Journalism Strategies Conference: I want to be a Sunshine Boy

I want to be a Sunshine Boy.

No, not the half-naked guys found the in Sun newspapers. For anyone who knows me, that is a terrifying mental picture.

Instead, I want to join with Tony Burman, who spoke at the Journalism Strategies Conference in Montreal, last night. The former head of CBC and Al Jazeera, told an audience of more than 200, he can see some sunshine peaking through the rather dark clouds gathering around journalism in Canada.

“I am optimistic,” he said.

Well, me too.

There was the usual barrage of media criticism coming from the panel, including Prof. Dominique Payette, a former Radio-Canada journalist, Kai Nagata, a writer in residence at The Tyee, and Judy Rebick, founding publisher of Frankly, there was little that was new. In fact, at points it felt like a first year media studies class with the standard complaints about mainstream, large urban news organizations failing on a million levels. Whipping tired, old horses, it seemed.

The lack of coverage of the student strike in Montreal was popular for the largely young crowd gathered at the D.B.Clarke Theatre at Concordia. Many of those listening directly affected or involved. So, the moderator was playing to his audience when he asked for opinions on the strike from panelists.

Burman tried to provide something that is absolutely necessary in any discussion like this – hope. There is no question there are many problems with the media. The list is long and filled with serious complex problems, which cannot be resolved easily.

But it feels like it is time to move the discussion forward. Rather than the same critiques using the same lens, the conference participants need to ask themselves what is next and what is doable. It is time to walk away from the old adages. It is time to move on.

There are incredible opportunities for journalists right now. Traditional media is slow to make change and continues to think using outdated models. The dominance of the economic agenda within the news industry leaves a massive hole for anyone looking to serve the public interest. Small, flexible, innovative newsrooms that embrace new technologies and new approaches can outpace the tired monoliths. Those looking to balance economic objectives with editorial ones will stick out like a sore thumb. People are hungry for information. It is all about creating unique model. And, there are no silver bullets. What works in Chebucto Head, Nova Scotia, will not work in Prince George, British Columbia or even Picton, Ontario. That’s the real challenge and the exciting part.

Audiences are fragmented and have no loyalty. They go where they will find the news they want. It will be a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a Vimeo channel, a blog or a website. The public is smarter than we think. John Dewey, the philosopher and academic, knew this. So did Michel Foucault.

We must begin with new principles. No longer should journalist fall back into the old regime of inform, explain and interpret. Now, journalism should seek to educate, engage and empower. The old hegemonies are dead and those relationships no longer work. When we educate our audience it is recognition of their contribution, knowledge and expertise. We provide information to help them add to this and then share themselves with others and us. To engage audiences means journalists and newsroom use the new tools and technologies to exchange ideas, help people find solutions and, most importantly, create a public sphere – a virtual commons, where people feel safe to come and express themselves. We can facilitate this.

None of this means anything though, if we do not empower people. When they finish gathering all the information they need and conversed with their community, they need to be able to act. Journalism can do this. Like a guide dog, we can show them the direction to go and help them. There is no need to lose the fundamental principles of balance, fairness and accuracy. We do not need to be bias. We merely need to provide the opportunity to act.

Educate, engage and empower.

It will be interesting to see how the next two days unfold.

Stay tuned.