Journalism? Or Public Relations?

1. A Little Historical Perspective

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” –attributed to George Orwell

In response to Randy Morse’s Dalton Camp Award-winning essay, Small Towns, Big Media, I have to ask: Just what does it mean to have “substantial, serious media”? What constitutes community journalism, and what is its impact on community? As always, the answers depend on the criteria used to measure one’s response. By the purely corporate standards of the day, where “substantial” means something with a multi-million dollar bottom line, no community newspaper smaller than a Toronto or Vancouver daily makes the cut. Sadly, quantity rather than quality does seem to be the rule these days, despite the axiomatic statement often attributed to George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” While the quote’s provenance is in dispute, it remains a relevant and potent commentary on the state of early 21st century journalism.

'Colonel' Robert Thornton Lowery published newspapers throughout the West Kootenay. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

‘Colonel’ Robert Thornton Lowery published newspapers throughout the West Kootenay. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

Since Mr. Morse is writing about the small rural communities of the West Kootenay, some historical context is in order. As author of two books of regional history, I believe I have an informed perspective to offer. What’s fascinating is that this region on the fringes of Western Canadian civilization has a 100-year history of lively and well-informed journalism. During the expansionist era of the late 19th century, newspapers sprang up like spring daisies and just as quickly died. As mining camps blossomed during the various gold rushes in the Western US, British Columbia and the North, itinerant Western Canadian journalists like John ‘Truth’ Houston, ‘Colonel’ Robert Thornton Lowery and David Carley followed the boom/bust cycle. And everywhere they went, no matter how small or remote the community, they started newspapers. They were every bit as influential as American counterparts like Bret Harte, though far less famous.

Houston at one point was paid in moveable type rather than cash and he carried it with him as we today would carry a laptop. He arrived in the nascent community of Nelson, BC in the early 1890s, establishing the first of his two newspapers there, The Miner (later the Nelson Daily Miner and later still the Daily News) and The Tribune. Lowery—a cigar-chomping straight-shooter—was responsible for a bewildering array of ephemeral broadsheets including The Paystreak in the mining boomtown of Sandon, British Columbia, tucked deep into the mountains near Slocan Lake. He also published newspapers in several other West Kootenay mining communities, including Kaslo.

This was the age of what was known as ‘yellow journalism,’ when newspapers unabashedly reflected the viewpoints of their editors or owners, with no attempt at objectivity. Publishers used their newspapers as ‘bully pulpits’ to argue their causes or campaign for social justice. John Houston seldom minced words, as when he called the CPR “the greediest corporation on earth.” It was a short step from yellow journalism to the great ‘muckrakers,’ as Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the investigative journalists of the early 20th century—Pulitzer, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, et al. ‘Muckrakers’ they may have been, but their exposés brought the injustices of factory systems and urban poverty to the attention of mass audiences.

Nelson's first mayor (1897), John Houston, was an ardent anti-corporate journalist. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

Nelson’s first mayor (1897), John Houston, was an ardent anti-corporate journalist. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

Nelson, a community that has never had a population greater than 10,000 and in the early 20th century would have been half that number, enjoyed the unusual distinction of having not just one but two and sometimes three newspapers running simultaneously. Houston, who veered from a career as journalist/publisher to prospector/miner depending on the state of his finances, naturally pitched his writing to the working class. He once swore that, “I, for one, will never wear a corporation collar.”[1]

The Daily News—later the Nelson Daily News before it was shut down in 2010 after its purchase by Black Press, ending a 110-year traditionwas the voice of the mine owners, CPR managers and other upwardly mobile of the period. Frequent wars of words broke out between Houston and the editors of the Daily News. When David Carley began publishing a third newspaper in Nelson, The Economist, he chose the middle path, neither extreme right nor left. Carley’s articles favoured an Irish Catholic viewpoint over the dominant British Loyalist view of Nelson’s elite. In such a small community, the range of opinions was broad enough to include all but the disenfranchised Aboriginal and Chinese populations. But inclusion of these communities would have to wait for the social reforms of the 20th century.

2. Small Town Journalism in the Age of Corporate Media

This is the Western Canadian tradition I was cultured in—the self-educated, independent journalist beholden to no corporate master. I write for one of the last independently owned community newspapers in Western Canada, the Valley Voice, located in the Slocan Valley. I see journalism as a calling, a branch of public service. This may seem naïve at best in a world so jaded by the self-interest ethos promoted by commerce. I recall watching with growing alarm as the first Canadian media mergers began in the early 1990s when Conrad Black was building his news empire. And while Black’s guiding principle was pure profit, he also prompted the return to partisan journalism that had been the norm a hundred years earlier with yellow journalism. Izzy Asper took an even more ideological approach, issuing directives to editorial staff about what viewpoints were or were not permissible in his newspapers. Meanwhile the corporatization of journalism has inevitably meant a shift from a focus on quality content to whatever brings in the ad revenue, no matter how base or pointless. As journalism professor Marc Edge writes, “The Canadian media system, according to David Taras, is in the midst of a profound crisis. ‘We are witnessing not an abrupt execution,’ he claimed, ‘but a slow, lingering death.’”[2]

Dave Carley published a third newspaper in Nelson during the early 1900s. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

Dave Carley published a third newspaper in Nelson during the early 1900s. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

But meanwhile, independent newspapers like the Valley Voice, the Nelson Express and the BC Gulf Islands broadsheet Island Tides continue to hang on, driven by publishers and journalists who see their job as, well, more than just a job. They see it as a vital thread holding their communities together. A clarification is needed here: by ‘community newspapers’ I don’t mean merely the branch plant subsidiaries now owned by major media chains like Black Press, which now dominate the market in rural BC. These newspapers have at best a tenuous connection to the communities they serve. They also exploit labour ruthlessly. A colleague of mine, to make ends meet, must commute between two far-flung towns to edit two small town corporate newspapers. He must act as reporter, editor, photographer, videographer, webmaster, office administrator, and God knows what else. He’s simply too busy or too exhausted to properly research stories anymore.

On top of that, to further cut costs, “community newspapers” owned by media corporations rely on a substantial amount of wire copy in every issue—for example, world news easily obtained elsewhere. As Chris Hedges says, investigative journalism is expensive, and that would cut into profits—the ultimate sin in the Age of Corporatocracy. In the process, however, we lose the ability to see the breadth, scope and depth of an issue. What we get instead are 200-word ‘news’ stories and Twitter blips—mental mush for the short-of-attention-span. Most corporate news chains no longer have any budget at all for freelancers, deepening the chilling effect on editorial expression that began with the ‘Lord’ Black and Asper media empires.

Meanwhile, dedicated editors like Jan McMurray at the Valley Voice and the Island Tides’ Christa Grace-Warrick actively resist the corporatization of the newspapers they have so lovingly built up. They understand the role of the journalist as an advocate for the public good rather than just a corporate mouthpiece. They sacrifice better-paying jobs and perks to put in 60-hour workweeks so that their communities are thoroughly informed on any issues of concern. Every drop of ink in their (yes, still printed) journals is imbued with their heart’s blood.

For me as a freelance journalist for the past 24 years, that has meant the freedom to really dig into important stories. When the BC government a few years ago was promoting run-of-river ‘micro’ hydro projects or IPPs (Independent Power Projects), something seemed fishy, if you’ll pardon the pun. I told Jan I wanted time to do substantial research on the story and was granted it. The result confirmed many critics’ suspicions, that it was nothing more than a thinly veiled corporate giveaway not designed to foster small-scale power generation at all. I was allowed to write a series of investigative pieces that stretched over three issues. If I’d been writing for the Calgary Herald or the Vancouver Sun I doubt I’d have been given that much freedom.

Evidence of fuel in Lemon Creek. The Valley Voice has stayed on this story long after Big Media left. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jet fuel in Lemon Creek. The Valley Voice has stayed on this story long after Big Media left. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

When BC Hydro began touting the benefits of its dubious ‘smart’ meters, I confronted the head of the program, Gary Murphy, with solid research, none of which he was able to refute with any facts. Then when a jet fuel tanker truck took a wrong turn on a decommissioned logging road in the Slocan Valley last July 26 and dumped nearly all its load of 35,000 litres in Lemon Creek, I was there the morning after the evacuation was lifted. In fact, I was first on the scene, followed closely by a BCTV news crew. Long after the rest of the media had decided the story was “over,” which it certainly was not for the people who lived next to Lemon Creek and Slocan River, I continued with regular updates, both in the Valley Voice and on my blog. I’ve lost track of how many times residents have thanked me for not forgetting them.

So how is any of this not “substantial, serious media”? I would argue we have the dedication, experience and professionalism to create journalism that is more substantial than what’s often seen in big city dailies now. One thing becomes apparent when you live in a small rural BC town—if you want any kind of community, you’d better be prepared to help create it. If you’re a journalist that means accepting lower pay than your compatriots in the city. The returns are great, however—a sense of connection so lacking in today’s world, not to mention living in the most beautiful countryside in Western Canada.

The Valley Voice broke the real story behind BC Hydro's 'smart' meters for our 7500 readers.

The Valley Voice broke the real story behind BC Hydro’s ‘smart’ meters for our 7500 readers.

One grateful reader in Kaslo, the late Jane Lynch, paid to run an ad in the Valley Voice for a solid year, thanking us for all we do on behalf of the community. Our letters pages are often full of similar letters, which are often cited by readers as one the most popular features of the newspaper. Our editor Jan McMurray allows letters up to (and sometimes beyond) 500 words, so instead of the paltry 200-word maximum typical of larger newspapers, writers have the opportunity to fully develop an argument. It’s obvious from reading these letters that readers here are deeply engaged with their communities. Many are also obviously well educated and easily capable of coherent discourse—something fast disappearing in these days of social media. And unlike most corporate media now, the Voice still employs a proofreader!

Not only are independent, rural newspapers capable of first-rate journalism, they are a lifeline to the communities they serve. For rural BC towns, economic survival is often tenuous. Thus the importance of promoting a ‘shop local’ awareness, regularly highlighting both new and existing small businesses in the region. People here understand that if they choose to drive to Kelowna to shop in a big box store instead of patronizing their neighbours, it could have disastrous long-term consequences for everyone.

As the media continues to distort itself into a kind of corporate propaganda machine that would have made even Soviet-era state newspaper Pravda blush, the real journalism happens on the fringes. Not just the electronic fringes of blogs and social media, where chaos too easily ensues, but in the rural ‘heartland’ of journalism. In many respects, here in the Kootenays we’re coming full circle, back to the do-it-yourself gumption of 19th century journalists like John Houston—individuals with strong opinions and an even stronger commitment to their communities. Public service over profit—what a concept! And a tradition well worth perpetuating.

LINK TO THE RANDY MORSE ESSAY: http://www.friends.ca/DCA/2014/RandyMorse

[1] Art Joyce, A Perfect Childhood—One Hundred Years of Heritage Homes in Nelson, (Nelson, BC: Kootenay Museum Association and Historical Society), 1997, p.82.

[2] Marc Edge, Asper Nation—Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (Vancouver: New Star Books), 2007, 262.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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2 Responses to Journalism? Or Public Relations?

  1. Krystyna says:

    Hi there,

    I am confused about the ownership and political orientation of The Miner/Nelson Daily Miner/Daily News.

    The sentence about Houston stating, “…he arrived in the nascent community of Nelson, BC in the early 1890s, establishing the first of his two newspapers there, The Miner (later the Nelson Daily Miner and later still the Daily News)…” implies that the Miner was renamed the Nelson Daily Miner and then the Daily News. Is this correct?

    Later you discuss Houston’s anti-capitalist views, and the way in which his newspapers were intended for a working class audience. If The Miner/Nelson Daily Miner/Daily News were all one paper owned by Houston, why did the Daily News publish pro-mine owner views, and why did Houston argue against the views published in that paper? Was the Nelson Daily Miner purchased by someone and then republished as the Daily News with radically different views?

    Hoping you can clarify!

  2. Krystyna: thank you for the question. John Houston sold the Daily Miner and later started up The Tribune when he realized the new owners of the Miner were only giving voice to the mine owners. His original intention was to get out of the newspaper business in Nelson and prospect in the mining booms springing up across the western continent. In fact he signed an agreement that he would not start a rival newspaper in Nelson when he sold the Miner, an agreement he later broke to publish The Tribune. Houston was an enigmatic and mercurial person, complex but very dedicated to the working class point of view.

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