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This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By: GREGORY FURGALA
Staff Reporter

Small-scale community news outlets can have a meaningful impact and thrive “on a shoestring,” but decreases in funding have left the sector reeling, say community news researchers.

Non-profit community media in Canada, which has traditionally relied on a combination of government assistance and private investment, have seen those funds dry up in recent years. Unlike the United States, where nonprofit investigative news organizations like ProPublica and the Marshall Project thrive, Canada doesn’t have a strong tradition of “philanthro-journalism.”

“We don’t have the Rockefellers or the Gateses,” says Patricia Elliott, editor of J-Source and assistant professor of journalism at the University of Regina.

“So it’s hard for us to do that.”

Since 1990, Elliott says the number of magazines receiving federal distribution assistance has dropped from 8,000 to 800, and the number receiving operating grants has dropped from 418 in 2000, to 27 in 2015. More than 74 per cent of community access channels have been lost since 1982, while community radio receives no direct government assistance.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle facing community news producers. Elliott says they’re rarely invited into policy discussions about the future of media. For example, the Public Policy Forum’s recent report on Canadian media, “Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age” was primarily concerned with the future of private media conglomerates.

“It’s like [community media] doesn’t even exist,” she said.

Elliott was joined by McGill doctoral candidate Gretchen King and Sarah Stonbely, the research director for cooperative media at Montclair University on a panel discussion about crowdfunding and cooperative media. The panel was part of a recent conference on the future of local journalism hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Despite the hurdles facing non-profit community media, Elliott says the sector has some advantages over its commercial cousins. “There are more revenue streams available, the ability to share resources with competitors,” she says, “and then there’s public trust and support, which are so important to survive.”

Without the pressure of pleasing advertisers, community media can tackle issues that commercial and state media can’t, and can afford to be less “editorially timid,” says Elliott. She pointed to the Saskatchewan alternative weekly Prairie Dog, which started as a non-profit in 1993 and later became a co-op It survived losing its Crown and city advertising after the Saskatchewan Party took provincial office in 2007.

King agreed, noting that outside of Quebec, existing efforts to fund community radio in Canada are woefully inadequate. She cited as an example the Community Radio Fund of Canada—a fund created in 2007 by a trio of campus radio associations: it caps funding for equipment at $500, which “can barely pay for a professional grade recorder.” Instead, the CRFC awards most of its funding on a per project basis. The net result is chronically underfunded non-profit community radio, and a host of ongoing problems.

“Personnel, funding, volunteers, the capacity of volunteers, the constant need for training, the constant issue of staff turnover, volunteer turnover––all of it affects the consistency of being able to run a regular show,” says King.

And those local losses, King says, have a national impact.

When broadcast nationally, King says, non-profit community-oriented news is a way for marginalized or otherwise unheard voices to come to the fore and offer different perspectives that commercial media can’t—or won’t— provide. Groundwire, an award-winning bi-monthly collaborative community news that King helped launch in 2008, helps make that insight an audible reality.

“You get views and opinions you might not get first hand, so Indigenous people representing themselves on Indigenous issues, immigrants representing themselves on immigration issues, homeless people representing themselves on issues of poverty.”

When funds run dry, Stonbely suggested community radio stations turn to another source for help: each other.

In the United States, “public and nonprofit are on the frontlines of collaboration,” Stonbely says, “because they also tend to receive the most funding and support to experiment with it.”

“They’re also the hungriest sometimes, so it forces them, in a way.”

Several experiments in collaboration have already proven sustainable. In 2014, five community radio stations in upstate New York won a $375,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—a federally funded non-profit with the mandate to support public broadcasting— to form Upstate Insight, a collaborative radio program delivering community news on a regional scale. In 2010, the CPB awarded a grant to five midwest public broadcasters to form Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agricultural issues, and that is now supported by partner stations and syndication. Last year, a successful collaboration between NPR member stations in Colorado and Maine focused on comparing each state’s politics with one another lead to the announcement of a 43-station, 34-state project to replicate the project nationwide.

“We can get beyond Kickstarter,” says Elliott. “But we have other support in the community that we need to draw on more often.”

“When they do get a little funding under them, they do great work.”

By STEPH WECHSLER
Special to the RJRC

Robert Washburn, professor of journalism at Loyalist College, and Gretchen King, PhD candidate and community media advocate, discuss their research at the Journalism in Crisis book launch panel at the Ryerson School of Journalism Feb. 9. (Steph Wechsler)

The ongoing discussion about the state of Canadian news media tends to overlook what’s happening in smaller communities, local news advocate Robert Washburn said during a recent presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Community-based newsrooms, including local television and community-run radio stations, are deeply rooted in smaller cities, towns and rural areas and reflect those places in their news coverage, said Washburn, a professor of journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont.

But much of the discussion about how to boost Canadian journalism isn’t necessarily helping support these hyperlocal outlets: “The lack of resources for these newsrooms is an abomination. The expectations are ridiculous. There’s a lack of staff, there’s poor wages, there’s unpaid overtime. Little or no training and the use of personal equipment. It goes on and on,” says Washburn. who runs Consider This, a hyperlocal news site that focuses on Northumberland County.

“I would encourage the discussion going forward to include neighborhoods, hamlets, villages, towns and small cities.”

Washburn was part of a Feb. 9 panel marking the book launch of Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada. The book, published by University of Toronto Press, is an anthology of writing by academics, activists and other stakeholders. Edited by Errol Salamon, Christine Crowther, Mike Gasher, Colette Brin and Simon Thibault, the collection presents recommendations on public policies to bolster journalism that supports democracy. Washburn’s chapter, “Journalism on the ground in rural Ontario,” argues for promoting innovation in the community news sector, and calls for funding to be made available for journalists to develop hyperlocal sites.

Washburn characterizes hyperlocal journalism as news that serves populations of fewer than 150,000 people. The term is used more in this context in the United States and United Kingdom, but Washburn said it would be helpful in Canada and make “an important distinction in our discussions.”

On-the-ground reporting in smaller communities is essential, he said, because major news organizations don’t typically have many resources available to cover places beyond their own city limits.

“When anything happens outside of an urban area –– in a small community –– (their) only interest is if there’s a cute event like a church bazaar or the pickle festival, or when there’s a tragedy or a crisis. Reporters are often parachuted in, with little understanding of the local context. Then they disappear without going any deeper or following up,” he said.

“It’s sort of a hit and run approach.”

Gretchen King, one of the book’s co-editors and another of the panelists, said community-based newsrooms are not only ignored but put at a disadvantage by Canadian policies, including those of the federal broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. This fall, for instance, new CRTC rules will require increased spending on local television news shows, but the money will come from funding currently allocated to community TV stations that carry local sports, community-service programs and talk shows.

King, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa and community media advocate, works with Groundwire, a local, independent community radio program available online or on community and campus radio stations across the county. All production is volunteer-driven and collaborative, notes King in her chapter, “Groundwire: Growing Community News Journalism in Canada.”

“Groundwire not only does journalism but it defines its own journalism. We push aside the notion of objectivity and we define accuracy for the communities that we report on. So we also define that our news practices include context. Our headlines will include as much context as we can in 90 seconds. Our features do as well,” says King.

“Context is often what’s left on the cutting room floors of most newsrooms.”

Recent Groundwire programming includes:

  • the “Homeless Marathon Edition,” where Groundwire explores housing-first strategies for the homeless in Medicine Hat, Alberta and how Prince George, B. C. is trying to follow suit.
  • the “Canoe of Reconciliation,” which includes a story about the Algonquin people of Barriere Lake’s concerns about environmental destruction from mining on their territory.
  • “Violence Against Asian Communities,” featuring discussions of sexual violence at the University of British Columbia.
  • an August episode that focused on Prisoners Justice Day.

King says volunteer-run outlets like Groundwire also find it difficult to survive because audiences often don’t recognize their work as actual journalism. The assumption, she said, is that real journalism is only done by professionals. To give projects like this the opportunity to both thrive and be recognized as an essential part of the media ecosystem in Canada, she argued, people need to acknowledge that volunteer-driven urban and rural media have very different concerns and will not benefit from blanket solutions to the challenges faced by news media in general.

“It’s not just a crisis of economics, it’s a crisis of politics…If (Canadians) want a democratic, vibrant, independent, autonomous, sustainable news system that’s going to serve them the kind of news that will help them make informed political decisions, then they have to have the political will to have the policies, the politics, and the economics in place to support that news system,” King said. “We don’t have that now and we need to get organized so we can have that in the future. Where is the advocacy centre for journalism? It sounds like we need to get organized.”