The Halifax Media Co-op struggles to find quality content and proper funding.
By Sarah Mateshaytis
At the centre of Grand Parade Square in Halifax, amidst scattered tents and protest signs, under threatening October skies, the Halifax Media Co-op gathered for its weekly contributors meeting. While local activists, yelling in another part of the cobblestone square, would make this a less than ideal place to hold many meetings, it was a fitting site for the Halifax Media Co-op.
They usually hold their meetings at a café in the North End, but decided to talk shop while showing their support for the Occupy Nova Scotia movement. A banner suspended from the square’s main staircase read “People Before Profit”. The Media Co-op is a group dedicated to this sort of activism, through journalism.
[pullquote] “I will not sell my word and lie to people (…) I’d rather be poor and concise and truthful than paid off.”
– Miles Howe, Halifax Media Co-op contributor[/pullquote]
The Co-op is volunteer-based, and aims to provide grassroots media coverage for Haligonians. Boasting headlines like “Raising Awareness, Raising Resources and Raising Hell” and “Bayers Road gets stay of execution,” the Co-op covers local stories, particularly those involving minorities, giving a voice to the people who are most marginalized by society. Through both its website and the Tide, a monthly printed publication, the Co-op tackles stories from the bottom up, turning first to the people most affected by policies and events, rather than those in a position of power.
“I see it as a more honest kind of media,” says Hillary Lindsay, a Co-op editor. Hoping to produce news free from corporate influences often present in mainstream media, the Co-op’s structure hinges on citizen involvement. It steers clear of corporate advertising, and relies heavily on reader funding and member participation.
While ideal in theory, a media co-operative with such a strict mandate and rigorous guidelines is ultimately tough to produce. The very thing that makes it unique – its grassroots approach and democratic, co-operative structure – also prevents the Halifax Media Co-op from gaining ground in its battle against mainstream media. It’s citizen journalism—people aren’t willing to pay for the news it produces. Simply put, the Co-op needs money it doesn’t have.
The roots of the Halifax Media Co-op can be traced to 2003, when Dru Oja Jay graduated from Mount Allison University with a degree in philosophy. He created the Dominion, a national, grassroots newspaper hoping to expand the range of debate within Canadian media. The national media was under reporting too many important issues, and Jay wanted to change this. “Instead of having a small number of people produce things and then sell them as a product to people, we need to involve everyone,” says Jay, currently based in Montreal. He wanted people to take responsibility for their media, and so established a national media co-operative where ownership of the news was placed in the hands of those who read it.
The Halifax Media Co-op was the first of four local media co-ops founded under the national network. The local co-ops allowed for connections in smaller hubs, which meant greater possibilities for citizen involvement, and more thorough coverage of local issues and events. The Halifax Media Co-op was launched in February, 2009. In the past two years locals were also launched in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The Dominion, still produced as a publication of the Media Co-op, received 68,000 visits to its website the month of September, while the Media Co-op sites received 37,000 in the same period.
In the small office space Moira Peters rents from the Nova Scotia Environmental Network in Halifax’s North End, she admits that the Co-op model isn’t always the most profitable. Peters attended Mount Allison with Jay, where they worked together on the Argosy, Mount Allison’s student newspaper. She was also a member of the editorial collective for four years, until resigning from her paid, part-time position in July 2011. Now she’s a volunteer contributor.
“We really need to figure out a way to be sustainable. And if we can’t make money then we have to do it without taxing people,” says Peters. The penny-pinching gets them by, as long as the contributors and editors don’t have to sacrifice for the cause, which often is the case. Peters’ part-time editorial position with the Media Co-op paid minimum wage for (approximately) 20 hours work per week – certainly not enough to support oneself. She resigned from her editorial position because it was no longer feasible to continue working there. “I’d like to start a family, and I can’t work on $500 a month,” she said.
Currently, the national Media Co-op network has 275 sustainers—people who pay a monthly rate to support the project. Halifax alone has 40 sustainers, most of whom pay $10 a month. Depending on your membership level (ranging from a user member to a gold member, which is determined by the amount of money you contribute each month), sustainers receive monthly subscriptions to the Dominion magazine, as well as voting rights within the Co-op. While it’s enough to keep the Co-op afloat, it’s hard to expand and make progress without an increase in funds.
The Halifax Media Co-op’s advertising policy says they can accept advertising from institutions that are run democratically, like co-ops and not-for-profits, and from corporations that have 10 or fewer employees. Large-scale advertising isn’t part of the picture: the Co-op doesn’t want any conflict of interest that might jeopardize the integrity of its grassroots, co-operative structure.
Peters said the Co-op is in a vicious cycle of deciding where to put its energy. If it invests in fundraising, then no one is writing, yet if they focus their energy on writing, then they simply don’t have any money.
“We really need a sugar mama!” said Peters. She laughed at her outlandish suggestion, but she may not be far off. With the co-operative model, and its lack of funding, the Halifax Media Co-op simply can’t expand the way it wants to.
While it might be easier for the contributors and editors of the Halifax Media Co-op to compromise such a mandate in order to gain financial success, both personally and as an organization, it’s not a sacrifice they’re willing to make. “I will not sell my word and lie to people… Whether or not that limits my own financial ability to pay the rent by writing, I don’t even care. I’d rather be poor and concise and truthful, than paid off,” says Miles Howe, a contributor.
Howe is a cook at the Good Food Emporium, a small café that prides itself in serving homemade, local, organic food. He’s adamant about holding corporations and the government accountable in his writing, but doesn’t do it for the money. “It does take a sort of rare bird to write for a media co-op,” said Howe. “There’s not a lot of money in it, if any.”
While Howe had no previous experience in journalism before contributing to the Halifax Media Co-op, it allowed him to publish. Citizen-based media like the Co-op provide would-be journalists with the chance to get published—an opportunity they may not receive in mainstream media, where degrees, experience and credentials are often required.
Dr. Kathleen Cross, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, says opportunities in citizen-based media are a direct cause of the lack of funding found within non-profit media. “As soon as you move into this really interesting, vibrant co-op system, a non-profit co-operative, you lose some of that professionalism, and then people are less willing to pay for it,” says Cross. She said since people writing the stories don’t necessarily have training to do so, the reporting might not be credible in terms of the typical journalism standard. Without fact checkers, and an adherence to such standards, readers often aren’t prepared to pay for what the co-operatives produce.
It turns into a perennial problem for non-profit, co-operative media. Without money from subscriptions, journalists can’t be paid for their work, nor can fact-checkers be employed. And without pay, it is hard to ensure professional standards will be met. While the Media Co-op does work to ensure credibility by featuring stories that the editorial collective considers to be of a higher standard of journalism, anyone can contribute.
Cross said because of the inherent difficulties in citizen journalism, including the pressure to sustain funding, few media co-ops exist. The NB Media Co-op and Ensemble, a French media co-operative based in Trois-Pistoles, Quebec, are local co-ops with similar philosophies to the Halifax Media Co-op. They cover stories that mainstream media tend to overlook.
Co-op vs. Herald
In October, Miles Howe posted a story on the Halifax Media Co-op website about the Pictou Landing First Nation Band being offered money to postpone a lawsuit against the province. The Chronicle Herald posted a similar story a few days later. While the Herald’s story is no longer freely accessible online, both Howe and Leger commented on Howe’s story on the Co-op website. Howe argued that the Herald “stole” the Co-op’s story, adding a “corporate spin.”
Leger responded to Howe’s comments in an interview: “I don’t know who this guy is. I’m assuming he’s not a professional journalist, but I don’t know… This happens literally seven days a week in media. The Herald comes out seven mornings. And seven mornings a week newsrooms around the province read the Herald, and seven days a week they go and they take stories they see from there and they go do their own version of it, or they elaborate on it, or they get a reaction to it, or they try to match it.
“That’s entirely what went on in this Boat Harbour business. It’s one hundred percent standard operating procedure in newsrooms around the world… If we did a story based on the same information that comes to a different conclusion from his, that’s all it is. There’s no deeper significance. To call me a liar, make fun of the paper, you know, ‘The Horrid,’ I mean, that’s just schoolboy foolishness.”
Bruce Wark, a retired University of King’s College journalism professor, says the Media Co-op reminds readers there’s more to journalism than the official point of view. “We’re supposed to live in a democracy which means the people rule, and yet nobody is talking to the people,” Wark says. “We’re talking to officials, politicians, experts, endless experts, authorized knowers, people with credentials, and we never talk to the so-called ‘ordinary’ people.”
The co-operative model helps address the problem of officialdom in the mainstream media, countering the corporate media with its grassroots approach. “Generally, in the mainstream media,” said Co-op editor Hillary Lindsay, “…You hear the voices of the people with the most power and the most money, because those are the people who can generally put together a fancy press conference, or press release, or hire people to do promotions for them.”
Dan Leger, director of news content at the Chronicle Herald, says he welcomes alternative sources of information and news. He says it’s “healthy” for people to have more choices to get informed, but also believes alternative media can narrowly restrict the spectrum of views.
“It’s quite easy to just toss off plutocrats and elites and whomever as having nothing to say because it doesn’t interest my reader,” says Leger. He said as a general interest publication, the Herald covers a huge range of subjects everyday – a wider spectrum of viewpoints, he says, than an alternative news source will present.
“It’s all well to say that we’re speaking to people that the mainstream media doesn’t speak to, but you’re probably leaving out just as many people by selecting that one subset of society to communicate with.”
Howe, the cook and Co-op volunteer, said he’s not sure how the mainstream media regards the Halifax Media Co-op. “They might think we’re idealists, they might think we’re socialists, they might think we’re snobs. I don’t know…
“They might think we’re crazy. But at the end of the day I think they also respect us.”