Fifth launch anniversary Conversation Canada it is an opportunity to reflect on the untold history of the Canadian media.
Conversation Canada is one of more than 120 new English-language digital journalism organizations established since 2000. This is more than the number of daily newspapers that populated the country in the second half of the 20th century.
Reflecting on the past five years as co-founders and researchers of journalism, we find Conversation Canada as part of a nascent journalistic infrastructure populated by a new group of vital contributors that range from cottage industry to larger established organizations.
These players like Logics, MediaIndigenaNarwhal, overgrowth, Tayi as well as Village media — shape what it means to be a journalist and what journalism can and should do in this country. They have taken advantage of the low barriers to entry online and the potential of the digital space to experiment with different approaches.
However, the decline of traditional commercial media has been the focus of policy and journalist attention, even as these new digital journalism organizations are gaining recognition at industry awards and filling gaps in news coverage.
Solving critical issues
Our research over the past two years has focused on identifying and understanding this wave of newcomers born into the digital world. We found that most new digital news organizations are still up and running, even though many start-ups fail in their first few years of existence. Like Conversation Canadamore than half have been launched since 2015.
Most of the new journalism organizations are located in British Columbia and Ontario, although they are mostly located outside urban centers. About 40% cover national and/or international perspectives, which is surprising given the fear of losing local news.
Many of these new organizations are consciously mission-oriented, and some recognize their role as a response to pressing global issues and live in a colonial nation-state. Some take an explicit stance on the harms and shortcomings of traditional media messages, including indigenous justice, racial injustice, the climate crisis, the economy, and more.
Just under two-thirds of new digital media outlets were founded by experienced and emerging journalists, with the rest by media creators, businessmen or activists.
This new system, however, is not without its challenges, such as sustainability, scale, cost of living, audience acquisition, and sponsorship impact, to name but a few.
The increase over the past two decades in the number and range of journalistic entrepreneurs and owners is important because there is evidence that the concentration of ownership contributed to the limited diversity of viewpoints and types of organizations that could and did journalism in Canada.
The trend towards non-profit organizations
Our research shows the shift towards non-profit journalism organizations over the past two decades, including Conversation Canada.
The evolution of ownership types and business models is significant given the highly concentrated nature of Canadian journalism ownership, which has been a concern since the first government committee investigated the issue in 1970.
Contemporary Canadian journalism has also had a largely commercial focus, despite the important presence of public broadcasting, with professional ideals of objectivity and independence.
These elements have contributed to a widely shared and relatively homogeneous perception of journalistic roles among the state and mainstream media. Largely described as “observant,” the roles of journalists in Canada focus on five “credo” points: “accurately reporting the views of public figures, getting information to the public quickly, giving ordinary people the opportunity to express their views, investigating the activities of state and public institutions, and also providing analysis and interpretation of complex problems.”
“Unified Newspaper Agenda”
This professional commercial logic covers Canada’s English and Francophone media systems. A recent study by researchers in Quebec found that similar content is perceived in Canadian media. These scholars suggest that this finding confirms previous research that there is a “unified newspaper agenda” in Canada, with the caveat that this agenda “goes beyond Quebec specific issues”.
These are important considerations because there is evidence that the relationship between the professional ideology of journalists in Canada and perceptions of partisanship and politicization is paradoxical. While journalists attribute neutrality, the audience perceives them as biased.
Read more: Canadian media trust hits new low
This paradox is timely because it coincides with a decline in public trust in the media. English-speaking journalists’ trust in journalism has fallen to 39% from 55% in 2016 and to 47% from 55% in the same period among French-speakers.
Perceptions of trust are linked to a “perceived lack of diversity in media ownership”, as well as concerns about media independence from political or business influence.
What can be journalism
Fifth anniversary Conversation Canada is an opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to the many people, including its editors, who have contributed to its success – and to its significant contribution to journalism in Canada, from its coverage of COVID-19 to its podcast. Don’t call me persistent.
Our goal in co-founding Conversation Canada was to explore how the values of non-profit journalism influence what journalism can and should do in this country. (We are both tenured professors at the University of British Columbia and do not receive any income from Conversation Canada or our roles in it.)
It was an initiative to see what journalism could be like if it were written by experts in their fields and edited by journalists, deliberately welcoming critical research and the views of scholars who were excluded and/or forced to work on the fringes of the media.
Our approach was to address the established power relationships in journalism, expanding how the newsroom and its presence in the commercial landscape, largely created by white professional journalists in Canada, was commonly thought of, understood and practiced.
Canada is not alone in trying to decide on a political response to journalism’s legacy economic woes, seeing the rise of new players trying to survive alongside the dominance of platforms like Facebook and Google. Countries such as Australia, Belgium and others are trying with varying degrees of success to figure out how best to support quality journalism today.
Our research continues through a series of related studies in Canada and Australia on exposure and use Talk national and global content funded by a research grant from the federal government of Canada.
Obviously, national social, economic and political conditions influence the nature of our media systems. The question for Canadians is what choice they have, or should have, about the types of journalism available to them now and in the future.