Abstract

This paper explores media democratization in the form of alternative news outlets, using Vancouver Observer as a case study. Canada’s media experienced frequent mergers and is now mostly controlled by corporate conglomerations. Although there are many alternative news sources with robust reporting and reliable journalists, they struggle in this consolidated environment. This paper delves into the characteristics of alternative media, the role they play in media democratization, and where they fit in a media ecology framework. Using The Vancouver Observer as a case study, I explore how it handles operational challenges such as content, funding and revenue, as well as political and policy obstacles.

Keywords: media democratization, alternative media, independent media, alternative journalism, media democracy


“The Internet presents a huge opportunity for voices and text and information to be heard, but is just a free-flow of information, and you still need journalists to look at the accuracy of the information, to bring context and relevance to this information. And also to present this story in a way the public can understand.” [1]
— Jenny Uechi, Managing Editor, Vancouver Observer

“… Good reporting is the heart of democracy, because if there is no accountability, we don’t really have a democracy.” [2]
—Linda Solomon Wood, Founding Editor, Vancouver Observer

Alternative journalism is not a new concept. Our working definition of alternative media is independent media in opposition to mainstream, mass, and commercial media, in terms of ownership, organization and process, audience, content and funding. As Forde identifies, there have been four major periods of alternative journalism, the most recent being facilitated by the Internet from the late 1990s onward. While the goal or strategy differs depending on the media outlet, the main purpose of many alternative news media is to address the democratic deficit. Many alternative media see their ability to create positive change on a number of these issues—such as the public sphere, the marginalized, narrow media and public agenda, stagnant status quo, etc. There are various characteristics that define alternative media—with associated strengths and weaknesses—addressing issues of ownership, organization, process, audience, content, and funding. Although it is often in opposition to mainstream media, in fact, alternative media is a vital component of a democratic media landscape to support a plurality of voices and sources. Using the Vancouver Observer as a case study, we can see what characteristics it shares with other alternative media, how it has branded itself as an independent online-only news source, and where it fits in a diverse media landscape.

One of the key intents of most alternative media is to challenges the dominant ideology and engages in advocacy journalism, seeking political action. Although the label used for alternative media varies greatly—independent, non-profit, radical, progressive, experimental, community, local, citizens, grassroots, social movement, alterative, counter-hegemonic; the list goes on—we cannot define it as just on the margins. For the purposes of this paper, we shall use the terms alternative media and mainstream media exclusively to avoid confusion. To challenge the dominant ideology, many activists or journalists opt for to establish alternative media. For Solomon Wood, the VO began because she saw a gap in the market and was personally used to the media rich environment of New York and Paris. “Vancouver was such an incredible city, such an interesting city, and I felt the media didn’t accurately reflect, didn’t seem to really reflect the culture […] It seemed like there was really something missing in town and I decided to give it a try” (17 Nov 2014). Which raises the question: how do alternative media fit into the mediascape, and what part do they play in media democratization? To answer this question, we must look at the current democratic deficit created by mainstream media.

The concentration of power and private enclosure of corporate-controlled commodities has had a huge impact on the democratic influence of media. “The press tries to meet the economic and cultural demands of owners and many different clients, including publicists and prospective audiences … irrespective of the relative predominance of material or idealistic goals” (Christians et al., 2009, p. 116). Being beholden to these various economic demands has slowly resulted in a loss of the watchdog role, undermining sense of community, failure to constitute a public sphere, emphasis on entertainment and soft news that generates quick profits, redlining unprofitable audiences, and the homogenization of content. The Global North has also experienced a fragmentation of audience, loss of context in news reporting, elite process of communication policy-making, increased globalization and social inequality, erosion of privacy and free expression of rights, and the centralization of political, civic, and symbolic power. Journalists have always confronted a number of these tensions, oppositions and dilemmas between internal and external factors. “These dilemmas are distinct … and they also reflect the pull of divergent normative poles. They reflect the diversity of what we call journalism and the variety of forms the news media can take, each with its on purpose, self-selected public, and market niche” (Christians et al., 2009, p. 120). To say these multi-faceted issues are not connected would be naïve and shortsighted. However, we are unable to address even a fraction of them in this space. Suffice to say that the democratic deficit runs deep, and the media landscape is both part and parcel.

The critiques of mainstream media go hand in hand with the democratic deficit. Since the early 1990s, the quality of coverage has decreased with the concentration of ownership ad the pro-business culture of capitalism. The changing role of the journalist has resulted in restriction of the press freedoms and journalistic chill as job options decrease based on conglomeration. McChesney (2013), McChesney & Nichols (2005), and Raboy & Shtern (2010) cite the underlying structure and system for these maladies, including deficiencies in policy and law. Others posit the solution as media democratization; ground-up public support for changing the media system. Hackett & Carroll (2006, p. 68) identify three perspectives of media democracy: the market liberal and conservative, public sphere liberalism, and radical democracy. Different media have different mandates in this regard, and although I would classify the VO as skewing toward radical democracy, they are not revolutionary. Equality is a priority and they seek to reinvigorate existing systems, and take the role of watchdog instead of lapdog. While they are critical of the mainstream and corporate media, however they do not see dismantling the system as an answer. McChesney (2013, p. 83) sees healthy journalism as holding those in power accountable, including a wide range of informed opinions and accessible language, regarding all information needs as legitimate, and including a method to fact check. He notes that not all media systems can provide all of these things all of the time; therefore plurality of sources is required to get diversity of voices and viewpoints, not just proliferation in quantity. VO operates within the current mediascape, contributing to what Curran describes as media pluralism.

Curran (2000) sees different media groups and systems co-existing to ensure all interests are represented and recognized. The core public services in the broadcast system are encircled by other sectors; in Canada this would be the CBC. The surrounding sectors are Private Enterprise, Civic, Professional, and Social Market. The Civic sector is comprised of media that support organizations, which are the life force of democracy. The Social Market sector includes minority media that are subsidized and supported by the state. These media are important for diversity, and address a need in society that wouldn’t otherwise be commercially viable and therefore the market won’t provide. The Private Enterprise includes media that we currently call mainstream or corporate. Although right wing market forces favour this sector, it still has a place that shouldn’t overwhelm the other sectors. Private Enterprise can also provide a shield for staff and reporters from both compromising corporate interests and heavy-handed governmental influence. The Professional sector is where media are under the control of communication professionals and journalists are guided by a principle of truth. We will not get into issues of availability and access or freedom of expression in this alternative model as those are nuanced topics for another time. However, it is important to note that each sector in Curran’s alternative model are depicted as having the right to express different values and the audience having the right to access those different views. For Curran, no one type of media can serve all the needs of every audience or viewpoint; the media landscape does not just require more competition, but needs pluralism in the types of media and audiences involved.

“While Canwest’s ownership of all the major daily newspapers in British Columbia as well as its control of community papers and local television stations has led one critic to describe Vancouver as having “the most highly concentrated media ownership of any major city in a G7 country” (Edge, 2007, p. 263), independent media are also firmly established in the province, offering alternative news and opinion on local, national, and international issues” (Gunster, 2011, p. 479). Gunster focuses on The Georgia Straight and The Tyee as his two independent sources, as the Vancouver Observer (VO) was relatively new to the scene when conducting the analysis. VO launched in 2007, and in the beginning was just a blog written from Linda Solomon Wood’s living room. It took a few years to get off the ground, and by the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 (the coverage of which Gunster is analysing), they were publishing fast and furiously about the summit and surrounding issues. In fact, the VO was one of 56 newspapers in 45 countries publishing the same editorial call for action in 20 languages worldwide (8 Dec 2009). While we do not have the time or resources here to do a rigourous content analysis like Gunster, it is important to note that alternative media do play an important role in a diverse mediascape like Curran’s model.

The core principle of democratic media is the full and equal use of access and participation in media and representation. Hackett & Carroll (2006, pg.88) see democratic media as expanding the range of voices, enhancing participation, and building a social order. This would be a type of society that enables all groups to reach each other and hear other groups. Christians et al, (2009), identifies the task of journalism to be classified by three factors: observing and informing, primarily as a public service; participating in public life through critical comment, advice, advocacy, and expression of opinion; providing a channel, forum, or platform for voices to reach the public (p. 116). In considering the intersection of these factors, VO would fall somewhere between Minority Media “dedicated to the expression and exchange of new and diverse facts and opinions” (p. 117) and Internally Pluralist and Secular Media, both of which fall on the open access end of this typology. Another way to classify alternative media is through common characteristics. Forde details four enduring characteristics throughout history which define alternative journalism: the ability to identify wrongs and present them to the public; working outside established societal power structures; includes professionals and amateurs, who have a dedication to the role of journalism in democracy; status as an endangered species with less funds, resources and commercial exploitation. Forde (2011) suggests that these commonalities of alternative journalism—which vary from practises to motivations—have always challenged mainstream media through different historical periods. In fact, in Britain during the 1800s, more people read the alternative presses than the mainstream.

One of the key characteristics of alternative media is that it is not corporately owned. Most frequently alternative media is operated as a small business, co-operative or collective; the VO is owned and operated by Linda Solomon Wood. Many radical presses experienced years of gradual growth and opposition to dominant forces (Downing). Solomon Wood describes the Vancouver news industry as a closed universe; “there is so much happening everywhere in the world, all the time, all these events, and its just, you didn’t get that in the newspaper here. … then I began to learn more about it and realized that we were in this major media monopoly” (17 Nov 2014). The different ownership structure of alternative media also enables a different editorial and production process, with less hierarchical emphasis and more internally democratic organization. Solomon Wood (17 Nov 2014) describes herself as having a “collaborative leadership style” where it’s collaborative in the types of stories that are pursued, but there’s direction from the editors—mainly Jenny Uechi and Linda Solomon Wood—who set the tone and have the final say. Many writers who are just started with VO do get a lot of directions and instruction, but the editors are also open to requests and suggestions. “I try to let people do what they really want to do. I figure they aren’t making banker’s pay; they’re partially here because it’s a higher calling in some ways. They’re not doing it because of the money. They’re doing it because they care about something. People are just better at doing what they care about; it’s just a fundamental truth. If we care about it, we do it much better” (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014).

This emphasis on audiences is a key characteristic of alternative media; bringing voices to the voiceless and representing the unrepresented. Alternative media also engage in horizontal communication with their audiences. “We know a lot about our audience because of Facebook and Twitter,” explains Solomon Wood. They can’t afford market analysis, so getting a strong sense of who readers are, and how they engage with VO is important. “What we know about our audience comes from Google Analytics and our own Reader Surveys, and … we can see how many people are reading what kinds of articles. So it’s very easy for us to see that our readership has a very environmental [focus]” (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014). Although they do not have a formal written mandate, the VO is incredibly focused on regional relevance to their local audience, which extends to their content and editorial coverage. One of Gunster’s (2011) criticisms of mainstream media was that the majority of good science stories exploring the issue of climate change were “not domestically produced and did not have a local or regional focus” (p. 484). Many of the references to the impact of climate change were “relatively generic and largely decontextualized, noting the potential for rising sea levels, melting glaciers, or increasing droughts while giving little information about where and when these impacts will occur and who they will affect” (p. 484). Gunster’s observations make it clear that the need for regional information that reaches the geographic residents and is specific to that audience. “Unlike most mainstream media stories and columns, in which activists typically appear as one source (or soundbite) among many, alternative media provided them with the space to weave their ideas and their passion into a coherent set of arguments” (Gunster, 2011, p. 494). When analysing the Straight and the Tyee, Gunster found that many pieces, longer investigative features, and essays “had a much higher level of complexity and sophistication than most mainstream stories, particularly news reports, which tended to be brief as well as fragmented in form. Rather than simplifying ideas for ease of consumption or glossing over context in favour of eye-catching phrases, images, or events, alternative media news and opinion tended to spend more time digging into the background and details of a particular issue” (Gunster, 2011, p. 495).

The tactics the Straight and Tyee use are both similar and different to the VO in a few ways. As the Straight is a primarily printed publication, and the Tyee specializes in long-form journalism online, the VO needs to set itself apart editorially and stylistically. The VO, with its origins in blogging, uses an approach that produces articles quickly and frequently, staying with particular issues and stories. “The general tone in media right now is that stories just surface and then submerge, so quickly, and so fast and furiously. It’s hard to really feel like one issue is more important than another, when in fact they are. And so we try to really emphasize, choose a few stories and stick with them,” states Solomon Wood (17 Nov 2014). The Internet helps with that; merging traditional ways of producing news with the Internet’s potential for an on-going process and connection to readers (Fenton, 2012). Another tactic the VO uses is to choose stories that aren’t going to be reported on by the mainstream media. “We choose topics and we just go after the topics. We look for stuff that isn’t being reported upon by other media. It’s been my strategy, through the whole, all these years, to not just follow the pack around and do that kind of reporting … there have been so many cutbacks in newspapers and reporters and journalism and all that, there’s so many that aren’t being reported on” (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014). Part of this tactic also enables a wider variety of sources and opinions to be voiced. “It’s hard to get a diversity with a [single] article … usually an article is focused, and our articles are pretty short most of the time. So we’ll present different perspectives in different articles, instead of all together in one” (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014). With the current pipeline protests on Burnaby Mountain, the VO always contact Kinder Morgan to allow them the chance for comment, as well as contacting their own experts for opinions and sources, “a practice that acknowledges ordinary people as experts in their own lives and experiences” (Atton, 2009, p. 269). This approach differs from the mainstream media, which relies on official sources as spokespeople and are increasingly dependent on press releases and pre-packaged information from publicity departments—another symptom of the decline in journalism and editorial departments through media conglomeration. Investigative journalism is in a decline because it is highly risky and requires a high investment with no guarantee for profitability. When large newspapers engaged in investigative reporting, the company protected the individual journalist from legal risk. But since the 1990s there has been a decline, which is attributed to various causes including fragmented audiences and the need to capture and constantly entertain readers. Alternative models are being explored, such as funding from Foundations, or crowdsourcing.

As we have noted, alternative media is not corporately owned, and therefore, not corporately funded. This freedom from ownership bias comes with the weakness of unstable funding. Gunster (2011) states that the political economy of alternative media allows them a “greater capacity and willingness to engage in such radical criticism of existing economic and political institutions” (p. 493). This raises an important point of our current media landscape and mainstream media’s utter dependent upon advertising revenue. If corporate media are dependent on advertising revenue, they are less likely to challenge the dominant ideology and potentially upset those advertisers; it is easier to play it safe. Advertising revenues have traditionally bankrolled most of the news media, which the Internet has disrupted (McChesney, 2013). Solomon Wood (17 Nov 2014) notes that half of VO’s revenue is from advertising, and when VO first began in 2007, explaining online advertising was a struggle. Now the competition of Google and Facebook means that VO needs to be constantly creative and flexible, selling the benefits of VO and the readership as opposed to algorithmic-based targeting that Google and Facebook can provide. “There are some things [Google and Facebook] can’t do, and that’s what we tell our advertisers,” (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014).

“The arrival of new media forms, especially those based on the Internet, have added to the variety and clouded the issue of what journalism is” (Christians et al., 2009, p. 120). But, in its simplest form, the Internet is just another technological revolution that parallels other technologies in history, such as the printing press for pamphleteers. Forde (2011) mentions that alternative media has a potential audience that “extends across national and continental boundaries” (p. 52) because of the Internet. McChesney (2013) puts the Internet theorists in two contrasting camps: skeptics [sic] and celebrants, which he subjects to criticism in equal measure. “Though technology may frequently be the target or derision or delight, the nature of change is not attributable to technology alone […] online and offline worlds exist in a relationship of mutuality and interdependence” (Fenton, 2012, p. 557). Just because readers can access many more sources online instead of relying on the two major newspapers, doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily accessing diversity of voices. Harvard’s Alex S. Jones estimates that 85 percent of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspaper (McChesney, 2013, p. 173) and that dominance extends to the Internet. Although readers may subscribe to various blogs and news outlets, many are just repeating and reposting articles from commercial newspapers. “Other forms of new technologies have in the past also invited eulogising on their democratic potential, their ability to become a tool of the people wresting power from the elite structures of society. Once more, the debates echo the praises of plurality, accessibility, and participation” (Fenton, 2012, p. 558). Fenton outlines the debate on two sides, where the Internet is seen as a path to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing news, and the other sees the Internet at detrimental, which is just putting a bandaid on the downfall of journalism. The VO, by using the benefits of the Internet while also creating their own original content, is countering that negative viewpoint.

When considering the benefits of the Internet, the low cost of production, low barrier to entry, and the accessibility should not be taken for granted. The Internet can make certain processes invisible, and there has been a recent shift to consider the politics of access (McChesney, 2013). Access and censorship is a problem in many countries, even the Global North, just less overtly. This could be considered an aspect of the digital divide, which isn’t as simple as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’; the digital divide can include factors such as income, race or ethnicity, geographic location, education level, age, and gender. When analysing internet access, we can also use such demographics, and consider who is able to find reliable information online. If someone has not had any formal education in computer use, and is in a senior age bracket, they are less likely to be able to exploit the Internet’s democratizing potential to its full. Distribution is one of the major barriers of alternative media; for an online-only publication like VO, distribution to readers is dependent on the readership having full and unhindered access to the Internet. When we consider distribution being dependent on common carrier laws, net neutrality, and censorship, the need for clear and democratic internet policy becomes obvious.

As independent organizations, alternative media are in a prime position to advocate for democratic internet access, among other issues. “Alternative media’s independence from advertisers and corporate owners opened up the conceptual, ideological and affective space for a much deeper, more radical and transformative critique of existing institutions and practices” (Gunster, 2011, p. 493). Gunster mentions The Tyee’s transition to a non-profit organization and reliance on private donors and charitable foundations. Although fifty percent of VO’s revenue is from advertising, forty-three percent is from fundraising, and the final seven percent is from subscriptions (Solomon Wood, 17 Nov 2014). Subscriptions are monthly donations from individual sponsors who want to support the VO, and as a perk for being a subscriber—as the VO content is distributed free online—subscribers are surprised with free tickets to festivals and events across the Lower Mainland. As an independently owned and operated venture, the VO has the ability to be constantly creative and flexible. For mainstream corporate media this is not as possible, and is frequently a hindrance to adapting to a networked world. In January 2014, the VO exceeded their Kickstarter goal of $32,000 for a Special Tar Sands Reporting Project (Kickstarter). By January 19, 741 people pledged a total of $53,040 for one of Kickstarter’s most funded journalistic endeavours (Solomon Wood, 12 Sept 2014). The VO’s coverage of the recent (and currently on-going) Kinder Morgan protests on Burnaby Mountain is, in part, due to the commitment to this reporting project. This strategy plays a small part of the watchdog role traditionally associated with newspapers and investigative journalism. As mainstream media became part of corporate conglomerates, the ownership was more intertwined with the interests of government. Media have a vested interest in government through policy exceptions and advertising revenue. Also, as audiences became fragmented, the demand for engaging and entertaining media became higher. Advertisers are paying for access to the audiences’ eyeballs essentially; the mainstream media needs to keep the readers happy in order to keep the advertisers spending. McChesney (2013) doesn’t believe that there is a market alternative to this model. In order to make changes, we’d need policy change, which Raboy & Shtern (2010) also advocate. However, the policy-making process is corrupt; McChesney believes that we need to change the political economy and challenge existing political power through public organization—essentially revolution (McChesney, 2013, p. 230).

In considering policy issues, Gunster (2011) also found that both The Tyee and The Georgia Straight were more consistently and substantively reporting on policy-related issues. The mainstream media criticised the Canadian government while offering no alternative narratives on policies, laws and regulations, and then offered largely celebratory coverage of Premier Campbell and Mayor Robertson’s trips to Copenhagen (p. 488-9). These polar opposites present an interesting example of the way that mainstream media represents the political sphere. One of the necessary reasons to push for media democratization is because policy decisions are taking place behind closed doors. The media coverage provided for policy issues and debate only serves to increase audience frustration or hopelessness. If media were to provide a more robust explanation, offering tangible and obtainable solutions and ideas, readers may be more inclined to get involved in policy issues. Gunster cites groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as several non-governmental organizations offering diverse policy options and discussion (p. 488).

McChesney (2013) believes healthy journalism is mandatory so people can participate in political life and communication policy issues. Internet celebrants undervalue the importance of independent institutions, underestimate resources value/cost, overestimate capacity of market to deliver, and are naïve about commercialization’s impact. McChesney believes we need to recognize journalism as a public good (p. 175), something society requires but the market cannot generate in sufficient quality or quantity, and advertising as the main form of funding hid that fact. If journalism is entrusted solely to the private sector, it will mean the complete corporatization of the news, which puts the watchdog function at risk and pushes the editorial agenda of private interests. We have already seen the beginning of this through the increasing trivialization of the new content, focusing on celebrities and entertainment, and a permeation or subversion of a professional code of journalistic ethics. The independence of these factors from private interests is crucial to a healthy democracy. McChesney notes that this decline in journalism was apparent before the Internet had an effect, it just emphasized it much more. Benkler, as cited by McChesney (2013), sees the production model of news shifting from industrial model to a networked model. This would including “a wider range of practises into the production system: market and nonmarket, large scale and small, for profit and non-profit, organized and individual” (p. 173). McChesney calls for a public investment in journalism to create a heterogeneous system (p. 211), similar to Curran’s idea, with different structures and subsidies, where we can keep the flourishing uncensored private media, as well as adversarial journalism, and significant non-profit competition.

While there is no single goal or strategy of alternative media, there are several reasons why it is an important part of addressing the democratic deficit. Two of the most important duties of the free press are to engage the citizens to monitor the government and provide necessary information to participate in political life (McChesney & Nichols, 2005, p. 172). Alternative media has the potential to revive the public sphere, give voice to the voiceless, expand the media agenda and the public agenda, innovate and challenge the status quo, be part of movement building, and provide a stable resistance to oppression (Hackett & Carroll, 2006, p. 128). Although the primary purpose, task, or role, is different for each type of alternative media, the prominence of challenging the dominant ideology is a central and recurring factor.  “Alternative journalism recognizes what might be achieved through challenging the rules and routines of normalized and professionalized practices” (Atton, 2009, p. 270). The Vancouver Observer is a key example of independent alternative media, using creativity and determination to solve problems traditionally faced by non-commercial mainstream media. “We’re here to challenge the public, we’re here to write about things that are really going to get people talking, that are the urgent issues of the day,” says Solomon Wood (17 Nov 2014). “For me, newspapers have always been a vehicle for challenging the status quo.Theorists disagree on the appropriate solution. Some such as McChesney & Nichols (2005) believe that “simply reforming the media system, and leaving everything else intact, if that were even possible, would not solve all our problems … Media, especially journalism, require democracy. Without a democratic culture of openness and debate, meaningful journalism cannot occur” (p. 197). However, as much as we need to address the corrupt process of policy-making, and improve support for smaller and independent community media, also working toward ensuring a plurality of voices is maintained is an important aspect of media democratization.

[1] Who We Are—Meet the Team. Retrieved from http://www.vancouverobserver.com/VO-team

[2] Ibid.