By Joey Coleman
Published September 12, 2013
The debate about who is a journalist is old and tiring, and the only people who seem to care about debating it are those afraid of the growth in journalism outside of traditional power structures.
The debate was settled years ago and those who wish to preserve top-down, one-way power structures need to accept that times have changed. Even if they don't accept this change, they are powerless to stop it and trying to decide who is a "real journalist" won't stop the free (as in speech, not beer) exchange of information on the Internet.
The question of who is or is not a journalist is irrelevant. The proper question is: what is journalism and how do we define the act?
At Hamilton City Hall, the debate was settled two years ago, after the Mayor's Office stated they were rewriting the media policy to define a journalist as someone who has "a boss that I can complain to", as chief of staff Peggy Chapman said on CHML on May 25, 2011:
What I'm trying to bring in is a press gallery. What that means, and it's going to bother a few people... is I will recognize you and give you as much access to the mayor, as need be, or information that I have - and especially at council, if you have a boss. If you're a journalist that has a boss that I can complain to, if I think that information is incorrect. If you don't have that, it's, you know- how do we control, um, the information? I don't mean control like I want to control what's being said, but my first priority is the public. I would hope in media your first priority is the information to the public too. But that's not my responsibility. My responsibility is information coming from City Hall, to the public. And how do we get that? [emphasis added]
The resulting outcry from the community, an open letter signed by nearly all of Hamilton's independent journalists, and strong support from mainstream media outlets, led Council to adopt a permissive media policy that defines media as:
any print, radio, television or online media outlet. This includes national, regional, local, neighbourhood, community and ethnic media outlets, Online media refers to websites that publish news, investigative reports, analysis, commentary, events and/or general information.
City Hall's media policy allows anyone engaged in responsible coverage of civic affairs and meetings - regardless of revenue, platform, or audience size - to be at public meetings, request information from City Hall, and access to the same resources as any other person engaged in journalism.
While there have been hiccups, the new media policy is working well at Hamilton City Hall.
I've lost the past few days reacting to a complaint seeking to restrict the journalism I practice at City Hall.
The complaint alleges that I'm overusing City Hall resources because I'm at every meeting. The complaint seeks that I not be allowed to use the media room to work between meetings and that I not be allowed to store my camera gear, sound equipment, and lights in the media room.
I do not know who the complainant is, or if they are internal or external to City Hall.
Instead of covering the Scott Park high school partnership or the final steps towards implementation of the Cannon Street bike lanes, or the Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities, I've been engaged in trying to appease a complaint about my being at City Hall using city resources including the media room.
Variations on this complaint have been filed repeatedly during the past year: that I'm covering too many meetings and City Hall should impose restrictions on the amount of coverage any one 'blogger' should be allowed to produce.
Specifically, this time, the complainant alleges I'm using the media room too much, without keeping it well-organized and clean at all times.
Joey Coleman's messy workstation at 10:00 PM after a Council meeting
My coverage of City Hall is extensive. I usually arrive at City Hall no later than 7:30 AM to set up for the day, and it is rare for me to leave before 7:00 PM at night. Some nights, meetings continue into the late evening and I'm at City Hall past 10:00 PM.
Some days I have a pile of cords and papers stacked on the table I use. Sometimes, I even leave a half-eaten sandwich on the table when I run out to quickly interview a Councillor in the hallway before returning to finish my lunch.
There are evenings during which meetings run past 10:00 PM and I'm expected to be out of the building within 15 minutes. This means I quickly bring my equipment into the media room and leave it in a pile to organize in the morning.
This complaint is just the latest in a long series of frivolous complaints designed to harass and bully this non "real journalist" into no longer livestreaming meetings and to stop coverage of meetings at City Hall.
Equipment in use to record an interview. (May 2013)
Should City Hall limit the number of meetings one outlet can cover to manage saturation of journalism at City Hall? Is one media outlet over using resources? Are they covering City Hall too much?
Again, this isn't the proper question. The proper question is: Are these resources equitably available to all outlets and persons engaged in journalism? Are others allowed to cover all public meetings?
The same resources are available to all media outlets, and any outlet that wants to cover every meeting at City Hall can do so as well.
There is no special treatment of one outlet or person over the others.
This is not the first time I've lost time dealing with frivolous complaints. We've lost many days that could be spent covering City Hall affairs.
My responsibility here at City Hall is not to be in meetings and discussions about who is or is not a journalist. It is to produce the most accurate, comprehensive coverage of as many public meetings as I can possibly attend in a week, no matter how small or lacking in popular interest.
I do this because of passion for civic engagement and journalism. I am able to do this because of the support of readers who generously - and voluntarily - contribute to support my journalism.
There have also been repeated complaints that the privacy of Councillors and Staff is violated by livestreaming of meetings in Council Chambers.
In December, the facility manager for City Hall announced a ban on cameras from the Council Chamber for more than a few hours a week.
A comparison was drawn between the "real journalism" of CHCH-TV and livestreaming all meetings - CHCH only films a couple hours each week and engages in "real journalism" by making an editorial decision of what is or is not important.
To their credit, CHCH immediately intervened in the dispute, opposing the attempt to restrict livestreaming. After numerous media outlets stated they would go public about the matter and seek a judicial injunction against the restriction, City Hall abandoned the new restriction.
If those engaged in journalism decide to attend City Hall to cover meetings, this should be facilitated by City staff or other media outlets. There should be no ban imposed for covering "too many" meetings.
City Hall, the Mayor, and Council support the City's media policy, so why are we still debating it? Each time a frivolous complaint is made about the media policy, the Mayor's Office, the City Manager's Office, and members of Council quickly move to support the media policy.
The Clerks have become very proactive in providing the public - and by extension the media - with copies of agendas and are quick to assist all media with access to set up before meetings.
There are some at City Hall and beyond who oppose this policy. They should go public with their opposition and lobby Council to change the policy if they disagree with it.
Unless those opposed are willing to bring the debate about what is journalism to the Council Chambers, why are we continuing to debate the City Hall media policy?
For the past year, I have resolved each one of these disputes without making them public. The reason was simple: I don't want this to be the story from City Hall. I want the story to be matters of public interest being debated by Council.
However, by keeping these matters private, I'm allowing the campaign of harassment to continue and interfere with coverage of more important matters.
Starting today and moving forward, I will disclose whenever a frivolous complaint is filed that attempts to stop my coverage and livestreaming of all public meetings.
Below is a list of some of the frivolous complaints I have dealt with in the past year:
I will no longer deal with these kind of frivolous complaints nor will I attend any meetings that do not involve all those engaging in journalism at City Hall.
Local media outlets have quickly intervened to support the media policy when it has been challenged in the past year.
When attempts have been made to block my work, other media have provided support to allow livestreaming and other coverage to continue. Thank you to TheSpec, CHML, CFMU, and CHCH.
Hamilton's local media outlets enjoy a respectful and professional relationship.
We all work to be the best at what we do, and are working with limited resources to provide high-quality journalism while the business model that use to support journalism is gone and new models to replace it are being experimented with.
The crowdfunded model is one of many attempts to rebuild local journalism.
The latest complaint is about the amount of equipment and workstation I have within the City Hall media room.
JoeyColeman.ca setup in a corner of the media room at City Hall, approximately 20% of the space
The media room is shared-space provided by City Hall for working media to use to facilitate coverage of City Hall.
Prior to the City Hall renovation, there were two rooms for media. As outlets stopped full-time coverage of City Hall during the past decade, City Hall decided to provide one large room for media to share.
Prior to my outlet forming, the media room was a large empty space, rarely used, because journalists rarely attended meetings.
The room is available for use by anyone engaged in journalism at City Hall as defined in the media policy.
I use the space to store my livestreaming equipment (lights, tripods, sound board, folding chairs, cords, extension cords, and network cables). During the week, I work in the room between meetings.
Other outlets borrow cables on a regular basis as I keep extras in case something fails.
Other than myself, other media sometimes use the space as a lunch room and work during closed session portions of meetings.
I use approximately 20 per cent of the room. The other 80 percent of the room is empty with the exception of one table and a couple of chairs.
Unused space in the City Hall media room accounts for 80% of the room.
There are times, when others are not using the room, that I set up my lights and interview staff and Councillors on issues being considered by Council. This takes up most of the room for about an hour and has never interfered with others using the space.
The latest complaint alleges I'm taking up too much space and my area is sometimes "messy" with wires, cords, and equipment not neatly stored in a visually appealing manner.
Yes, I keep a messy desk with all the documents I'm reading.
Does this interfere with other outlets using the space? Apparently, if I were a real journalist, I'd know that newsrooms are quiet organized clean spaces with no stacks of paper or any other visual clutter.
Should a media room should be like an IKEA showroom at all times?
Having worked in numerous newsrooms, I have never seen a newsroom that fits the restrictions the complaint seeks.
Clearly, this complaint angle is designed to frustrate and prevent coverage of City Hall meetings by myself.
As a fellow journalist at TheSpec put it, it doesn't matter how much space each outlet is using: if more media space is needed, we should jointly request more space.
With 80% of the room rarely utilized, the complaints are frivolous.
I am now behind on preparation for meetings, editing and conversion of video for upload, and stories I need to complete.
My first priority is the completion of a feature story for Hamilton Magazine.
My second priority is to provide a comprehensive analysis of the City's proposed rental housing bylaw for Monday.
Third, I will edit and convert the videos from this week.
All of this will require the weekend to complete and I will be skipping most of Supercrawl to get this done.
On Monday, I will release a new format daily newsletter. I've spent time in Photoshop creating the layout and I believe you will enjoy it.
Uploading of video will likely take a couple of days.
To achieve all the work I do, I cannot allow frivolous antics by those upset by the amount of my coverage win by stopping journalism at City Hall.
I like how another media outlet's journalist summed up the situation: You know you're doing a great job when this is all they have to complain about and they waste their time complaining about it.
Am I a journalist? That's the wrong question.
The right question is: am I engaged in journalism and should journalism be allowed at City Hall?
I'll leave it to you to decide.
First published on Joey Coleman's website.
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