March 23, 2005

Media concentration (in forthcoming issue of THIS Magazine)

Sometimes you have to leave to see things for what they are, and from about 33,000 feet, Vancouver’s monopolized media landscape looked like a mess. When I left that city for Whitehorse last year, I grabbed the complimentary Yukon News on the plane and was stunned by its quality, compared to the richer and ostensibly more influential Vancouver Sun. I discovered the News is one of three independent newspapers in Whitehorse, population 22,000, joined by an entertainment weekly, two independent news-radio stations, a CBC radio and television news bureau and one Christian radio station.

Speaking strictly of news, coming to Whitehorse from Vancouver was like returning to a marketplace of ideas from within an echo chamber. Both of Vancouver’s English daily newspapers, the Sun and the Province, along with one of two national dailies, two available TV newscasts and most of the city’s community weeklies are controlled by one corporation: CanWest Global. In April, CanWest launched Dose, a free daily paper for the 18-34 demographic in Vancouver and four other Canadian cities. Flush with advertising, devoid of serious competition and doing it all within the law, Vancouver is CanWest CEO Leonard Asper’s version of Disney Land.

Barbara Jo May, a public librarian, is sick of the situation. She says the quality of CanWest’s local news is poor, especially its provincial political coverage. Because of cutbacks at the Sun and the Province, neither has a reporter at the BC legislature in Victoria. One reporter from Victoria’s Times Colonist, also a CanWest property, feeds one viewpoint to Vancouver’s dailies. It’s not quite censorship, but covering provincial politics on the cheap has a similar effect. And it betrays what’s most important to CanWest when it comes to news, a point May feels is underlined by the company’s growing profit margins in Vancouver. “We’re in the lead-up to a general election in May, but the quality of what we’re hearing about as far as policy and program changes is really lacking,” she says.

While things appear grim from above, down on the street you find a lot of Vancouver residents, like May and Brant Cheetham, ready to fight for change. Both are members of the Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom, a group of indie media types writers, broadcasters, photographers, filmmakers, web designers, media reformers and concerned citizens, started in 1996. The group recently launched a letter-writing campaign to Joan Fraser’s Senate committee, currently studying Canada’s news media, urging the government to establish market media domination caps, maintain Canadian ownership requirements, enhance public broadcasting, put communities-- not cable companies --in charge of community broadcasting and to give tax breaks and grants to community media.

“We think community based media is where it’s at,” says Cheetham, who sits on the campaign’s steering committee. While he acknowledges the community-media-will-save-us model may sound like pie in the sky dreaming, something needs to give: the next generation ignores news from traditional sources. “One reason the youth are not engaged is because it’s clear to us that the world is run by these 55-year-old white guys, and we don’t have a say, regardless of what we think, because we’re not running the place. If you shift gears to have community based media reporting on community things -- local issues that matter and that you can take action on -- you give people a bit more hope.”

Cheetham feels Vancouver’s alternative media scene is just waiting for government support to explode and fill a void. “I think we can be a test case not for media concentration but for bottom-up media [that is] more community minded and less about the bottom line.” What that would look like is anything without corporate strings, he says: “It is ‘zines, community TV, micro broadcasting, low power FM. Anything non commercial, community based and community driven.”

But can something as simple-- almost banal -- as community media really be the answer? Suanne Kelman, interim chair at Ryerson’s school of journalism in Toronto, says Vancouver’s problems won’t be solved simply by breaking up the CanWest monopoly. “Here’s the problem: how many buyers are there in the market? Are there really such huge numbers who want to buy a newspaper? It only works for the community if there are buyers around.”

Perhaps Kelman is right. But Whitehorse is proof that communities can, and do, support diverse community media. And while people demonize CanWest and Asper, it must be said that any media corporation, if allowed, will concentrate when conditions are favourable. Remember: before CanWest, there was Conrad Black and Southam. Vancouver is symptomatic of structural problems with our public media policies. But while making change in Vancouver will be complicated, it doesn’t appear impossible.

Until then, May remains hopeful. “Yes, CanWest has a big vice around us, but it’s like that Leonard Cohen song: ‘there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ That’s how you have to look at it; voices are still getting heard; there’s a crack in everything.”

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