By Adrian Barnes. – Editor’s Note: With the decision by Black Press to close the money-losing Abbotsford Times this week we thought a recent column from the Rossland Telegraph particularly appropos for the citizens of Abbotsford who find themselves with one less voice in the media.
Last time I wrote about Rob Ford and the exhausted notion of ‘leadership’ in politics. Democracy via delegation made sense back when technological limitations necessitated that form of organization. The only way to run a country the size of Canada a century ago was to elect representatives who would then take a train to Ottawa and vote in parliament on behalf of their constituents. Fair enough. A smart idea at the time.
But it’s important to remember that this form of democracy isn’t democracy as such, but merely one way of attempting to implement democracy in a specific situation. When the situation changes, the method of organization needs to change as well. With modern technology there’s no reason why democracy can’t be vital and highly interactive. Instead, however, it’s becoming less and less so. Today we get cartoons in human form like Stephen Harper (“Values! Values!”), Justin Trudeau (“I smoke dope and am therefore cool like my dad was!”) and Rob Ford (“I’m a #$#&# man of the people”)–all thrown up as voodoo-like symbols of various ideologies, none of which represent the average Canadian and their values.
Let’s look at Rossland as an example of the limits to this approach. Every three years we elect/damn seven poor souls to council/hell. Candidates are often elected either through lack of choice (no one wants to run! Can you blame them?!) or negatively–in order to avoid a less desirable candidate being elected. These ‘winners’ then wade into a complicated and chaotic realm of reports and staff politics and attempt to make decisions, often feeling forced to delegate the duties they were elected to perform to paid staff who are–more often than not–not even locals. That’s right–those we delegate our authority to then delegate their authority to some grossly-overpaid employee from somewhere else. It’s like a particularly bitter and miserable game of hot potato!
The result is a mess–unpleasant for both council and the public, though quite enriching for the employee or employees willing to hold onto that burning potato with one hand in exchange for the solace of cold, hard cash in the other. No fault to anyone here–it’s just the way the system works right now. We’re clinging to a hierarchical system in a non-hierarchical age–and the results are kind of silly.
And now I turn to media–and the mirror. Media also operate under a hierarchical ‘delegation’ model. News outlets hire people to ‘report’ on ‘news’. Editors select what issues will be ‘covered’ and package the stories for public consumption. And the people, if they choose, show up to read a few stories each week.
The newspaper is supposed to be an essential part of governance–its purpose is to hold those in power to account and facilitate public education and discussion independent of the government of the day. Or at least that’s the idea. In reality, most people ‘consume’ news passively, if at all. They read a story here and there and that’s it. In much the same way, each election day (fewer and fewer) people show up, vote, and then forget about democracy for the next four or so years.
And so we see that media faces the same crisis as governance: both are out of tune with the times. Both foster passivity and provide a breeding ground for corruption of various kinds. Most corporate news outlets–locally and nationally–disallow or actively discourage criticism of those in power because the agendas of the ‘leaders’ and the ‘owners’ are virtually identical. And so we live in a world where governance and discussion of governance are largely neutered and cut off from 99% of the population (yes, that good old Occupy 99%–forgotten but not gone).
What to do in the face of all this madness?
First, the solution, if there is to be one, will be local. Local is where we live and if meaningful change can be achieved locally, on a broad enough scale, it will filter up into our larger systems of governance and media. No, really!
Here in Rossland, and in the West Kootenay, we are in a unique position in that we have independent media in the form of Lone Sheep Publishing–the Telegraph will publish pretty much anything in coherent English! Recipes or revolutionary manifestos…just try us. We’re also lucky in that our elected ‘leaders’ on the municipal level are our harried friends and neighbours and probably very amenable to being swayed by a good new idea if one ever comes along. Finally, we’re lucky in the sense that our core values of community and caring are largely intact–certainly in contrast with the state of urban life today. We’re not quite as busy, broke, and scared as our friends in Vancouver or Kelowna.
We need to do something with all this.
When we started Lone Sheep and the Rossland Telegraph five years ago we had big hopes. Idealists, we hoped to create non-corporate, locally-owned media that would engage the community and facilitate meaningful discussion. To some extent we’ve succeeded and to some extent we’ve failed. The Telegraph has become a vehicle for community discussion when the need has arisen–and yet not much has changed as a result of these conversations. We thought that by taking the traditional newspaper online we’d change things, that commenting would allow for more valuable interactions. But we were wrong–or not right enough. Putting the traditional newspaper online wasn’t enough.
The traditional newspaper operates on a transmission model, as does governance. The transmission model is now dead. That’s why people are giving up on voting. That’s why fewer people read the news today.
Local media should have a ‘flat’ structure, not a hierarchical one. ‘News’ should be a real conversation, not a pretend one. Democracy should be a real conversation in the community, not a few poor souls locked in chambers and desperately flipping through sheaves of documents, most of which they’ll never have time to read.
It’s time for change.
The honest truth from my end is that running a traditional newspaper is a bit of a drag. I don’t want to be the guy who decides what goes in or not. I don’t want to be the one who has to always wade through the minutia of the issue of the hour. Who in their right mind would want to take that on? Would you? And if you would, a la Rob Ford, does that mean there’s something wrong with you? I know I’ve been asking myself that question–quite seriously–lately.
Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if this essential community function was performed by…the community? And–even more radically–what if this new form of news was a lot of fun?
The Rossland Telegraph is hereby available as a true community resource. We have the platform. We have the audience. We have a revenue stream. All we need are people who want to talk and, by talking, make our community a stronger, more vital place. Take it. Please!
Any ideas out there? If so, we’re all ears. I’ll be announcing some sort of meeting in the next week or so for anyone who’s interested in a more fun way of producing community news.
Adrian Barnes is the editor of the Rossland Telegraph and the president of Lone Sheep Publishing. If this sort of conversation interests you, consider joining FOMENT West Kootenay on Facebook.