By Aly Thomson
Four would-be journalists crowd around a set of painted red tables in a bright room at Alter Ego’s Backpackers Café in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Pencils are sharpened, notebooks are open and the writers’ attention is undivided.
Backpackers hover throughout the café on high metal stools. Used books left behind by past travelers line the walls. The patter of laptop keyboards can barely be heard above the urban dance music blaring over the speakers.
The new journalists blend into this scene.
Not many story meetings take place in a crowded café, but this is not your typical news outlet. This is the general meeting of the Halifax Media Co-operative.
The co-op wants to do journalism differently – from the “grassroots”, with little or no money, and using contributors who may have little or no formal experience in journalism.
“Grassroots” means setting aside prominent figures and policy makers, and talking to the people directly affected by public policies, said Hillary Lindsay, who divides her time between being managing editor and part-time farming.
“We want to go towards the stories that aren’t been told, ask the questions that aren’t being asked, and listen to the people that aren’t being heard from,” said Lindsay, who is paid $95 a week by the co-op.
The Halifax Media Co-op is a smaller affiliate of the national alternative publication The Dominion. With a grassroots mandate, Dru Oja Jay and a small team developed The Dominion in April 2003 with no funding. After four years of publishing on a monthly basis, Jay went on a cross-Canada tour to promote the publication and develop networks to cover a range of issues across the country.
Halifax was the first to sign on last February.
The Halifax Media Co-op strives to be an alternative news source that does not depend on advertisers for funding, Lindsay said. She criticizes the mainstream media, arguing advertisers have influence on what stories are covered, and that some voices are silenced.
“Journalism is in crisis,” Lindsay said. “The stories that are being covered are the stories that are easy to write, and often ends up involving people with money, power and influence.”
For instance, while Halifax’s Chronicle Herald and Metro were covering Darrell Dexter’s participation in Halifax’s Pride Parade, the Media Co-op was covering the “Queer and Rebel days”, a weeklong celebration in the gay and lesbian community of Halifax that takes place before the better-known Pride events.
The mainstream media does not touch stories like this, said Lindsay.
The age of HMC members ranges from the early 20s to the mid 50s. Contributors write, shoot and blog on a volunteer basis. No formal training is required. Anyone can become a journalist, such as Ben Sichel, an unpaid member of the “editorial collective.”
“I’ve always been interested in the media and which voices get out,” the high school teacher said during an interview in his Prince Andrew High School classroom.
Sichel, as with many contributors, has little formal experience in journalism. He said the co-op is a way for community members to cover issues they are interested in reading about. The content is uploaded to the website and published immediately, often without any editing.
Anyone can be a journalist
David Parker is a member of the editorial collective. He is also the spoken-word coordinator at Dalhousie University’s independent radio station, CKDU.
The Dominion published his first pieces even though he had no writing experience. Now Parker posts his morning CKDU news updates as blog entries on his Halifax Media Co-op profile page.
The lack of journalistic experience is part of the reason the organization is a co-operative, said Parker. Members work as a collective to generate story ideas, funding and content.
Since last February, the co-op has hosted workshops and “skill shares” in print, audio and video to help potential writers learn the basics of journalism. Eager contributors were found sitting shoulder to shoulder in local houses, intently adsorbing the instruction – learning some of the skills used by journalists.
The website provides contributor guidelines, a set of suggestions Bruce Wark wishes he had when he was a professor of journalism at the University of King’s College.
“Fairness and balance, I now realize, are too limited a way of looking at things,” said the former CBC journalist, who now writes for The Coast on a biweekly basis.
Although fairness is mentioned, the guidelines also highlight transparency and accuracy. Aside from blog entries, Wark stressed the co-op does not want to publish pieces littered with opinion, “They don’t want it to be a soapbox for people to shoot off their mouths,” he said.
Wark said many of the articles published on the website have problems with basic journalistic style. He said some writers do not use the traditional “inverted-pyramid” structure, and so often do not begin pieces with the most important information.
Now retired, Wark is one of 25 sustainers of the media co-op. Wark contributes $25 a month to pay Lindsay, the part-time editor, about $400 a month, and to produce one paid feature a month. It is up to the sustainers to decide how much they want to contribute. According to the co-op website, the average contribution is $20 a month.
Lindsay said this financial structure allows for balanced reporting because there is no pressure to placate advertisers. But it could also leave the organization impoverished. Tim Currie, a professor of online journalism at the King’s, said advertising does not bring in a lot of money, but is the most viable option for the future. He said sustainer-based websites are a “tough sell”, and the media co-op needs to expand its content if it expects members to pay.
“Journalism costs money,” said Currie. “In order to get people to write regularly, you have to pay them a living wage and enough money to make it lucrative to do it again.”
Freedom of the press
Hilary Beaumont, a fourth year journalism student at the King’s, and the copy editor for the Dalhousie Gazette, has used the media co-op as an outlet to publish her work freely without the constraints of the traditional editing process. Beaumont was paid $100 to write the co-op’s first feature news story. She said she knew it was not enough money for a 1,600 word piece, but it wasn’t about the money – she wanted to build a diverse portfolio.
Beaumont said she published an article at Metro Halifax during a summer internship, but felt she was limited.
“They do not have a critical edge whatsoever,” said Beaumont, facing a glowing Macintosh monitor. “They have an interest in pleasing their advertisers. They’re a revenue based paper rather than holding organizations or people accountable.”
Beaumont said she published the same article on the Halifax Media Co-op website with a more satisfying outcome. She said Lindsay hardly “touched it.”
Metro is a free daily funded largely by advertisers. Dianne Rinehart, former editor in chief of Metro English Canada, said newsrooms such as that at Metro have strict rules in place. To avoid conflict of interest, reporters and sales representatives are not allowed to influence one another.
Rinehart thinks journalism is not necessarily taking a wrong turn by depending on advertisers. She said it results in the interests and tastes of readers being given the greatest weight.
Even so, Rinehart would keep on top of what other media were doing. The co-op was just a mouse click away for her, and could be found under “bookmarks” on her task bar. “We want to support all kinds of groups and all kinds of voices,” she said in an interview while still editor-in-chief. “We need every single voice out there.”
Bruce Wark said aside from its grassroots foundation, the co-op is a way to experiment with different forms of journalism. He said there is not enough room in the mainstream media to test his ideas, such as “serial journalism.” Based on the same premise as old-time radio, Wark wants to bring back the art of storytelling to journalism. He wants to publish news pieces in small 300-word increments, leaving readers in suspense, anxious to read the next installment. The co-op is the perfect outlet to test this, he said.
The variety of writing and coverage is what will convince readers to trust the content published by the co-op, he said. But he added the group has a long way to go. “It’s not important, yet,” he said, because it has a tiny audience.
But The Dominion’s co-founder Dru Oja Jay said you cannot judge the success of the site by its online traffic. He said the media outlet is deliberately off to a slow start. Jay, who manages the co-op’s site, said he wants to make sure the functionality of the site is superb before a high level of traffic sweeps in. Jay said the website receives about 400 hits a day.
He said what is really important is how many people actively participate in contributing online content. Of the 400 members who have signed up, only 10 to 15 are actively contributing, he said. The next step will be involving more members without “compromising the quality of the website.”
But Tim Currie said the amount of content the site has now could not sustain a readership, “In order to make a go of this, they’re going to have to get more content up, and the only way I know of to do that is to pay for it.”
Jay said the Co-op is not looking to replace the mainstream media, but rather create an alternative.
“People are casting a vote for new ideas,” said Jay. “But we haven’t been advertising ourselves as the solution.”
The Halifax Media Co-operative does different things for its different contributors. For Bruce Wark, it is a chance to experiment with journalism and be creatively informative. For David Parker, it is a soapbox of the “inaccuracies and oversights of mainstream media”. For Hilary Beaumont, it is an opportunity for an aspiring journalist to publish work on a local level.
Cross-legged in her seat before a backdrop of the battered travelers books of the café, Hillary Lindsay said she knows the mainstream media is watching.
“They’re all waiting to see if this is just another project that will die off in a few months,” she said. “But I definitely see the momentum building.”