(Note: This is a somewhat longer version of the same story that originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the RRJ – Ed)
The local newscast in Victoria, B.C., looks much like any other local news broadcast. A handsome anchorman wearing a smart suit delivers news of the quest to find a young girl’s killer, using a voice that is both concerned and reassuring. A graphic of a police cruiser hovers over his left shoulder. This could be any city, but there is something significantly different about CHEK TV news.
Unlike in your hometown, this smiling anchor is a part owner of the TV station. And so is the camera operator, the assignment editor, chase producer, station manager, and everyone else who works at CHEK. This newscast represents a creative solution to a problem faced by a growing number of news outlets. From 2000 until 2009, CHEK, the second-oldest TV station in BC, belonged to Canwest Global. When Canwest began to flounder in earnest, CHEK employees knew it was just a matter of time until they’d be downsized out of jobs. Rather than let that that happen, station president John Pollard spearheaded a plan for employees and local investors to join forces and pool resources to purchase the station from Canwest and take control of it themselves.
It was a bold move, and a risky one. But it worked. Now all employees own a share of CHEK Media Group and are involved in the running of the station. With that bit of creative thinking, CHEK saved itself from extinction and is pioneering a new model of independent operations in the process.
To say that journalism is in crisis is at this point a cliché, and everyone knows the basics: the internet hit, then the recession hit, and old media panicked. But amid all the downsizing and bleak-future talk, a new breed of journalist has found opportunity in the upheaval. Freed from traditional industry, these are pioneers rather than casualties, and by their practice, they are helping to reinvigorate journalism.
The people and organizations that exemplify this sort of new independence take a broad range of shapes and sizes. Mathew Ingram is a devotee of technology, both spreading the new word and living it through his work as a full-time blogger; The Mark is an intelligent but not elitist news-commentary site, led by a man with new ideas about the business of journalism and media; Nadja Sayej is a young upstart in the art criticism community and a prototype freelancer 2.0; and, of course, there’s CHEK, the newly independent TV station.
The name Mathew Ingram will be a familiar one to anyone who follows media and technology. The former Globe and Mail technology and business columnist has been a prolific Twitter user since the site’s inception (43,000 tweets and counting), engaging daily in enthusiastic conversations with those interested in the interplay between technology and information.
In its early days, few recognized the power of the internet and digital media and many were frightened of the vast, undomesticated wilderness it represented. Undaunted, Ingram chose to try and tame it. Starting at the Globe in 1994, following a stint at the Globe-owned Financial Times, he was part of the team that helped re-launch the Globe website in 2000, and he was the first writer to start blogging regularly in conjunction with his article and column writing. Ingram is an early adopter if there ever was one.
And he’s facilitating broader conversations around the ways in which technology is transforming the way we consume information. In 2006 he co-founded the mesh web conference in Toronto, after he and some colleagues noticed a lack of local events discussing the impact of Web 2.0 developments. “We wanted to get a bunch of smart people in a room and talk about how the web is affecting us,” Ingram says, and mesh quickly grew into something larger than “sitting around drinking beer and eating pizza” as Ingram had originally envisioned it. The now annual event, which had nearly 400 attendees last year, regularly holds panels and workshops on such topics as web business and marketing strategies, to the impact of social media and privacy in the digital age.
Ingram continued to write for the Globe throughout the 2000s. In 2008 he had the chance to put his know-how of social media and cutting edge technology to work, when he became the paper’s first communities editor. The job was to help teach the paper’s writers and editors how to better use sites such as Twitter and Facebook to reach their audiences, and he took it because the paper eliminated its new media section in the print edition. Ingram set to work shifting the Globe into the 21st century, which he describes as a “fascinating but frustrating” experience.
“It felt like we were succeeding in a half-hearted way,” and the Globe wasn’t moving as quickly as he would have liked. “I didn’t feel there was enough emphasis on what I thought we should do,” Ingram says.
Eventually the frustration of trying to teach a print-centric business to embrace the internet proved too much for Ingram, and in January 2010, he left the Globe to work for GigaOM, a major tech industry blog with a monthly audience of over four million readers. The move in fact resulted in a slight raise for Ingram over his salary at the Globe and he is now considered among the leading edge of writers whose work attempts to grapple with why new technology is changing media and society, and how it will continue to do so.
“It’s just like what I was doing before, but more. There’s no end to what you can write; the blog is never ‘full’. I’m always on deadline now. If my eyes are open, I’m on deadline,” Ingram says, conceding that becoming a full-time blogger has been a “kind of trial by fire.” Nonetheless, he can now focus on writing passionately about what he knows best, is allowed to do so with little interference and is making a living as a fully digital man.
Making a living in the digital realm is of course the biggest of the challenges facing the news media today. Ad dollars for print are dwindling, and their online counterparts are not enough to support the business of news making. There are many experiments underway to try to re-conceive journalism’s business model, many involving user-supported media — NPR in the United States is a large-scale example — to smaller initiatives like ProPublica and Spot.Us, in which individual supporters can fund public interest investigative journalism.
Closer to home, news commentary site The Mark is trying to fund online punditry in a new old-fashioned way. The site is trying to become profitable by redefining the ad/edit relationship in an online context.
Beta-launched in May 2009, The Mark was born of co-founder Jeff Anders’ desire to make a place for smart opinions from people with a range of backgrounds. “When it comes to commentary in this country there is a small number of people who do the vast majority of the speaking,” says Anders, the company’s CEO, who founded The Mark to try to remedy that problem.
The idea came to him in 2006 when he was working federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s campaign team. Anders says he met many intelligent and enthusiastic people who felt stymied by the lack of venues to write and comment on issues in Canada.
The Mark doesn’t rely on reporters to dig up stories, but invites contributors to offer analysis on current news stories. Almost anyone can become a contributor; the only criteria are professional credibility and a connection to Canada. The Mark’s writers are drawn from a broad range of academics, politicians and people from the business, science and non-profit sectors. They are free to write on whatever they choose, so long as it is compelling. The site’s editors are there to ensure clean and readable copy, not guide content.
Notably, contributors to The Mark are not paid. Because they are professionals in other fields, the individual value is in personal brand-building and exposure, rather than financial benefit. The Mark also has syndication deals in place with TorStar, Rogers and Yahoo where its content can be reprinted.
“We’re giving them massive reach for the piece that gets picked up by the other properties. The value that we give them is something they would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a PR company for,” says Anders.
It’s certainly not journalism as many journalists think of it, but there are more than enough non-professionals willing to write that Anders’ business model is working, for better or worse. Bob Rae, David Suzuki, Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty are among the site’s more high profile contributors — a key aspect of Anders’ vision for The Mark is non-partisanship or, perhaps more accurately, multi-partisanship. He hopes that by creating a hub of ideas that can come from left, right and in between, The Mark will challenge its readers. “People like to read what they already believe,” Anders says, referring to the political stances most publications take. “We are vastly more independent with our content than any other publication in the country.”
The content may be independent, but the support is mainstream. With an MBA from MIT and a masters in government policy and public administration from Harvard, as well as a background in management consulting, Anders has recruited some major players in Canadian business. In less than two years, The Mark’s advisory board has successfully completed two rounds of investment gathering. Though the exact details of the amount of funding are kept under wraps, the board includes people such as Arlene Dickinson, the CEO of Venture Communications and Dragons’ Den co-host; Jordan Banks, managing director of Facebook Canada and Brian Cooper, the CEO of Sports & Entertainment Sponsorship Group who was also previously involved in the business management of the Toronto Raptors and Argonauts.
Part of The Mark’s business plan is to court advertisers by creating an appealing space to invest money. Anders uses the hypothetical example of BMW sponsoring a three-month series on the future of transportation, which The Mark would curate. In this scenario, the company would not have any control over content, but would still benefit from the credibility of supporting intelligent debate. Already some sponsorships are in place for TV-style programs based around individual contributors.
Anders is savvy and ambitious, and his plans for The Mark don’t stop with political commentary. “We see ourselves very quickly evolving into a content studio, a media company,” Anders says.
Welcome to media empire 2.0.
As information migrates online, it’s those who have multimedia chops who are best placed to benefit. Freelancers have long cultivated an area of expertise as part of a sound business strategy, but the freelancer of the future is one who can do this across mediums.
Nadja Sayej has taken the classic freelancers’ approach to the nth degree. And the host of the online art-criticism show Artstars* — “the TMZ of the art world” — is extreme in more ways than one.
Sayej cuts a memorable figure: brash and ever-enthusiastic, clad in clothes borrowed from a more sensible Lady Gaga and perpetually wearing a pair of over-sized royal blue Ray Bans (recently broken during a photo shoot sadly), she eagerly acts as the provocateur and searcher of the show, which consists of three-minute segments posted at artstarstv.com.
In a recent episode, for example, Sayej attends an opening for a Houston, Texas-based artist named Mark Flood. Using the quick cuts and in-your-face camera style usually seen on MTV gossip shows, she quips about the absurd nature of the art work — writing spray-painted on cardboard sheets — and confronts the artist about rumours that he is in fact a double sent in place of the real Mark Flood. Switching between interrogating the artist and the gallery owner’s reactions to her questions, the episode captures the dizzying atmosphere and energy of the show, while also exposing a little of the artifice of the industry.
Sayej doesn’t make the bulk of her money from Artstars* though; her income comes as a side effect of the brand she has created for herself, largely through the show. Sayej hosts lectures and workshops which teach other journalists — and people in the art world — about self-promotion, brand-building and the business of getting fairly compensated for their work.
When not travelling for Artstars*, Sayej freelances as a writer for enRoute, the National Post and the New York Times, among others; before relocating to Berlin in 2010 she co-founded Toronto’s Press Pass event, a monthly booze-soaked meet-up for journalists.
The 30-year-old Sayej graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2004, and then completed the magazine writing and publishing certificate at Ryerson in 2006. A brief stint in Ryerson’s two-year undergraduate journalism program left her disappointed by the lack of focus on the business and career side of the industry. In between all this, Sayej began taking freelance assignments from the Globe.
Then the down-turn in the economy left her settling for a job at Starbucks to pay the bills. Sayej’s time as a barista was short lived, but went on long enough to give her the impetus to take her career into her own hands. The key to her success: relentless self-promotion. “It’s unattractive to look desperate by being a self-promoter,” says Sayej. “But at the same time, people with less talent and more motivation will get ahead [if they promote themselves right].”
Aggressive networking and self-promotion, like sending out regular newsletter-style emails to fans and colleagues, along with the move to Europe, have led to all kinds of opportunities. “Being a freelance foreign correspondent rules,” says Sayej. “I had so many more doors open up that would not have before. I’m writing airplane food reviews, I’m writing for the home section of the New York Times, I’m collaborating with Peaches for ArtStars*, I’m going to Riga, Latvia with this guy from VBS (Vice Broadcasting System) and we’re doing this ArtStars* — Vice collaboration.”
It’s not all milk and honey however. Sayej still faces the same issues as most freelancers: lack of job security and irregular pay. Her approach to the job may be creative and unique, but it’s still a fairly DIY operation. Some stability may be on the way though, thanks to a recent connection with some advertising executives may bring some sponsorships on board
This spring, Sayej returned to North America to give talks at the University of Toronto Art Centre, dishing about her journeys in Europe, and at the SAW Gallery in Ottawa, talking about business and PR. A visit to New York for a similar lecture is also in the works. All this is possible because of the freedom provided by working when and how she wants, and answering to no one but herself.
One person or even a small group can change plans easily. They can strike out on their own and try ideas that might result in a dead end. It’s relatively easy for freelancers today to adapt and change to the market around them. The transition from chopping block to independence for CHEK-TV was a little more challenging.
When CHEK launched in 1956 it was the only TV station on Vancouver Island and the first privately owned station in BC. Over the years its switched affiliations, from CBC to CTV, and then in 2000 Global purchased the station and integrated it into its new CH network (which eventually became E!).
It was an era of acquisition. Also in 2000, Izzy Asper’s broadcasting company purchased a newspaper chain from that other titan of media industry, Conrad Black. Greater numbers of media outlets were being controlled by fewer numbers of people, and media watchdogs and democracy advocates rang the alarm about the effects of media concentration on the quality of news.
But it wasn’t to last, and what’s happened since is instructive. Conrad Black has served a prison term, and Canwest shares were reduced to junk before the company entered bankruptcy and the finally dissolved, selling its broadcast assets to Shaw and newspapers to a consortium led by Paul Godfrey. Call it de-concentration of ownership.
The distinction between “mainstream” and “independent” media is diminishing, thanks to the accessibility and immediacy of the internet — which is not to say that problems of media ownership and democracy are solved. (One need only look as far as Fox news in the U.S. to see the influence that media corporations still wield.) But what’s interesting are the scores of independents who are beginning to see that the venerable media empires don’t have the iron grip they once did. Now is a chance for them to break free and stake a claim in a new, untested landscape.
When, in the summer of 2009, Canwest announced its intent to close CHEK’s parent company, E! television network, the lamentations were supposed to begin: the general loss of local news broadcasters, the loss of jobs for journalists and the loss of the second oldest TV station in British Columbia. Except, CHEK didn’t shut down.
Instead, its employees managed to come up with $2.5 million to purchase the station, raising funds internally as well as finding local business investment. Canwest was concerned the station didn’t have the funds to keep itself running and would be left holding the bag during the transitional period. The CRTC stepped in and offered to fast-track CHEK’s application for a new license, relieving Canwest financial obligation. Eager to shed weight, the media giant agreed to the sale over a whirlwind four-day renegotiation period. “We pretty much started from scratch on Monday and were finished by Friday,” says station manager John Pollard. “It was about a six month negotiation that was compressed into four days.”
Now new employees, once past their probation period, are expected to buy into the station — for an undisclosed amount — and remain partial-owners until they leave, at which time they can be bought out or keep their shares.
With the change in ownership came a renewed commitment to local programming, and Pollard says that change is policy now; content is continually reviewed with an eye to adapting and improving.
When Canwest relinquished control of the station in 2009 it was left with 29 full-time employees, down from 110 when it first took over in 2000. Now, CHEK employs over 40 full-time and 20 part-time staff and Pollard says it is financially strong and continuing to grow. On top of that, the station can once again call itself the oldest independent television station in B.C.
Journalism’s challenges are being navigated, plotted and overcome by the pioneers and searchers. More and more journalists are realizing that waiting for the system to find a “solution” and right itself is a fantasy. Success is being found in new territories online and by people willing to adapt, change, experiment and recreate within the industry. The colonies in the new world are starting to strike it rich, and a whole new wave of immigrants is sure to follow.