Media

Journalism and the Web of Resources

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 04, 2011

Last week, Hamilton Spectator editor-in-chief Paul Berton asked: What is a journalist? His answer was reasonably affable, and he even made positive reference to local community media sites like Raise the Hammer, The Hamiltonian and OpenFile. "Most of these local news websites do some great work, and like all media, help the community."

At the same time, a certain amount of FUD slipped in with oblique warnings about "alternative startups ... setting the news agenda." Berton asserted that established media like the Spec are still positioned "to bring you the best overall news package, simply because we have a bigger staff and have been at this for more than a century and a half."

His conclusion tied these two sentiments together: "sometime soon we're all going to have to cut out some of the cacophony and choose to listen only to those we trust."

These days, that is the central promise of the professional media: compared to those scary, anonymous, vituperative blogs, the professional media are folks you can trust.

Professional Gatekeepers

A year ago, when I sat on a panel discussing the future of local media, the professional journalists sharing the podium with me were appalled when I suggested that readers/viewers should be skeptical of everything they see in the media.

Connie Smith, the host of Always Good News on CTS-TV, was mortified that anyone might feel they couldn't respect the authority of the mainstream media. Bill Kelly, host of the Bill Kelly Show on CHML, insisted that his job is to vet the news for credibility and thereby protect his listeners from being misled.

When journalism was a capital-intensive enterprise requiring expensive printing presses and broadcast stations, professional journalists and editors were needed to stop crap from getting into publication - not to protect the audience, who can recognize crap all by themselves, but to protect the shareholders, who can't afford to produce stuff no one wants to consume.

Somewhere along the line, the professional gatekeepers of the means of media production forgot this crucial distinction. They convinced themselves that their role was paternal rather than fiduciary.

The result is top-down journalism that feels increasingly condescending to an audience of engaged citizens who come to realize that they collectively know more about many of the stories they care about than the journalists do.

So what happens when the cost of producing journalism collapses? What happens when, say, you can launch a media publication with household tools, no upfront capital investment and an operating cost around $10 a month?

What happens when determined amateurs from various walks of life are willing to write about their community and share it freely? More to the point, what happens when people actually start reading that stuff?

How are the professional gatekeepers to respond when they can no longer simply ignore it?

One response, of course, is to close ranks and decry the amateurs as unreliable, agenda-driven, and unprofessional. Another is to redefine it out of the professionals' domain: the blogs are at best "community partners", not competitors.

Web of Resources

The trend at the Spec seems to be toward the latter approach, which at least holds open the possibility of decorum. Still, it gets awkward. Consider this article posted last night on the Spec website:

Burlington will be an extreme "long shot" to become the site of a controversial Pan Am Stadium without the event organizers extending a Feb. 1 date for the site selection.

That's the view of Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring in response to public comments by Toronto 2015 CEO Ian Troop that the Feb. 1 deadline stands. [emphasis added]

Those "public comments" are in all likelihood comments Mr. Troop made in yesterday's interview with RTH.

I'm glad the Spec followed up on the news from Mr. Troop by contacting Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring. That's another valuable piece of the Pan Am stadium story, a story readers will get most fully by linking together information from a variety of sources.

It's the linking part that frustrates the professional media. Linking, aggregating and sharing characterize the internet. It's why we cite sources at RTH and link back to the original: nothing encourages accountability like knowing your readers can and will call you out on sloppy, lazy, unfair or otherwise inaccurate reporting.

This idea of accountability through a decentralized web of linked resources is a real problem for traditional media organizations, which present themselves as full-service, one-stop news shops - even when that means doing their own upstream aggregation through commodity wire services to fill the gaps in their coverage.

Citing sources does two things, both of which weaken the claim to authoritativeness: it announces and legitimizes the source to readers; and it acknowledges, however tacitly, that no media entity is a self-contained island.

News We Can Trust

In Berton's essay on journalism, he asserted that the Spec is best positioned to provide news "we can trust" because it has more staff and more experience.

He is half-right. I'm perpetually frustrated and depressed by the number of stories RTH does not and cannot cover because we're volunteer-based and just don't have the resources. At the same time, a central idea at RTH is that we don't have to be a traditional one-stop shop. It's the web of resources that matters: we're merely a strand.

As for the value of a long institutional memory ... well, the simple fact is that journalism per se isn't all that hard. It mostly amounts to clear, expository writing, awareness of where to gather information - not just soundbite quotes but also the details buried in studies and reports - plus the ability to ask good questions and determine what is relevant.

It definitely helps to have an active BS detector, though as I already argued, the best approach is to treat all sources with a healthy dose of skepticism.

It also helps to have domain-specific knowledge that goes beyond what a reporter can pick up in the day or two spent getting the background on a story. I'm by no means the first person to notice that the most interesting journalists these days are those who blend deep knowledge of a subject with the ability to communicate clearly to lay readers.

Again, this hints at a journalism moving away from professionalization: that the real value-add is not mastery of the inverted pyramid but the communication of useful knowledge. This is the idea of journalism as public communication among peers, rather than the top-down dissemination of a comprehensive suite of information that writers and editors consider important.

Can the professional media embrace journalism as public dialogue? Can they embrace news as a web of resources in which the value of their contribution is directly tied to its integration with the web? Can they stop thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of authority and start thinking of themselves as fellow community partners?

If they can marshal their still-considerable resources to enable this kind of journalism, they will indeed retain a central and invaluable role in an increasingly connected society.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:44:04

A year ago, when I sat on a panel discussing the future of local media, the professional journalists sharing the podium with me were appalled when I suggested that readers/viewers should be skeptical of everything they see in the media.

And to me, the fascinating thing is that many of our politicians, our elected officials, the bureaucratic culture that's been created over time, seems to feel the same about governance. They're actually stunned that people (residents/tax-payers/voters) inherently -and deeply- feel cynicism and distrust towards many/most/all of their representatives...and the system itself.

Funny, that.

Great article, Ryan. There's a massive disconnect going on, and I'm glad you're continuing to illustrate and illuminate from where you stand.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:47:16

I find it interesting that Sheryl Nadler of The Spectator is the Editor of Open File Hamilton. Did she leave The Spec and even if she did are there loyalties there? I have the same questions when Mark and Donna of Face-Off drag out John Best of The Bay Observer to provide 'expert opinions'. John was the former news director of CHCH, a little insular IMHO.

I have talked before of a high school teacher who taught Media Studies to me, he changed my life forever. I thought it was a basket weaving course until he started to peel back the layers of manipulation that regularly occur from media companies. His core message," Never accept what any media serves up as outright fact. You are being manipulated constantly, be an aware consumer and use the manipulations to your advantage to form your own unique conclusions." Magazines, newspapers, movie, TV, advertising... he deconstructed it all from the left, right and center and taught us how to recognize the BS from the facts. Ryan, the one thing I learned was what you said,"readers/viewers should be skeptical of everything they see in the media." Notice how I chopped out some of the quote and changed the context, be skeptical of that.

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By rayfullerton (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:50:50

Thanks Ryan for the article. Personally, for community news I prefer RTH and the Hamiltonian for news instead of MSM.

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:53:14

Bravo.

I will point out again here, they only praised "websites" that are not a business. For me this came the same day as a Managing Editor wrote me:

"...you don’t have permission to use our content, excerpted or otherwise. It would be best for you to simply remove Spectator content from your site."

...just for using any of TheSpecs.com's 300-odd Add-This options OR any Google News aggregation method at a blog with no ads.

They are most scared we are going to put together a business plan that will legitimize "digital media" and end an "analog media" monopoly.

But I'm one who is now coming for them. And will pay for writers, without all the aging infrastructure and union baggage to drag us down.

I realize 150 years ago someone named that Metroland ad-printing venue, but this a company that sells us our own wounds. These days, I think they stab us just to cover that bleeding.

We don't have to respect that, now its just a grim private business-plan at work (and probably losing money at that).

It doesn't serve my neighbours or my local businesses, so we don't even see them anymore. Its not an "institution"... They just drop off that crap for the blue-box.

Comment edited by wentworthst on 2011-01-04 11:56:17

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By verhovm (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:54:10

Great response to the Spectator piece -- and very diplomatically stated.

I like the Spec a lot, but I have to admit that their opinion piece smacks of sour grapes. It's clear that they see RTH and other great Hamilton blogs as competition. I guess you've beaten them to the story a few too many times?! I think the Spec article has the opposite effect of what Mr. Berton was going for -- to me, it makes the Spec look juvenile.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 04, 2011 at 11:57:24

Janitor, I was also going to comment on that - I was kind of intrigued when I first read about Open File in December (or was it November?) but when I clicked it today and saw her name, I immediately lost interest. Her ties to the spec - and the cruddy content she produced there really turn me off. Man, her column was badly written, totally uninteresting, and nowhere near "news".

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:09:44

@mrjanitor wrote: I find it interesting that Sheryl Nadler of The Spectator is the Editor of Open File Hamilton.

Word was they dropped a big sandbag on Joey Coleman just to get control. It MIGHT have been viable if they gave it to a man like him. Shamefully self-serving and petty, at best.

@ seancb wrote: ...her column was badly written, totally uninteresting, and nowhere near "news".

Which is what they want; to ghettoize it with stories about how to cross the street. Of course it will be boring... It can't become competition.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:10:36

Man, her column was badly written, totally uninteresting, and nowhere near "news".

What, you didn't enjoy reading about guys hitting on her while traveling to Montreal on VIA Rail??

Comment edited by jason on 2011-01-04 12:11:15

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:10:45

Amen seancb! Whiniest tripe I have ever read. I think she was supposed to become The Spec's version of Carrie Bradshaw. Never really worked out that way though.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:15:56

Interesting piece, Ryan, and timely given the structural changes that will continue to happen at the Spec, and the media landscape in general.

You ask, "Can they stop thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of authority and start thinking of themselves as fellow community partners?"

A shift along those lines would require a massive, voluntary re-orientation of the news-media organization's place within a discourse, relegating itself to one of many voices, as opposed to THE voice of authority. This decentralization may be desirable to someone like you or I, but its unclear if it can jive with a business model that still relies on major advertisers to generate cash, and established links with the economic and political elite to offer comment (on or off the record) to produce authoritative-looking content.

Not to get overly Marxian here, but there's still a ton of value in Critical analyses of the MSM that are years old. I think it's hard to look at the current dynamics embroiling the news industry without dusting off your old copy of Manufacturing Consent and taking a gander at the Five Filters that distort content, and essentially REQUIRE centralized, top-down editorship.

When advertisers control so much of your operating budget, when sources are fickle and often politicized or partisan, the "truth" runs the risk of endangering the viability of the organization. Industrial MSM orgs need a monopoly on legitimacy and authority to (explicitly or not) insulate advertisers and other power brokers they need to tap to produce content and make money. Ceding authority to smaller players, or other forms of community knowledge/news only serves to chip away at an already fractured readership, depresses advertising dollars, but most dangerously, it creates cultural space for contention and/or dissent over which they have no control.

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:20:14

I will say it... I believe this whole mention of RTH, The Hamiltonian and suddenly their "Open-File" all in the same sentence-- may be the only reason to write any of this, in fact-- is ONLY to aid launching their hopeful free-media entry into the RTH and Hamiltonian's top-place market on online information.

They want us to put this entity on the same top-shelf as RTH and Hamiltonian...

Sorry, its a cheap media conglomerate trick I've seen before; I'm not falling for it and that site is not either of the former.

@AdmiralAckbar writes: Its a trap!

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:34:39

I recently subscribed to CATCH, another jewel in the commentary of this city. I'm sure most RTH patrons know it but they deserve a shout out on this subject.

Interesting article on the new Canada Bread plant there BTW.

wenthworthst,

So Open File is associated with The Spec... and then nicely slid their name in with the real open sites of Hamilton. No surprise now that I know, thanks!

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:47:04

@mrjanitor wrote: So Open File is associated with The Spec..

Oh no, its so much more complicated than that... Not owned, just some friendly funding from somewhere running it, and I don't know when it even appeared on the local editorial radar (but late, you can assume-- they blog at Typepad, after all).

I will guess The Spec was probably quite pleased to be taking a firm influence over this arrival.

And I would like to believe it is an utterly autonomous entitiy, and they in no way have any influence. Except I heard...

"So, whether its The Beatles, The Stones, or the latest hit from our new artist, we can all agree, things sound great!"

Sure... Except, who's that third one?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:49:11

So Open File is associated with The Spec

I'm not aware that OpenFile has any association with the Spectator. Their list of partners and friends does not include the Spec, Metroland, Torstar etc., and my understanding is that the startup capital came from a silent donor.

I find it interesting that Sheryl Nadler of The Spectator is the Editor of Open File Hamilton.

I had a meeting with Sheryl a few weeks ago to talk about OpenFile, and the sense I got was that she has clear ideas about her editorial role in the publication and its role in the community. I came away intrigued and looking forward to see how this model will play out in practice.

The next several years will be characterized by a number of such experiments as investors and innovators look for a viable business model for lean, web-based local journalism.

Personally, for community news I prefer RTH and the Hamiltonian for news instead of MSM.

That's very kind of you to write, I still think we need both community and corporate news media to get the fullest picture of what's going on. The mainstream media have resources to do vital and necessary journalism that you can't get from volunteers writing in their spare time - and I'd argue the reverse as well.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-01-13 12:43:51

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By rayfullerton (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 12:58:38

Ryan, I agree MSM is necessary journalism but RTH and Hamiltonian give me a fresh perspective on issues! RTH exemplifies true social media, Thanks!

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 16:25:33

Hey, timely... This was in my email today from J-Source.ca:

"OpenFile: at the corner of hope and hype"
http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=5998

Overall, and just IMHO... The best paranoid-thinking says, the oligopoly-- sorry, "consortium" that nows owns Canadian Press approves of this business-less hyper-local journalism approach.

To me, it always sounded like skimming the new community "citizen journalist" pool for stories and media they could turn to copyright-protected property.

I simply assume, here in Hamilton, Open-File called out for references and a very suitable candidate was eventually selected based on individual recommendations... To each their own conclusions.

But none of it explains the nagging question:

Why does the site design make me think I'm supposed to be paying a bill and doing something else? Where's the upside in hiding the News at a News site..? THAT part still eludes me...

Comment edited by wentworthst on 2011-01-04 16:32:40

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By Old News (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 16:28:13

The gutting of real journalists from newsrooms happened almost 2 decades ago now.

Southam Inc. cleaned out dissenting (i.e., non-corporate approved)opinion from the newsrooms of the small local newspapers when they bought many of the locals in the early 1990s. Subsequent holders of those Southam papers (e.g., Hollinger and Torstar) only continued the trend.

But it is good to see some of you have finally figured out that liquid dripping on you isn't rain.

Q: What was the first paper in the Southam empire?
A: The Hamilton Spectator

As an aside, I have no doubt people like Bill Kelly believe they are "vet[ting] the news for credibility", but the only reason they are allowed to is they are fools who believe the lie.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 17:52:50

I read this article this morning and decided to wait before posting anything.

I still can't figure out how to respond to this:

Bill Kelly, host of the Bill Kelly Show on CHML, insisted that his job is to vet the news for credibility and thereby protect his listeners from being misled.

Has he never listened to his own show??

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 19:55:36

The tipping point in the “top-down” bias in the Hamilton mainstream media occurred when a Torontonian who reads the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star had more access to Hamilton news items than Hamiltonians relying solely on the local mainstream media. Here are two examples:

July 2, 2010 (Globe and Mail)- Ron Foxcroft admits to introducing Bob Young and Scott Mitchell to representatives of other cities to explore the possibility of moving the Tiger-Cats out of Hamilton. Not reported by the Hamilton Spectator, CHCH-TV or CHML.

August 31, 2010 (Toronto Star)- Bob Bratina states that the McMaster Innovation Park is not fulfilling its mandate and that McMaster representatives might be receptive to a stadium at that location. Not reported by the Hamilton Spectator (part of Torstar), CHCH-TV or CHML.

Thank goodness that alternative sources of news sharing and opinion such as Raise The Hammer and The Hamiltonian are available when the traditional local gatekeepers choose to shut the gates.

Comment edited by RenaissanceWatcher on 2011-01-04 20:39:28

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 20:47:30

do you have a link to the July 2 Globe article about Foxcroft?? I can't find it on Google.

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 20:55:11

Unfortunately, the link to the July 2, 2010 Globe and Mail article containing the quotes from Ron Foxcroft is now only available to GlobePlus subscribers.

However, the original link was provided in my post on the following Raise The Hammer thread on August 14, 2010 and realfreeenterpriser had the presence of mind to type excerpts from the article in his subsequent post on the same thread: http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/1871/...

Comment edited by RenaissanceWatcher on 2011-01-04 21:15:06

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By Wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 04, 2011 at 22:30:35

@Ryan wrote: "It's the web of resources that matters: we're merely a strand."

The obvious thing is to be weaving strands together more... Its certainly very important with Google results (which is a study of my work), and there are likely a list of things a few of us could be sharing more about...

I hope there will be a time when there is a "discussion of the future of local media" among the "strands" around here, instead of just those corporations you sat down with.

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By anonymous (anonymous) | Posted January 05, 2011 at 00:23:57

I just read the Spec Article in question and was confused as to why Paul would even publish such a thing. I cancelled my subscription to the spec since all it had were ads and purchased news stories.

I have found that CHML has fundamentally changed ever since Roy Green left. Bill Kelly is a clown. I think his "vetting" of news and guests to be so poor that I have chosen not to listen anymore. CHCH has also been a big disappointment since their local coverage is so poor.

Media now seems to be all about entertainment.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted January 05, 2011 at 11:51:34

I think the various quotes you provided by local media types proves that they can't see the forest for the trees, & are really disconnected from life, & The Other People in the GHA.' It's a sad situation, but it's made better by RTH, The View's political section, & The Hamiltonian.

Maybe this is a sign that only certain voices & viewpoints ever crack the steel shell of Hamilton journalism, politics, & City Hall. I think we all knew that, but They don't seem to.

I think they all should be required to read RTH, The Hamiltonian, The View, &
"Horton Hears a Who" as soon as possible.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted January 05, 2011 at 12:04:47

The Tor. Star put Julian Assange on the 'Villains' list for 2010.(?) (It must hurt being outplayed by an hobbyist/blogger for factual journalism.)

They also forgot to give Mr. McGullicuddy, our Prov, Premier a 'dart' in the arse in their other 'Darts & Laurels for 2010' editorial. How many other leaders lured 1000's of citizens into peril by suggesting that they, 'Protest in a Safe Place'? It sounds pretty 3rd. World from here.

Big Media News is 'Sanitized for Your Protection'! You will never be contaminated by the truth, or fall afoul of homeland security issues,or suffer from 'inconsistencies' if you just continue to Digest your News @ McDonald's.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2011 at 13:21:17

I'm skeptical of how much of a business model can be built around this kind of 21st century journalism. People want news that's free in more ways than one, and it just doesn't follow that five or ten serious news stories a day and several sections of filler require a massive full-time workforce.

I would really like to see independent journalists get paid for their (our) time. I know what it's like to spend a dozen hours in Special Collections for a single article in a small-run newspaper, and to do it all for free. Perhaps someday we'll all be paid as freelancers, but I'm not holding my breath. What's far more likely is that we'll see a decentralized network of many news sources from different viewpoints, sharing stories and sources to provide a wider picture.

Perhaps this will never really yield windfall profits. Perhaps no one news source will ever again rise to the top. But perhaps all those hours we spend actually doing this stuff ourselves is what we'll have to pay for news from now on.

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By wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 06, 2011 at 01:40:38

@Undustrial wrote: I would really like to see independent journalists get paid for their (our) time...

It's worked online for a while, just not so much for those writers and markets held hostage by print-ad corps. You sign limited releases; shared rights & residuals. As someone who gets (small) residual cheques for work in the 90's, this is what works.

- Drop the costly print-addiction; "the medium" is just the marketing method.
- Retain a share of the syndication possibilities,
- Retain space or % of advertising within a host publication
- Retain ownership in the writing for the long run.

That being said, I think there must also be an ongoing payment to support columnists. And if they are working in more than one venue, this can add up too.

Put enough writers together that each bring an audience and you have... well, The Huffington Post is what you have.

Comment edited by wentworthst on 2011-01-06 01:41:20

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