Sustainable journalism

Last Friday I gave a talk at the Canadian University Press conference in Victoria (yes, the one hit with a suspected outbreak of Norovirus.)

The talk was titled “Sustainable journalism: media models for a post-growth economy“. If I’m to blame for any of the puking afterwards, I apologize.

I’ve copied my notes here based on a mix of what I remember saying and what I was trying to say –  in other words, it’s an adaptation, not a transcript. My hope in posting it here is that the discussion begun in Victoria can continue, once everyone has recovered.

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“The last talk I gave at a CUP conference was about a pirate television station we were running in East Vancouver. It was a black and white UHF signal with a range of about one kilometre, as long as you had a line of sight to the antenna. That was in 2004, 2005. I remember working on a cooking show called ‘Fuck Buck Slice’ – which suggests a slice of pizza still cost a dollar.

So it was a few years ago. Pre-YouTube, in fact. We did a pilot for ‘East Van Vigilante Squad,’ and a dating show, and I don’t even know where this stuff is right now, but the point I’m making is that 8 years ago it didn’t really occur to us to put this content on the Internet. We thought it was more fun to broadcast with a copper dipole antenna. To quote Biggie Smalls, things done changed.

What do I mean by post-growth? Let me tell you a story about some young scientists in the early 70s. They called themselves the Club of Rome and they had access to one of the most powerful computers in the world. This is back when computers ran on vacuum tubes and electric eels. And basically, they used the computer to build an early version of Sim City.

Their model looks at five key variables – human population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and natural resources. And in 1972 they plugged in the current numbers at the time, they plotted a graph from 1900 to the year 2100, and they let the computer run.”

A short clip from the film “Earth Days” (2009) which revisits the original “Limits to Growth“. Skip forward to 0:56 if you like.

“Obviously the young scientists were a bit alarmed. They thought, well, maybe we overestimated certain factors. So they tweaked the inputs and they ran the model again, and sometimes it lasted a little longer, but the result they saw over and over was this crash. The best-case scenario, when they got the numbers just right, was a flattening of all those lines. And really that’s your visual representation of what we call ‘sustainability’. A nice, stable transition to a post-growth economy.”

Click here for an updated version of the graph.

“So this is from the journal New Scientist – they took another look at the Club of Rome’s study on the fortieth anniversary – and sure enough, we’re following the lines pretty closely that they modelled in 1972. Up in that box is the best-case scenario, but as the journal editors helpfully point out, ‘nowadays, no realistic assumptions predict this outcome’.

However, I’m an optimist. I would like to plan for the best-case scenario. And the best-case scenario is a gradual flattening of the economy – of interest rates, of portfolio growth, of job markets, of circulation, audience numbers, salaries. All these nice flat lines stretching off into the horizon forever.

What I find weird is how many smart, rational people still cling to this cultural myth of infinite growth, as if there weren’t some sort of natural limits imposed by our physical surroundings.

I remember at the CBC, the quarterly updates on audience numbers. Growth: good! Champagne! We would literally drink sparkling wine at 9 in the morning in the newsroom. Stagnation: bad. Our fault. Soul-searching. What are we doing wrong? And this is in large part how our culture works.”

From the Toronto Sun, an article titled “Here We Grow Again,” about Ezra and friends’ ratings.

“I remember union negotiations at CTV – and our assumption was always that salaries have to keep going up, year after year. Why? Because the rest of the economy is growing. When salaries are frozen or staff numbers are reduced, journalists, understandably, freak out.

So our professional newsrooms are tied to the same economic logic as the institutions they keep watch over. The journalists themselves are dependent on perpetual growth, and in the content they produce, they rarely question this myth. The problem is, when the economy falters, journalism as a practice is weakened.”

View the “Paper Cuts” map of industry carnage.

“Here’s a fun site you may follow called Paper Cuts. Their data shows in 2008 – 15,993 layoffs and buyouts at US newspapers. In 2009, 14,825.

I graduated from Concordia in 2008, straight into the jaws of the recession. I survived the CBC cull, when we lost 800 people. At the same time, Canwest Global cut another 560, the Sun papers cut 600, CTV eliminated 105 positions, and you all remember the ugly, 2-year lockout at the Journal de Montreal.

Fewer boots on the ground means less data and more opinion. Glossy façades hiding weak foundations.

Guess what happens to all the cool projects when a recession hits? Ask yourself – how can you report without fear or favour when you’re scared of losing your job? How can you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable when you rely on the comfortable to get the economy running again?

In a sense, this dependence represents a conflict of interest.

And it causes enormous stress. Look at the rates of cancer, the stress leave, the unpaid overtime, the siege mindset. How can you do your job when your boss keeps asking you to do more with less?

On the most basic personal level, I think it’s clear the current model is unsustainable. And if it’s not sustainable for individuals, why would it be sustainable at a macro level?

What we need to do is look at the big picture and ask ourselves how we fit in as media creators. What our responsibilities are to ourselves and our audience and the wider world. And how we’re going to fulfill these responsibilities in times of economic uncertainty.

Because that’s when we really need good journalists in the field. When the economy tanks, that’s when governments bring in austerity budgets. That’s when powerful corporations start pushing their own agendas. That’s when protestors hit the streets. And that’s when cops start putting in extra surveillance and kicking the shit out of people.

Meanwhile, folks start losing their homes and slipping through the cracks. Those are the times when strong, public-interest journalism becomes extra important.”

To lighten the mood, we screen a clip from the new comedy special “Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater”. If you’ve already downloaded it, the part I showed is where Louis acts out the return to earth of an irate creator, upset by the mess. The clip embedded here is an outtake he posted on YouTube.

“So this is Louis CK – he’s not a journalist per se, but he does stray more and more into social commentary. He’s got a show called Louie, which I like a lot, and he does big comedy specials and before Christmas he decided to try something new.

Remember when Radiohead finished up their contract with EMI and decided to self-release the album ‘In Rainbows‘? This was back in 2007, and they knew exactly where the puck was going. The technology had gotten to the point that they could put the album up for download and be reasonably sure that most people would have access to it. So they put out a digital copy and let people pay whatever they wanted for it.

And that cut out two kinds of evil, bottom-feeding scavengers – the content pirates and of course the record companies themselves.

Radiohead sold millions of copies and revolutionized the music industry.

Fast forward five years, computers are that much better, and Louis CK has taken the idea a step further. He set a flat price of 5 dollars. So I logged in with Paypal, sent him five bucks, and downloaded an all-original, HD comedy special. I don’t have to wait for it to ship and I don’t have to cart around a plastic box with a disc in it.

He set the price so low that it’s not even worth hunting around for a torrent. Five bucks. Boom.

In the first 12 days, he made a million bucks.

A quarter of it he says went to covering the costs of the production and the website. A quarter of it he gave to his staff in the form of bonuses. And he gave 280 thousand to a bunch of different charities.”

Read Louis CK’s account of events.

“As he says on the website: ‘That leaves me with 220k for myself. Some of that will pay my rent and will care for my children. The rest I will do terrible, horrible things with and none of that is any of your business. In any case, to me, 220k is enough out of a million.’

‘I never viewed money as being ‘my money’. I always saw it as ‘The money’. It’s a resource. if it pools up around me then it needs to be flushed back out into the system.’

What we’re looking at is a media distribution model with no middleman. And part of the reason Louis CK can do that is because he’s taken these years of comfort and prosperity when we can still live on credit and everything works – and he’s been busy building a loyal audience.

On the more journalistic side, here’s a clip from a documentary that’s in production right now.”

So this is “Occupy Love,” produced by two filmmakers from BC, Velcrow Ripper and Ian Mackenzie. And they’re using Indiegogo’s flexible funding option so they can actually collect money and use it to pay for the production as they go – unlike Kickstarter, which is a threshold-based crowdfunding platform you might also want to get familiar with.

Last fall, my friends Evan and Candice and I decided to try our own crowd-funded documentary. Rather than go through a third-party site, I put up a PayPal button on my blog, and a wish list of gear that in the end, we were able to borrow from different people at no cost. The groceries, rent, and plane tickets we paid for thanks to our donors. So no Kickstarter, no Indiegogo, no grants, no government money, no foundation funding, and no pay gate for the viewer.”

“This is completely apolitical stuff – in news parlance a “human interest story” – about a blind guy learning to jump a motorcycle.

It’s also a Canadian documentary film, produced for a few thousand bucks, it lives on YouTube and so far, partway through production, more than 50,000 people have checked it out. Given that we have no distribution budget, no advertising, and no theatrical release, I think that’s pretty sweet.

What all of these experiments are pointing to is that it’s possible to do your thing, eat well, and build your audience – completely independent of existing institutions.

Why do I think this is important?

Well, the next federal budget comes out in a couple months – and word on the street is, the CBC might be looking down the barrel at some ‘hard choices’.

People have been talking about the Conservatives cutting public broadcasting for years. Now they have a majority – and a deficit.

There are still nooks and crannies where you can find arts grants – and I totally encourage you to go for it. But I’m not sure it’s wise as journalists to base our long-term business plans on government money.

There are private foundations, especially in the States, that give out grants – think of projects like ProPublica – but here’s the problem. Grant money generally comes from interest earned on investments. If the economy contracts – well, long term, I’m not sure it’s wise to rely on foundations either.

So if we care about this craft and we want to keep doing it forever, I think we have to do two things. First, drastically reduce overhead – by making our journalistic projects cost less, while revising our lifestyle expectations. That’s the easy part.

We also have to prove to audiences that independent journalism is worth something. That it’s worth funding out of their own pocket, whether you call it a subscription or a donation or whatever. Or letting you sleep on their couch or borrow their car. That’s the harder part.

And realistically, if this is what you love, you might have to look at subsidizing your journalism with your other skills. I met a very talented writer in the States who got tired of the BS and now works part-time at Trader Joe’s. What’s cool about that model is it gets you out of the newsroom into the real world.

This is what I’m exploring now – ways to keep doing journalism as a citizen. And if one thing’s clear it’s that we need to keep experimenting. Plenty of outlets are fiddling here and there with the current system, but I believe we need a deeper re-think. Borrowing theories and models from outside journalism is probably a good start.

Something we could really use is an organized set of resources to support citizen journalism and to let us support each other. That’s one of my next projects. I think we need a free, open-source handbook that can fill in the gaps and make your journalism better, whether you’re a professional or not. What I like about the wiki model is it’s organic – it adapts both to external forces and the needs of its users.

Next I would want to couple the handbook with a network to allow skill-sharing and support, so that people in different communities could collaborate to get stories produced that might not be on the radar of the big outlets.

Ultimately, I’d love to have another online source for news, specifically citizen-generated content. But that’s dependent on a resilient, interconnected community of trained news-gatherers. So for now, I want to focus on the handbook.

The working name for this project is “the Story Tree”.

If you’re interested in hearing where it goes, by all means leave me your email address and I’ll make sure to keep you in the loop.”

Delivered in Victoria on January 13th, 2012.

***

If you’re curious about the Story Tree, click here to send me a contact form or leave a comment below. I’ll send out an update in the next few weeks.

For time reasons, I didn’t get into coal-powered server farms and the larger problem of creating environmentally responsible journalism. That’s obviously a huge concern and I’m working on ways to reduce the carbon output of my streaming video content. Jet fuel is also a problem. More soon.

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5 comments
  1. Heather said:

    Kai, you boggle my mind! Just as I’m sitting here thinking about whether I want to apply for a Canada Council grant for an art project I have an idea for, I read your post and suddenly realize that my horizons need to expand. i don’t have any brilliant answers yet, but my wee brain is working overtime. Thanks!

    • Never mind the Canada Council, your bûche de Noël should qualify you for several international engineering awards. Seriously, don’t pass up grant money, it’s there for a reason. I’m just saying long-term, I think we need to make ourselves efficient and our networks resilient.

  2. Stella said:

    “However, I’m an optimist. I would like to plan for the best-case scenario.”

    This, to me, seems like a dangerously flawed approach. Work for the best-case scenario, yes; but PLAN for the worst-case scenario.

    Planning for the best-case scenario is what got us into this mess.

    Also, if you haven’t read William Catton’s book “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change” (1982), I suggest you do so. Good/terrifying read.

    • I hear what you’re saying, and on a personal level, sure, I think about plan B. But on a societal level, I’d argue we’ve been planning not for the “best-case scenario” (what I define as zero growth, or horizontal lines on a graph) but for an unattainable fantasy, a future of perpetual growth. You can see this in the diameter of the London sewers, the capacity of North American freeways, the Ponzi-scheme structure of many of our financial instruments. Asking societies to now turn on a dime and plan for collapse is a tough sell. Whereas asking institutions to plan for a sustainable future is an expression of faith in the human project.

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