Who Owns Our Media?

The traditional media are used to being the experts who decide what people watch and read. That approach excludes people who hunger to participate.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 30, 2008

On Thursday, April 17, I had the fortune of participating in a panel discussion sponsored by the Art Gallery of Hamilton entitled, "Local Media - Voice of the Few, or Mouthpiece of the Masses?"

On the panel with me were Mike Katrycz, news director for CHCH News, Dave Kuruc, publisher of H Magazine, Tor Lukasik-Foss, an artist and a columnist for Hamilton Magazine, Jim Polling, managing news editor for the Hamilton Spectator, and Ted Kennedy, the chief of staff for CBC English Radio. The debate was moderated skillfully by Terry Cooke, former regional chair of Hamilton-Wentworth.

As you can imagine, the discussion was feisty and at times even heated. The audience, a self-selected group who take their media seriously enough to spend a Thursday evening on it, asked some hard-hitting questions, directed mainly at Katrycz and Polling.

Give Katrycz and Polling credit: they strode willingly into the lion's den.

Polling started things by asserting that he felt proud of the Spectator and insisting it's doing a good job of local coverage. Kuruc shot back [all quotes are paraphrased from memory; if I've remembered wrong, let me know and I'll fix it], "We need you to do an excellent job, not just a good job."

This effectively set the tone for the evening: the mainstream media defending their organizations against the charge that people don't feel like they have a voice, and the independent media filling a void by producing news and commentary by and about people, not just for consumers.

During one particularly heated exchange, Katrycz smirked at Kuruc and asked, "Okay, since you've appointed yourself the spokesman of all these dissatisfied citizens, you tell me specifically what we should have done differently" in its coverage of the collapse of the Balfour Building on King William.

Kuruc asked why CHCH didn't report the event on its 11 PM news show. Then he held up a newspaper from April 17 [PDF] with the headline "DOWNTOWN CAVE-IN" blaring from the front page and denounced the sensational coverage that ignored the political factors responsible for the collapse.

Using the Cognitive Surplus

I came out of that meeting with a very strong sense that the traditional media - print and television - are terrified of the internet. They don't understand it, they can't control it, and it's eating into their mindshare.

At the time, this seemed like a minor point, but since the meeting, I've been thinking about the entire discussion in these terms, trying to get a handle on what tied everything together: defensive traditional media, frustrated, disaffected readers/viewers, and independent media producing their own content to fill the void.

I finally put my finger on it after reading a transcript of a remarkable lecture by Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, in which he discusses what he calls the "cognitive surplus" - AKA free time - made available by industrialization.

For much of the 20th century, that surplus was largely mopped up by television: content created by a small group of people in a top-down corporate hierarchy and distributed through a one-way medium.

More recently, the advent of the internet has made it possible for many more people to create their own content and share it - essays, musings, photographs, cartoons, videos, fan fiction, reports, tools and applications, code snippets, and cutesy pictures of cats superimposed with cutesy text written in pidgin (I CAN HAS LITE RALE?).

People can start websites called "[company name] sucks" in which they vent their frustration with corporations that have useless, unaccountable "customer service" departments and get in contact with other people experiencing the same frustration.

They can discuss just about any issue imaginable on a forum, participate in online role-playing games, comment on articles they read, ask questions both technical and personal, flirt, provoke, outrage, sooth, comfort, and mollify.

People Like to Create

Set aside, for now, whether it's healthy or appropriate to socialize through a computer rather than in person. My point is that people like to create things and share them.

Before the internet, people who didn't break into the mainstream media were limited to self-publishing zines, joining clubs, and so on. This is slower, harder and more expensive than creating a blog or joining a forum, so fewer people did it.

The internet has made it much easier to create things and share them, so more people do it. More importantly: once people get a taste for creativity, it's frustrating to go back to being a passive recipient in a one-way communication.

This is why so many people open their newspapers straight to the letters to the editor page and, indeed, why that page is always full. Newspaper readers don't just want to read the news; they want to respond as well, to create content and share it.

It's also why people go to public lectures and panel discussions and use their 'question' to deliver a mini-lecture instead. For some reason organizers tend to regard this as a problem, something to be discouraged.

I'm not sure why; for many people this is a rare opportunity to be heard in a public setting - in other words, to create content and share it (live and in person, to boot).

It's why they came to the lecture. It's why Dave Kuruc launched H Magazine. It's why Maggie Hughes started The Other Side. It's why we formed Raise the Hammer.

Looking for the Mouse

Shirky points out that the entire Wikipedia project took something on the order of 100 million person-hours to create. If that sounds like a remarkable outpouring of collective effort, bear in mind that television consumes 200 billion person-hours a year in the USA alone.

The fact is that some of that time - that cognitive surplus - is now shifting from passive television viewing to active participation. Depending on how you measure it, TV viewing has been in decline for several years. So has newspaper readership.

Shirky suggests that this represents a structural shift in how people use their cognitive surplus:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen.

That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.


We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

Again, the important issue is not the internet per se; it's the fact that many people want their media to be participatory. As a rule, the mainstream media don't work this way, and they're frightened by people who demand it.

Even Nicole MacIntyre's Hall Marks blog, while providing an excellent resource for political junkies, still insists on moderating comments. This top-down comment management intermediates rather obtrusively - and, I would argue, unnecessarily - in the discussion, breaking its continuity.

The traditional media are used to being the professionals, the experts who decide what people watch and read. By definition that approach excludes and alienates people who hunger to participate, to create and share.

This is folly. In their desperation to preserve their relevance by asserting their role as gatekeepers, the mainstream media will simply find themselves circumvented and ultimately abandoned as creative, resourceful citizens find other ways to engage themselves.

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 01, 2008 at 16:21:35

Hi Ryan,

I was there, as you know. (Great to finally meet you, BTW.) It is folly indeed. My jaw hit the floor a few times. One time in particular was when someone asked Polling and Katrycz why they don't cover council meetings on a regular basis, and they shot back "we don't do process!" I am an advertiser's dream date. I'm a soccer mom in my peak spending years. Someone needs to tell the Spec and CH/E! that SOCCER MOMS DO PROCESS! We want in. We want to be engaged in our community because we care about our kids' futures, and we know that their health and well-being depends largely on the health of their community. And we're not stupid. I'm white knuckling my Spec subscription because I'm old and I need something papery to touch in the morning, but I have the exact feelings of frustration and alienation that you describe. I have to wonder. If the Spec is alienating their advertisers' dream dates, then who exactly do they think they're appealing to?

I also came out of the discussion with a sense of unease. It struck me that the alternative media in this city is rather precarious, depending as it does on the incredible dedication of a small handful of individuals. There will be an enormous hole if you or Dave burn yourselves out.

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 02, 2008 at 09:26:03

The Internet has changed many things, including the way we get our information, or mis-information; and there's the rub. The plethora of blogs and sites dedicated to alternative media don't have the same scrutiny or obligations as the main media. So, for the time being at least, or until some form of 'regulation' pervades alternative media, our society will continue to give more weight to the CH or Specs of this world.
That's not to say that the alternative media isn't entertaining or just has to be extra discerning.

It also struck me as ironic; that when Kuruc spoke of the 'missed' story of the building's collapse on King William; and suggested the real story-the political role in the collapse- he committed the same media bias he accused the Spec of having. Kuruc's slant is no more the entire story than the Spec's; they are just different perspectives. So, once again it is up to the consumer (reader/viewer) of the news to understand the bias and form his/her own opinion!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 02, 2008 at 10:23:31

"Kuruc's slant is no more the entire story than the Spec's; they are just different perspectives. So, once again it is up to the consumer (reader/viewer) of the news to understand the bias and form his/her own opinion!"

Except we're not hearing Kuruc's perspective in the mainstream media, which means that we're not getting the whole story, so consumers of mainstream media are not given the opportunity to form their own opinion, instead their opinion is being shaped.

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By Trey (registered) | Posted May 03, 2008 at 09:46:21

Regarding the self correcting internet.

Here's something I just came across on MSNBC and remembered Ryan's comment about self correcting.

The article begins by saying "Condi Rice, the first black secretary of state", which is incorrect, Colin Powell was. The article allows for people to comment, just like RTH, many people pointed out the error. The article has since been corrected but the comments are still there. I think Ryan acts more ethically then MSNBC did in this case, because when an error or omission is brought to his attention he corrects the article and makes a note of the correction. This is fair and ethical journalism. People will make mistakes, but if the mistake appears in any other medium other then the internet, it's out there and can't be corrected. Newspapers will make an effort usually in the next day's paper will a small 'correction' box but not as effective as the internet.

TV = for the first time since it was invented has shown a drop in 'hours watched per week' in the under 25 demo in 2007. In the past you could not get this demo away from the TV. Radio (AM/FM) - listeners peaked in 1999 - and has been dropping ever since. Newspapers - circulations have struggling for over a decade. The writing is on the wall so to speak.

However, text messaging, IM, web forums, facebook, MySpace, wiki sites, sites like this are all increasing.

As someone who works in media and commercial messaging i look forward to this change and reaching the audiences of the future.

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By lurkalicious (anonymous) | Posted May 03, 2008 at 11:35:00

Great point highwater about "we don't do process" what a cop-out! I was there that night and i think Ryan got it right when he said, (hey I'm quoting from memory to so be kind!) "when someone says something that you can look it up and check to see if it's correct, the media should look it up, and THAT's what they should print, not just that the person said it."

THAT's "process" - following how decisions are made, who says what, how other people rebutted (is that a word?), etc.... That's why I love RTH so much cause it starts following the guts of an issue long before the decisions are made. Like the airport lands thing, that's ALL about "process" only the Spec is only interested in the final decision after it's too late to see if the process sucked.

CATCH is also hugely important for this, "process" is just about their entier thing. Thank goodness someone's covering this so the public can actually get involved for once and maybe make decisions that better.

No wonder this makes the people in charge uncomfortable.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 03, 2008 at 12:02:32

I agree. I have no doubt RTH makes The Spec, and CHCH/E Channel uncomfortable. If this was a commercialized website, ie we took in advertising dollars for banner ads -- we do have 10,000 page views a day -- we would've had an offer from Torstar to buy us out. It's been their business model for years in this market. Goldbook, AdBag, Brabant,, and others have all been bought out by Torstar.

The problem is RTH, HMag, Mayday, CATCH and CFMU makes them nervous in an area they don't know how to deal with. They can't buy us out, they can't take away our advertising revenue, so their only option is to become more accountable, more fair and provide a larger diversity of opinions.

Hey, it sounds like we're filling in for what the CBC/Public Broadcasting is suppossed to do and we all know how lousy Hamilton is covered by our National Public Broadcaster and how negatively The Spec and local Radio were about plans of a CBC/Radio One Hamilton signal.

Could you imagine how much news fodder a CBC Hamilton Radio station would have with just the Balfour Bldg. The mainstream media (or lack of it) has kept the lights off in this city for too long. Most of the things we write about on RTH wouldn't be an issue if we weren't kept in the dark and were allowed to take part in the 'process' or at very least be informed of the 'process'. So the The Spec would have to add 4 more pages, and not everyone would read it, but this should be their responsibility. CATCH wouldn't have to exist if the City had it's own meeting minutes transciption service, like other cities do. And The Spec offers one maybe two different opions at most(McIntyre and Dreschel) on City Hall meetings. And even then The CIty far too often goes incamera to even keep issues in the dark.

There have been many reasons why Hamilton has stalled for the last 30 years and I can lay blame for one of those reasons at our media and the level of ignorance most people have.

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 04, 2008 at 21:42:40

I don't really believe the mainstream media is concerned about sites like RTH and CATCH and HMAG. They don't cut into the market share. As for readership? 10,000 a day. How many repeats? I think selling ads would be a truer test of market share; as would be knowing how many 'customers' you have that aren't the 10 or 20 times per day repeats.

Look at the contributors. The same names appear.

Having said that, there is a place for these alternatives and the interaction is excellent, if occasionally misinformed, or more accurately 'similarly' informed.
Keep it up.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 05, 2008 at 10:07:13

You think the interaction here is occasionally misinformed? Have you read the opinions page of the Spec lately?

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2008 at 11:03:28

Highwater said, "You think the interaction here is occasionally misinformed? Have you read the opinions page of the Spec lately?"


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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2008 at 12:10:51

"So, once again it is up to the consumer (reader/viewer) of the news to understand the bias and form his/her own opinion!"

More than that, it's time for the consumer to stop wasting money & time on media that cannot or will not do it's job. (if I want something 'papery' in my hands over breakfast, it's probably going to be the Star 6 days a week, & the G. & M. on Sunday.)

I've simply given up on the Spec's reporting of local news. I'm not implying bias as much as the inabilty to get the job done.

(The Spec was until recently, one of the few papers anywhere that required a daily subscription to access it's website. Even tiny rural papers do not impose that rule. I'm glad the Spec has recinded that, but it was so off-putting that I don't bother anymore with the paper or the website. You can't bribe or beat people over the head to get them to read. Far better if the Spec had improved it's local coverage from politics to car accidents to get people to Want to be informed about local matters.)

The 'new improved' Spec now provides more advertisers even more entire sections of their paper to sell cars & real estate. Wading through the Saturday Spec is a bore!

As for CHCH news, I'd have to say the same. The niche of local media is always to emphasize local news while covering world & national news. If it doesn't want to do that kind of coverage, then it has lost it's reason to be around.

It will probably be argued that to lose either The Spec. or CHCH news would be a loss to local news coverage, & pride, but any business has the responsibilty to do the job it has been mandated to do. If local news & issues are not covered in depth, then what are we loosing?

At one time our little weekly papers did a consistently better job of reporting local news. They now seem to be cutting back on local reporting in favour of Opinion, both editorial & readership. Even local crime stories seem to lack the 'Who,What,When,Why,& Where' in many cases, leaving both victims, neighbours & witnesses alike wondering what actually happened.

We all have opinions, & we all might like to see them in print, but it's time for everyone to get back to the basics of reporting local news. It should not be considered beneath your dignity!

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By OKthen (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2008 at 17:55:06

Why am I reading an article about what a guy thought of a meeting. What do I care about one person's opinion. I am not, thankfully, a regular viewer of this website. It sounds like a lot of you people have to much time on your hands and just like to complain. That being said, I think many of you are jealous of Hamilton's media. If any of you were offered a position with a professional station or publication, I believe you would take it - dispite everything you all have complained about. Anyway, this will surely be my last visit to this website.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 20, 2008 at 13:17:32

The point was missed by OKthen.

This is just one opinion, because of the lack of media -- variety of media -- also means a lack of diverse opinions. This is why this website exists, it offers one more set of diverse opinions to the miniscule variety of media opinion that exists in this marketplace compared to similar sized cities in Canada. Edmonton has two dailies, 17 radio stations, four tv stations, and several magazines and weeklies. This is the reason why CBC has Hamilton at the top of their list for a new radio station. How can another media outlet harm the people of Hamilton? It doesn't. It serves to offer another viewpoint on local issues, issues that are sometimes under-reported because of special interests. We hope people read this and gain another insight into an issue, they don't have to agree but perhaps have a discussion on the way this city evolves, to be a part of the evolution.

We don't have TOO (learn your homophones) much time on our hands. We have professions, families and obligations like any other civic minded, contributing member of our city. We happen to be passionate about Hamilton so much so that we chose to find time for this website. Do the members of the Chamber of Commerce have too much time on their hands? --or the volunteers at the foodbank, the little-league coaches and those offering services at their church. And thank you for the job offer but no thanks.

By the way -- who won American Idol? Too much time YOUR hands.

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By eight headed beast (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2008 at 14:15:51

"What do I care about one person's opinion."

Yeah, because nothing says ''page-turner'' like an article written by a committee.....

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2008 at 08:47:54

All forms of communication can be considered 'media'. Some 'media' are professionally run, for-profit organizations with codes of ethics and government agencies to report to; and some 'media' are looser in format, content and obligations.

It is up to the consumer to assign merit to whatever he/she reads, views or listens to.

I find all these sources interesting, informative and instructive and entertaining. But not all to the same extent. And not all are given the same legitimacy by me.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 11:43:01

yes that's true. even the spoken word between two parties is a medium. Gorilla Marketing is a good example.

But generally speaking when "media" is used it refers to "mass media" and the big four -- TV, Radio, (sometimes combined called 'Broadcast') Print, and Web.

And all media needs to be given the same legitamacy. Just because a corp. owns a medium outlet, doesn't mean it doesn't have an agenda the same as one person's blog on the web. The Bolshiveks used 'illegal' printing presses to communicate their message of revolution. The Allies used radio (radio free Europe) to communicate their message. The US used TV to communicate their message for invading Iraq. In complete anti McLuhan form. the medium is irrelevant, the message is all that matters.

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By trey (registered) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 11:50:08

It's also important to note: Radio: listeners peaked in 1999 have gone down every year since Newspaper readers have been in a decline since 1994 TV: for the first time since TV's invention -- the hours watched per week in the 18-25 demo dropped in 2007.

The future medium is the web. It will be fun and interesting to communicate messages in the next 25 years.... I look forward to it. Many 'old school' marketers and communication professionals deny this is happening just like Peak Oil.

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 06:49:01

Trey: "The future medium is the web. It will be fun and interesting to communicate messages in the next 25 years.... I look forward to it. Many 'old school' marketers and communication professionals deny this is happening just like Peak Oil."

No question the web has democratized communications. One should not confuse noise with news, or opinion with fact. The web is the source of much noise and much opinion. It takes a discerning individual to filter out the baloney.

Reading some of the commentary on this site and others, I sometimes feel that not enough filtering is being done.

Very entertaining; but is it valid? Only you can judge.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 09:33:31

The commentary on this site is no worse, and often alot better, than the commentary you get in the Spec, CH, and CHML. In fact, one of the reasons I frequent this site is because I can't find intelligent, in-depth news coverage in any of our local mainstream outlets. Does that mean that I agree with everything I see here? No. But I see things here that I will never see in the mainstream media and that makes all the difference.

The idea that the MSM is the guardian of "news" and "fact", while the web is full of "noise" and "opinion" is hilariously outdated. Frankly, the proliferation of sites such as this one, is a direct reaction to all the "noise and opinion" coming out of the MSM. The MSM has alot of damage control to do if they ever want to be seen as the arbiters of 'news and fact' again. Until then, my baloney filter will continue to be set on high when I read the Spec/listen to CH, etc., as much as when I read the web.

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By MediaWatch (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2008 at 09:56:33

Thank you Highwater. You have just made my point. That all media needs a good baloney filter.
I just think that much of what we see on the web needs a bigger filter. If you disagree, you are allowed.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2008 at 23:52:08

In small market radio media my whole life, I have asked this same question. The answer:

1) Advertisers. The commercial media can't report the truth, but rather need to keep an atmosphere where their advertisers can prosper, or there won't be paychecks. You can't say,"We take this break from End of the World coverage to bring you this message from Princess Cruises".

2)Corporate CEO Owners - who decide which stories can be run that won't hurt their own investments.

3) Government. Look no further than that "Conspiracies:Iraq" video you were in - you can't ask the president tough questions, or you lose your credentials to attent press conferences in the White House.

There are more, but those 3 are mainly why they will show the meltdown of Britney Speers or a car-chase on the streets of LA, but not bank runs, government lies, Constitutional discard, Matt Simmons on oil supplies, deficits of households financing their life on credit cards, etc.

There is no democracy with a controlled media.

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