Journalism? Or Public Relations? Pt. 2

1. Credit Where Credit is Due: A Long History

I want to thank the many readers of my blog who kindly took time to send me comments and compliments on my essay, Journalism? Or Public Relations? including Randy Morse. I firmly believe in the principle of offering credit where credit is due, since as writers we all build on foundations laid long before we were born. So I wanted to point out that even with my efforts to provide a complete picture, I did miss a couple of things.

Most importantly, it needs to be clear that while I have a deep distaste for the corporate business model of the major media and the way it treats labour, I have nothing but respect for the individual journalists who work for those media outlets. That includes local corporate outlets like the Nelson Star, where Greg Nesteroff has done a fine job of carrying on the tradition of heritage columnist that I enjoyed so much while writing Heritage Beat for the Nelson Daily News from 1996-2000. Nelson has had a long tradition of historical columnists, going back to Nelson Oldtimers Association writers like RG Joy in the 1910s and ’20s, Doris Bradshaw in the 1940s, and revived in the 1980s by the wonderful Shawn Lamb, after whom the Touchstones Nelson archives are named. It’s great to see a younger generation of journalists taking an interest in local history and doing the hard work to make it public.

Another local historian, Ron Welwood, former librarian for Selkirk College, was not only responsible for maintaining a fine local history collection there but also wrote many articles on Kootenay history. Ron reminded me of another important figure in the West Kootenay history of journalism. He writes: “You should add Francis John Deane to your list of excellent Kootenay newspapermen. Deane purchased The Miner and started the Nelson Daily News in its stead. His editorials were also very powerful and his challenge to the CPR’s telegraphic service was epic (and) coincided with the formation of the Western Associated Press – the Canadian Press service we know today.” In true Kootenay fashion, Deane fought corporate giant CPR to get reasonably priced wire services for the region’s newspapers, a battle he eventually won. [1]

John Houston, founder of two Nelson newspapers, often railed against corporate excesses. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

John Houston, founder of two Nelson newspapers, often railed against corporate excesses. Photo c.1900. Courtesy Touchstones Museum of Art & History / Shawn Lamb Archives

Turning back again to the contemporary journalism scene in the West Kootenay, we have others I should have named but didn’t (the essay is 2,000 words as it is!). I also received compliments from Adrian Barnes, publisher of Lone Sheep Publishing, which publishes five online newspapers including the excellent Rossland Telegraph. The Telegraph has a great roster of columnists, including well-known locals such as historian Charles Jeanes, and more nationally known names like Murray Dobbin. Adrian through his ‘Foment West Kootenay’ Facebook page is dedicated to fostering discussion on potential solutions to the many dilemmas facing 21st century society. So in that sense he is a fitting heir to the tradition begun by Kootenay newspapermen like John Houston, David Carley and FJ Deane.

Then there’s my old high school buddy Bob Irving, proprietor of the independent newsgathering agency TMTV News. I still remember when he first got his hands on a video camera back in the late ’70s when we were at Aspire alternative school in Nelson. Video was still new then! It struck a chord in him that has obviously lasted a lifetime. Bob regularly sells his footage to BCTV and other major stations.

I didn’t mention Kaslo’s long-serving Pennywise simply because I was dealing with publications whose primary mandate is to produce journalism.

2. Back to the Future

It turns out that Randy Morse’s Dalton Camp Award essay originally had a phrase that acknowledged the Valley Voice and Kaslo’s Pennywise. One wonders if it was struck out because otherwise, the argument for “no substantial, serious media” here falls apart. Randy has taken my response to his essay in good form, noting that he looks forward to continued discussion on the topic. He writes: “I think the fact my reference to the VV (and the Pennywise) was whacked from the original piece has rather coloured your interpretation of what I actually wrote. I’m advocating more, not less, of the sort of work you’ve been doing for years, with more access to platforms and resources – all of them publicly, not privately, controlled. With mentoring and support provided by journalists with precisely your view of the merits (or lack thereof) of most corporate media.”

In fact, when the Nelson Daily News was closed by Black Press, the writing seemed to be on the wall for local print newspapers. It was for this and other reasons that Lone Sheep was started with Adrian Barnes and David Livingstone. The idea was to enter the uncertain waters of online publishing, which to this day remain choppy seas to navigate. Ad sales don’t yet seem to have matched what print publications used to enjoy so monetizing online journalism remains a major challenge. Publishers like Dan Nicholson of the Valley Voice remain committed to print in a region where many have deliberately chosen off-grid lifestyles. For these residents, going entirely online would mean not getting their local news at all.

Nevertheless, both Adrian Barnes and Nelson Becker of the Nelson Express, who was forced to go exclusively online when Black Press poached his major advertising contracts, are moving toward the digital media paradigm envisioned by Randy Morse. However, as American journalism professor Robert McChesney and his colleague John Nichols write in The Death and Life of American Journalism [2] this is no small challenge. “The hope on the part of most sincere publishers and editors was to create websites of quality and then to have advertising shift over to support journalism on the Web as it had done for more than a century of old media. The project has had a small measure of success… US newspaper sites had 67 million unique visitors per month, generating just over $3 billion in advertising revenue in 2008. (But)… the truth is that three billion dollars is a pittance for the entirety of newspaper publishing, and well below the cost of operations.” McChesney and Nichols cite the conclusion of Columbia Journalism Review writer Ryan Chittum, who said: “The key thing to take away from these numbers is this: Internet ads will not save newspapers.”

I came to McChesney and Nichols’ book with great hope – maybe these journalism experts had cracked the code of what will save journalism from its slide into corporate propaganda. But I found the book’s proposed solution disappointing, not in principle but in its practical difficulties. They propose that, as I’ve argued, journalism needs to be reframed in the public consciousness as a “public good” like schools, libraries, paved roads, and sewer systems. That means they must receive some form of subsidy or taxation support in order to survive. The authors do their historical homework well, pointing out that in the early days of the American Republic, newspapers received federal subsidies for both printing and postage. Of course, they also had no other form of media to compete with…

However, while I’d happily vote ‘yes’ to such a proposal, in these days of extreme right-wing ideology in government I just can’t see how the idea could fly. In Canada the Harper Conservatives are busily emptying out the coffers to give to their corporate cronies, even proposing that the tax revenues currently given to the CBC be given to private broadcasters instead. As I’ve said before, we are in the ‘pillage and plunder’ phase of empire, when the Barbarians in Gucci shoes sack Rome with the full approval of Emperor Harper.

So if Randy Morse’s Kaslo Institute wants to deal with the whole issue of transitioning to digital media in rural communities, then perhaps Job One is figuring out how existing local media can stay afloat financially while still doing the same excellent job they’ve done for decades. We may need new strategies or new business models for the media we already have, but I would argue we don’t need any new media outlets here. Clearly, players like Adrian Barnes, who are struggling to make that transition, should be key consultants, as should anyone who has put their lifeblood into maintaining local media presence against great odds.

The stakes are high: without a fully independent media capable of taking the time to investigate stories and expose wrongdoing, we face a continued slide into what McChesney and Nichols call “a new era of corruption.” [3] With so much local talent and dedication to community, we can continue to use our creativity and ingenuity to forge local solutions by and for Kootenay residents. That means far more than using local media as a just another public relations tool, a mere adjunct to Chamber of Commerce promotions. It means continuing to foster West Kootenay media in its century-old tradition of being committed to the public good by providing quality, in-depth journalism.

[1]Ron Welwood, Telegraph Tyranny: F.J. Deane vs. Canadian Pacific Telegraph in British Columbia History, 41.1 (2008): pp.12-18.

[2]Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Nation Books, (2010) p. 66.

[3]Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Nation Books, (2010) p. 27.

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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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