear that readers won’t spend time clicking through interactive visualizations, says Roberto Rocha, a CBC data journalist and educator specializing in data-driven reporting.

Rocha, who has worked on stories ranging from a Montreal street history map to a ranking of psychedelic drugs, says data journalists must accept that readers have a limited amount of patience for sorting through data.

“Readers are lazy,” Rocha said during a Mar. 27 webinar hosted by Geothink, a Canadian geospatial open data research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “They don’t want to work to get information. Basically, they just want to scroll.”

Rocha said the early tendency of data journalists to throw every scrap of data at readers and hope that they would explore the material has proven ineffective. Most readers simply won’t spend hours, or even a few minutes, exploring interactive websites overloaded with datasets, said Rocha, who characterized the practice as “an abdication of the journalist’s role.”

More recently, he said, data journalists have been returning to the basics, which include filtering information, uncovering the main story, and telling that story in an engaging way: “There’s a major shift that’s happening in data journalism that started a few years ago where [the way data journalists perceive themselves] has shifted from simply organizing data … to more of an active storyteller role.”

This new, more user-friendly approach is evident, Rocha said, in the New York Times’ March 19 use of an animated graph to visualize rates at which white and black men who grew up in rich families remain affluent or fall into poverty. Another example, a timeline visualizing 311 calls New Yorkers made relating to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy from the fall of 2012 to now, uses scrolling to drive home the long-reaching effects of hurricane recovery.

“Interactivity is not a panacea for engagement,” says Rocha, noting that if readers must search for information, they are more likely to lose interest in the story.

Analytics have played an important role in reshaping the story-telling approach used for data journalism projects. Rocha said data gathered by the New York Times to measure reader engagement with its interactive visualizations – which are costly and time consuming to produce – revealed an engagement rate of just 15 per cent.

In response to these findings, the Times refined its approach to minimize the work required of readers and place more responsibility on the shoulders of the journalists. The new direction was summarized in a set of three “rules for visual storytelling” in a talk given by Archie Tse, deputy graphics editor for the Times:

  1. If you make the reader click or do anything other than scroll, something spectacular has to happen.
  2. If you make a tooltip or rollover, assume no one will ever see it. If content is important for readers to see, don’t hide it.
  3. When deciding whether to make something interactive, remember that getting it to work on all platforms is expensive.

Although efforts by data journalists to more effective in their story-telling approaches, panelist April Lindgren pointed out that many journalists still need to learn the basics of data-driven journalism.

“The capacity of local new organizations to mine … data for stories is really lagging behind the growing availability of data sources,” said Lindgren, the academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre,. Most local journalists lack the skills required to collect data and pull stories from it, she said, and recent graduates who do possess these skills often find themselves overwhelmed with the workload once they are installed in local newsrooms.

Lindgren said more collaboration between newsrooms might be one solution to this problem and pointed to a recent project by fellow presenter Zane Schwartz to illustrate her point. Schwartz, an investigative journalist for National Post and Macleans, spent his section of the webinar discussing the political donations database he compiled using more than six million records gathered from every province and territory. Though Schwartz noted only a handful of people had downloaded the full dataset, Lindgren says the production and sharing of such databases could be one way to address the problems faced by local news organizations that lack the staff, skills, and time to explore data-driven journalism.

“Local journalists could go [into these databases], take the data, and make it relevant to their local audiences and do that work for the people who live in their communities,” says Lindgren. “I’m hoping … that more local journalists will see what [Schwartz] has done and recognize what a gift it is in terms of a story in hand.”

She pointed to collaborative data journalism models launched in the United Kingdom as possible models for Canada. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit, part of its broader Local News Partnerships Program, pairs experienced BBC data journalists with reporters from the local news industry to educate them about working with and reporting on data. Similarly, The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, aims to work with British local media to use datasets to write local stories.

Recreating these types of initiatives in Canada, says Lindgren, could be critical to improving the state of Canadian local journalism. And the data suggests these improvements are necessary—findings from the Local News Research Project, which Lindgren co-founded, show that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008.

Staff reporter

April 8, 2018

Nicole Cohen said precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media because it limits the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

The uncertainty and insecurity of the freelance life has major consequences including the elimination voices belonging to people who can’t afford such precarious employment and less investigative reporting, says author Nicole Cohen.

In her new book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age,” Cohen includes the results of an online survey of 200 Canadian freelance journalists. The results paint a bleak picture of life on the freelance front lines. The survey revealed that 55 per cent of respondents had intense workloads upward of 50 hours a week, only 20 per cent are able to set their own rates of pay, and that female freelancers are generally paid less than their male counterparts.

“For freelance journalists,” Cohen said, “precarity means not knowing where their next assignment or paycheque will come from or anxiety about uncertain futures, or social isolation, income instability, or a lack of access to mentorship or training, which can inhibit career development.”

Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, recently discussed the book, which was awarded the Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize, at a Ryerson School of Creative Industries and Global Communication Governance Lab event attended by about 100 students.

In addition to the survey, Cohen’s research explores the political, economic and cultural context in which freelancers work, and examines efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. She also argues that the ill effects of precarious work for freelancers extends beyond individual hardship: There are also implications for a just and democratic media system.

“Journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life,” Cohen said. “Because powerful corporate and political interests influence so much journalism today, freelancers are in a strategic position to produce independent, autonomous material free from corporate and government control.”

That’s the ideal. The reality, she argued, is that precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media by limiting the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. Of the survey respondents, 93 per cent identified as white: “Ensuring that journalism is accessible and sustainable to workers regardless of gender, race, or class is critical,” Cohen said.

“Those who produce journalism have great influence over what types of stories are told and from what perspectives. Our media system remains dominated by white men who can afford to pursue careers in an insecure industry that requires more to perform extended bouts of unpaid work.”

In the best of cases, Cohen said, freelancing can give journalists the time and space to produce investigative, critical and exploratory work that workers in understaffed, time-strapped newsrooms often cannot undertake. Quality reporting of this type, however, is jeopardized by low pay and irregular hours of work because freelance journalists can’t afford to do investigative journalism when they aren’t paid to do core reporting and research. The low pay and time pressures, Cohen said, force freelancers to produce quick-hit articles rather than more in-depth, quality journalism.

And the pay is low: Of the 200 survey respondents, 45 per cent of the freelancers reported earning less than $20,000 per year from writing.

“Many go into great personal debt to finance stories, as media outlets won’t pay for expenses,” Cohen said, noting that writers’ remuneration is determined by editors’ personal valuation of their work, word count or sometimes page views.

Freelancers are generally paid long after they do work and regularly chase late payment themselves. In such conditions, she said, it’s increasingly difficult for most to earn a living from journalism alone.

Cohen identified collective action by freelancers as one way to fight for improved pay and working conditions. In the United States, she noted, the National Writers Union just recently used legal proceedings to secure $80,000 in unpaid fees for 48 American freelancers who contributed to Ebony and Jet, magazines for African-American readers.

In the months leading up to the settlement with Ebony Media and the private-equity group that owns the magazines, freelancers took their complaints to social media using the Twitter hashtag #EbonyOwes to drum up public support, a strategy that alerted many to a not-so-secret reality that when companies struggle financially or when editors forget to file invoices, it is individual freelancers who pay.

“We have seen some inspiring movements and campaigns that are addressing these issues,” Cohen said, pointing to the growth of an intern labour rights movement internationally and the ongoing unionization of digital media workers over the past two years. “What these initiatives show is that the only way to address precarity and to improve writers’ rights is by acting together, not alone.”

Staff reporter

April 3, 2018

Leading thinkers and writers discussed how journalists’ critical examination of the plus-size industry, diversity and gendered assumptions can drive social change in the fashion industry (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Journalists who write about fashion must constantly test themselves for unconscious biases that shape their coverage, the senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum recently told more than 100 Ryerson University fashion and journalism students.

Elizabeth Semmelhack, who is also an adjunct professor at the Ryerson School of Fashion, said the traditional gendered approach to fashion writing tends to implicitly view fashion as a frivolous and feminine preoccupation. In fact, fashion has throughout history been a major economic driver, she said, noting that demand for clothing underpinned the early textile industry.

“Fashion is gendered. We all wear clothing, but we have assumptions about dress that are invisible, and we need to change the dialogue,” Semmelhack said during a March 27 panel discussion on the use of fashion journalism as a tool for cultural criticism and a driver of social change.

“Rethinking fashion journalism: It’s about more than the clothes” was organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ryerson’s Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change.

Semmelhack, whose research ranges from the rise of sneaker culture to the history of high heels, said that shoes from non-Western cultures, such as the tiny shoes associated with Chinese foot binding, often prompt questions from members of the public who visit the Bata collection. Western stereotypes about fashion are less likely to be questioned, however. For example, gendered assumptions are so deeply embedded that people seldom wonder why only half of the population – women – wear heels: “There has always been a presumption that women love shoes and are known as the ‘shoe-aholic.’ My research has proven that men were the first to wear heels and now it is becoming common knowledge because fashion journalists are reporting on it,” she said.

“The fact that a man can’t put on a pair of heels and wear them to a board meeting without stopping traffic says something to me about assumptions that we have that we’re not even comfortable with seeing, let alone addressing.”

Ben Barry, associate chair of the Ryerson School of Fashion and director of the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change, said fashion journalists have driven social change by starting a dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Fashion journalists have asked, ‘Who is not represented on the runway? Who is not represented in magazines? Who cannot fit into these clothes?’” Barry said. “They have written stories about this and created a dialogue about this. As a result, people have tweeted about these stories, commented on these stories and the industry has started to respond.”

Barry, whose research explores the intersections between gender, fashion and consumption, said fashion journalists play a powerful role as the link between the industry and consumers, activists and government. Major changes in the industry have often been driven by fashion journalists who have examined what’s happening in fashion, have voiced critiques and have exposed issues off the runway.

The panelists noted, however, that there are topics that still need more critical examination.

Natalie Atkinson, an arts and culture freelancer who writes a regular column for the Globe and Mail, said fashion critics have a role to play in driving change in the plus-size part of the industry. The topic is under-reported she said, and both fashion critics and consumers must push for more variety in plus-size clothes.

“It’s a commercial problem, it’s a problem of commerce,” Atkinson said, noting that people think all plus-size men and women are made the same. “They’ll buy something that doesn’t fit any of them well but doesn’t fit too badly instead of demanding that something fits them well.”

Charmaine Gooden, a freelance beauty and health journalist, said the lack of diverse voices remains a problem in fashion journalism.

“I’m just looking forward to hearing more voices from different cultures,” Gooden said. “Indigenous voices, Muslim voices telling me what really matters to you…having your platform to say it so that I can hear it straight from you.”

Atkinson concurred, noting that newspaper newsrooms are still limited when it comes to presenting diverse writers who deal with fashion and fashion issues. She pointed to a piece she wrote for the Globe about the history of the Cowichan sweater, which adapted the centuries-old Coast Salish knitting tradition to become, arguably, Canada’s first cross-cultural fashion garment knit by the Indigenous Peoples.

Atkinson said she felt the story should really have been written by an Indigenous person: “I’m less comfortable writing about things that I’m not on the inside of. I’m more interested in writing less and listening more. Even though I’d done a lot of research around it, I felt like there was a perspective that even I couldn’t understand if I’m not on the inside. I’m hoping there will be more people stepping aside (to allow for more diverse voices),” she said.

Barry urged aspiring fashion writers in the audience to question their gendered assumptions about fashion and to dig deeper for context.

“Fashion journalists need to challenge their assumptions and ask, ‘Why do we assume and why do these practices exist?’ and not just accept them as existing,” Barry said. “That’s when fashion connects to this much larger culture where then we examine the history, we examine the sociology and we examine the structures in power … Then hopefully we’re able to actually move culture through fashion journalism.”

As an example of how gendered assumptions shape coverage, Barry pointed to research by Allyson Stokes, who is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in the faculty of knowledge integration. In The Glass Runway, Stokes reports that male designers tend to be portrayed as geniuses who come up with incredible creations while the work of female designers is discussed in terms of their efforts to understand and create practical clothes suited to women’s bodies. This creates an hierarchy that places more value on creativity than on craft and art.

Fashion writers, Barry said, need to be on constant guard against overt and unconscious biases: “Are there certain tropes or stereotypes or assumptions that are being perpetuated within that story? And how (are we) talking about particular individuals? Whether these are people of colour or whether these are gendered assumptions,” he said.

Staff reporter

March 26, 2018

Digital Media Zone Executive Director Abdullah Snobar (Courtesy Paul Steward)

The Digital News Innovation Challenge has attracted 70 proposals from teams hoping to receive up to $100,000 in seed money and support for their ideas to drive innovation in journalism.

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) and the Ryerson School of Journalism, accepted applications between Jan. 25 through to March 9, 2018. The adjudication team, including representatives from the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, have reviewed all applications and invited a dozen finalists to pitch their business ideas to the adjudicators. The five successful applicants admitted to the five-month program will be announced on April 5, 2018.

“We’re looking for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs with innovative digital news and storytelling ideas that can be turned into sustainable businesses,” said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ. “These ideas must have a technological component at their core, in solving a compelling problem within the Canadian digital news and journalism landscape.”

The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to receiving support for entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups, participants will gain access to workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ, high-profile senior mentors, workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada and the opportunity to work with journalists, researchers, investors and other experts.

The $100,000 in seed capital will be distributed in phases starting with the release of $20,000 to each participant at the beginning of the Challenge. Each team will receive two additional installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final presentation where teams will pitch to high-profile investors and be eligible for another $40,000.

In addition to the seed money, the successful participants will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.