Whose crisis … Journalism is not just for journalists and policy is not just for wonks

January 30, 2012 in Policy

I find “crisis” is a big, overused word. I think it’s the right word though to use to talk about the point of the Journalism Strategies conference, “Deliberation, Diversity, and Dollars: Public Strategies for Journalism in the Canadian Media Ecology.” I can hear my friend Michel saying dryly at this point (while looking over the rim of his pint), “Define crisis.” In everyday language a “crisis” tends to be an enormous problem that’s arrived and needs to be dealt with immediately. As in the “economic crisis” or the “crisis in journalism” – two crises that have been closely linked in the past few years. To me this suggests an element of accident: the problem has dropped on us, out of nowhere and now we need to scramble to fix it.  “Oh no, our readers aren’t subscribing to us anymore.“ “Oh no, we’re losing advertisers.” “Oh no, the Web is wreaking havoc with our business model.” “Oh no, we can’t afford to spend money on public broadcasting anymore.” The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes a crisis as “an unstable or crucial time…in which a decisive change is impending; especially : one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” Cultural and political theorists go a step further – seeing crisis as the product of structural contradictions that have been revealed. I think the two definitions go nicely together.

I believe this is a critical moment for journalism in Canada. It is a moment when problems that many of us have known about and talked about in journalistic, activist, and academic circles for decades have become part of common conversations – thanks in very large part to economic and technological shocks. Are we surprised that if our audiences don’t feel particularly well served by traditional journalism organizations they start exploring new alternatives the moment they become available? It is true of course that on a personal scale, this moment has brought some very real pain. Good people are losing their jobs through no fault of their own. I think that tragedy would be compounded though if we wasted the opportunities this moment presents. This conference is a way to try to make the most of those opportunities.

I think we’ve gotten to this moment through systemic failures – in journalism organizations themselves and in the governments that help create the environment in which they operate. While there are any numbers of lenses through which we can examine these failures, I do so through the lens of journalism and democracy. I think a big part of the problem facing professional journalism is credibility. I argue that at least part of the reason traditional journalism (in Canada and around the world) has lost credibility is that it has lost sight of its civic function. The freedoms journalism is given in Canada are not there to protect journalists or journalism organizations; they are there to protect the rights of citizens to share information. Journalism is a democratic means – not an end in itself.

It was ever thus – or was it?

I was at a presentation a not long ago by media historian Lisa Gitelman. The content of her talk wasn’t at all related to journalism but I find a theme that runs through her work helps put this conference in perspective. Gitelman reminds us that many of the problems and challenges we think are new are not; they have simply taken on the hues of the times in which we live. Gitelman ‘s talk focused on the possibilities and challenges reproduction presents for scholarly publication – using the mechanical technologies that were new in the early 20th century to help us reflect on the digital technologies of the early 21st. In a similar vein, this conference is a way to help those of us who are interested in journalism and democracy in Canada consider how much of this crisis in journalism is in fact related to questions we have been wrestling with for some time.

Example? How about highly commercial content flowing unimpeded into Canada from the U.S.? Dealt with by the Aird Commission set up in 1928 to investigate the then new radio broadcasting industry and recommend appropriate policies. How about the relationship between Canadian broadcasting and culture since then? Tackled by The Task Force on Broadcasting Policy (also known as the Caplan-Sauvageau Committee) in 1986, and more recently by the Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (2003) Concentration of ownership and its implications for democracy? A string of commissions and committees, including:  Davey (1970), Kent (1981), and the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications (2006).

This is not meant to suggest these reports have not had discrete concerns to address. Each of these committees was addressing particular issues brought about by changing economic and technological conditions. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we can use this moment to consider how many of their concerns and how much of their work remains relevant for us. I argue it is possible to see in their recommendations an evolving conception of Canadian democracy and the role of news media. When Marc Raboy wrote his history of Canada’s Broadcasting Policy twenty years ago, he chose “Missed Opportunities” as the title. I think this historical moment offers us not only the opportunity to democratize news media in this country, but also the tools to make it happen. A great deal has been made of the democratizing power of social media and the web. It has been credited with the election of Barak Obama, the leaking of hidden truths, and of course the Arab Spring. I think there are some serious dangers in giving technology more credit than it’s due. I also think though that the rapid sharing of information makes it possible to seize the moment in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Why a conference?

I know a number of my journalistic friends roll their eyes when they think about another conference on the future of journalism. “Blah blah blah…you academics can go talk about journalism while we actually do it.” Yes, my colleagues and I on the organizing team are academics but we don’t live and work in ivory towers. We’ve been journalists, and we are citizens. We research the real world because we think it is possible to make it a better place to live. My particular area of research is journalism norms – in other words, the ideals we aspire to as journalists. I focus on the role journalism plays in democracy because I believe that role is fundamental. I also believe though that all norms – including journalism norms – evolve.

One of the luxuries of doing graduate work in middle age is being forced to revisit ideas I take for granted. I’ve recently had to go back and re-read Kant  – whose work I haven’t looked at since Phillip Hansen’s intro to political theory class at the University of Regina 25 years ago. Kant suggests that dogma is dangerous because it stops knowledge from evolving. I think one of the biggest problems with traditional journalism organizations (and education) is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become dogmatic in many ways. We’ve turned some ideas that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century (like “objectivity”) into fetishes. That’s a problem because that historical moment is very different from the one we are now in. As a result, some of our thinking about how journalism should be practiced has become stagnant – putting professional journalism in danger of becoming irrelevant.

What I’m saying here isn’t particularly earth shattering. Again, it’s something that’s been discussed in some academic and journalistic circles for decades. I highly recommend academic work done in this area by people like Jay Blumler and Michael GurevitchClifford ChristiansRobert HackettMargaret Scammell, and Stephen Ward. Journalists and the organizations they work for are of course trying to adapt – experimenting with formats, genres, and even what counts as journalism. My question though is – to what end? Why is professional journalism worth trying to save? This conference is meant for those of us who believe journalism has an important role to play in helping Canadians be effective citizens. By coming together in April we can identify and start to figure out how to use public policies to protect both existing and emerging practices that meet that goal.

Why public policies?

Plain and simple: market failure. The private and public sectors have different motivations. I am not suggesting there isn’t a role for private organizations. I simply think we need to ensure there are spaces in the Canadian media system for journalism driven by citizen – rather than consumer – priorities. Again, there is a lot of academic work related to this. A few of the folks whose work I like: Jay Blumler and James Curran (both of whom wrote in a special edition of Journalism Studies  in 2010), Stephen ColemanMarc RaboyJay Rosen, and of course Jürgen Habermas. A key point is diversity. A healthy democracy needs diverse ideas. A healthy media system can ensure the wide circulation of these ideas. Professional journalism can still be part of that circulation, but it needs to be reimagined in order to be effective. This conference is part of a process to help us identify what we as citizens need from journalism, and what we need to do to get it. Just as journalism isn’t just for journalists, policy-making isn’t just for wonks.

That’s why we are reaching out to you. I wrote above that the moment we live in presents us with opportunities to seize the moment in ways that we haven’t had before. OpenMedia has shown over the past year that citizens can work together to change the way our digital policy is created here in Canada. Again, policy is not an accident. It is a chain of decisions. We’re asking you to be a part of one of those chains. Help redesign a key piece of our media system: the policies we put in place to support journalism. We need people with different professional backgrounds, from different parts of the country, from different age groups, from different ethnic backgrounds, from different economic backgrounds, and who speak different languages.

Face time … Registration now open

We have been working from the outset with the idea that we need to build a network of networks. What started out as an idea being bounced off people I knew personally, began expanding in the fall of 2010 – as early drafts of the conference concept started circulating to journalists, academics, and activists; as people started suggesting names of others they thought might be interested in taking part; and as more members joined the organizing team. The call for papers went out across Canada and internationally last winter. At the same time the organizing team invited more than a dozen academics, journalists (citizen and professional), and others who had shown an interest in journalism and policy to review the papers that were submitted. We’ve started online discussions – through projet-j and j-source through our website, and through Facebook and Twitter. The time has come though to add face-to-face discussions. We need people to be in the same room together – to talk and, yes, to disagree. We’re trying to assemble a group of people who believe we should use public policies to support journalism that supports citizenship, but there is still a lot of room for debate. What exactly is journalism that supports citizenship? What policies can help ensure it is sustainable? Tax breaks? Subsidies? Regulation?

The conference will take place in Montreal April 19th through 21st. We realize not everyone can or even wants to spend two days thinking about these questions. We’ve organized the program  in a way we hope will make it possible for different people to engage in different ways. Registered participants will have one day of presentations and discussions, and one day of focused workshops – the result of which will be concrete policy ideas. There will also be two events that are open to the general public – one Thursday evening and one Friday evening. Finally, we’ll be live streaming for those of you who just can’t join us in person.

Then what:

What’s the goal? The first concrete outcome will be a policy document that contains the recommendations registered participants come up with on the second day of the conference. We’re also planning a book. What happens from there is up to you. If you want to take advantage of this moment of crisis to make journalism in Canada stronger, you can take these recommendations and these discussions and make sure they’re more than words on a page.


Christine Crowther worked as a broadcast journalist for 15 years. She is a doctoral student in Communication Studies at McGill University and a sessional lecturer in Journalism at Concordia University.

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