SMALL TOWNS, BIG MEDIA? TOWARD A DEMOCRATIC, PROFESSIONALLY-SUPPORTED MEDIA RENAISSANCE IN RURAL CANADA

By Randy Morse

2014 Dalton Camp Award Winner

"Social media isn't journalism. it's information. Journalism is what you do with it."
– C.J. Chivers, Correspondent, the New York Times

I am writing this on a typical autumnal early morning in Kaslo, a tiny mountain village of 1,000 souls, tucked into the heart of British Columbia's alpine West Kootenays. The old maples that march away from my window down toward gunmetal Kootenay Lake are busy shedding their yellow leaves, aided by a brisk wind blowing from the Purcells, the high altitude picket line protecting us from the outside world and its hoards of nouveau riche Calgarians.1

In addition to being small, Kaslo is ridiculously beautiful. It is also home to an astonishing collection of talented, quirky, brilliant, and often eccentric types2– the similarities between Kaslo and Cicely, Alaska, the fictional locale of the popular '90's TV series, Northern Exposure, are unmistakable.3

Above all, Kaslo is isolated. A winding, narrow, pot-holed, lake-hugging piece of pavement connects the village to Nelson, an hour's drive away. Visitors from the east arrive, astonished, via the world's longest free car ferry.4 When the cliffs near Coffee Creek avalanche in winter, Kaslo is essentially cut off from the outside world. People who find themselves in Kaslo are either lost or really want to be here.

We are a thousand people clustered together in a quaintly compact village located squarely in the middle of mountainous nowhere. Given our size and remoteness, it's logical to assume we have a better shot at living a truly participatory, democratic life than our big city peers in places like Vancouver or Toronto. Right?

Much has been made, after all, of the general social cohesiveness to be found in (truly) small towns.5 Small communities, so the assumption goes, encourage foot traffic. Their manageable scale allows, even promotes, human contact and interaction on a level most denizens of large centres can only dream of. Residents of small towns either know one another, or know of one another, in a way urbanites cannot imagine. The old quote, "The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don't know what you're doing, someone else does," springs to mind. To the extent this sort of human scale supports and encourages openness and participation, one might look to small communities as likely paragons of democratic virtue. Indeed there is evidence that such places actually do often attract precisely those among us most likely to value – and contribute to – an informed, lively, progressive public discourse.6

But there is a fly in the democratic ointment here – specifically, the relative lack of any substantial, "serious" media in places like Kaslo. We are relegated, along with the citizens of virtually every other wee town and First nation reserve in the country, to the darkened edges of the information superhighway. We aren't an off-ramp: we're an itsy-bitsy, poorly-lit info parking lot. We don't produce news (unless a number of us die some horrible death),7 we consume it, as best we can.

This lack of a substantive local media matters. People who live in rural, remote communities are constantly forced to digest "someone else's news." They have little if any opportunity to shape, let alone create, their own worldview, relegating them to a role of passive media consumption that serves to underscore the (largely urban) myth that nothing of any particular importance happens in the hinterland.

To make matters worse, the dominant media are owned by an increasingly concentrated, often overlapping set of powerful elite interests, a situation that both helps perpetuate the basic political status quo, and protects the interests of the media conglomerates themselves.8 A grim picture for anyone who worries that a citizenry stripped of economic decision-making, estranged from the political process, and unable to properly articulate itself is a citizenry cowed and subservient to the interests of a relative handful of "others." A situation made even more acute in rural communities, forced to consume media that seldom bears any meaningful relevance to their concrete situations. A story about a loutish, crack-smoking Toronto mayor is obviously compelling for folks in the GTA, but for us here in Kaslo? it ranks right up there with learning Justin Bieber's good in bed.

Is there an alternative?

There may be. The smallness and isolation of towns like Kaslo could prove to be more blessing than curse. The combination of an economy that values electronic tablets more than tall timber, an informal local political system, a compact demographic in a distinct spatial setting, imminent access to significant bandwidth (hello, 1,000 Mbs cry the good citizens of otherwise sleepy olds, Alberta), and the relative absence of entrenched media, may provide the basis for an exciting economic, political, and media renaissance for the Kaslos of Canada.

So where to begin?

Edward Herman argues, in Triumphof the Market, that a democratic media must, above all, serve "the informational, cultural, and other communications needs of members of the public which the media institutions comprise or represent. The users would determine their own needs and fix the menu of choices either directly or through their closely controlled agents, and debate would not be limited to select voices chosen by corporate or government gatekeepers." A truly democratic media, Herman continues, is one in which listeners, viewers, and readers not only choose programs, articles, and issues to be addressed – they are also in large measure the producers and participants of the resultant content. This type of media promotes a two-way, horizontal flow of communication, rather than the traditional top-down deluge, from officials and "experts" to an essentially passive population. It is a media that encourages people to participate in social and political life.9

At first blush it sounds as though social media – Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. – might serve a small community well. The problem however is that these platforms are not iterated, in the sense good newspapers and magazines or radio and TV programs are. Social media content is seldom led, or informed by, anyone who actually has a deep understanding of the topic at hand, let alone by trained journalists; there are no editors sharpening sentences and correcting comments on Facebook, no one checking facts before tweets fly out into the ether. While there is always a start to any social media "story," there is seldom an actual end, no organizing core, no essential point to be made. To compare this to some new form of journalism is to equate noise with music.

A possible solution to this dilemma lies embedded in the very technologies that make social media possible. At least we're about to put this assumption to a real-world test, right here in Kaslo.

There are currently over 1,000 members of the Kaslo Community Web Facebook page – astonishing, given our population of, well, 1,000 (imagine the same ratio of members on a similar site in Edmonton or Winnipeg). It's an undifferentiated, un-iterated, treasure-trove of raw information, gossip, and occasional vitriol – what it definitely is not, is informed, objective news.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we have it. But what about real media content, the kind of democracy-enhancing media Herman advocates, in a town with no newspaper, and no TV or radio station?

Digital drum roll, please. Once that 1,000 Mbs bandwidth is fired up (or even a lowly 100 Mbs, the speed we're currently looking to deploy here), we are going to turn Kaslo into a bastion of community-owned and operated media. Get ready for the Nirvana Chronicles, Kaslo's new monthly, interactive digital magazine, available to anyone on the planet with an iPhone or iPad. Brace yourself for Radio Free Kaslo, a full-time, live web-streaming radio station. Prepare to tune in to The Nirvana Network, a web-streaming video channel. And start looking forward to a cup of warm cocoa and curling up with a good book (or ebook) courtesy of Nirvana Books, our soon-to-be-established publishing arm. All of them created by a local non-profit-think-and-do-tank, the Kaslo Institute, programmed entirely by locals.

The challenge in ensuring these highly public, grassroots media truly contribute to the sort of well-informed, participatory society advocated by Herman (and others) is more about human capacity than it is technology. There simply aren't a lot of savvy media types wandering around in a town of 1,000 people. Luckily, there exists a growing cadre of seasoned correspondents, editors, reporters, and publishers out there in the wider world, either disenchanted with or disenfranchised from traditional media, who are more than willing to step up and help provide the support and encouragement necessary to see efforts like ours here in Alpine nirvana blossom into an exciting new landscape of horizontally structured, community-based independent media, contributing daily to the economic, cultural, and political health of their readers/listeners/viewers. And in the process, sharing their stories and points of view with curious people everywhere.10

It's sort of like a 21st-century "adopt-a-community-and-help-turn-it-into-a-functioning-media-hub" program for fed-up media types. We'll take full advantage of the low-cost and high accessibility of social media (or at least the digital network-centric technologies that enable social media), while leveraging the rigour and professionalism provided by experienced traditional media mentors.11

Perhaps Kaslo can lead the way to a new kind of media. A media whose practitioners are drawn from the ranks of the local populace, mentored and supported by a growing group of pros who have escaped the belly of the privately-owned media conglomerate beast and lived to tell the tale.12

The result? A movement spreading from currently media-poor peripheries to (vacuously) media-saturated centres, resulting in a better informed, more aware population. A population better positioned to take the lead in shaping its own destiny.

Big ideas sometimes come in small packages.

Endnotes

  1. See the former Dalton Camp Award-winning essay Dismantling the Scarecrow: An Exploration IntoCalgary's Cultural Coming of Age, Nancy Black, 2011 (https://www.friends.ca/DCA/2011/NancyBlack).
  2. Places like Kaslo tend to attract creative people. See Timothy R. Wojan, Dayton M. Lambert & David A. Mcgranahan, "emoting with their feet: Bohemian attraction to creative milieu," Journalof Economic Geography 7 (2007): 711-736.
  3. For information on Northern Exposure: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/northern_exposure. To see a trailer, check out: http://www.videodetective.com/tv/northern-exposure-season-1/232704.
  4. http://kootenaylake.bc.ca/the-east-shore/kootenay-lake/getting-here/by-road.
  5. Rudzitis, g. (1999) "Amenities increasingly Draw People to the American West," RuralDevelopment Perspectives, August: 9-14; Rogers, M. (2005) "Social Sustainability and the Art of engagement – the Small Towns: Big Picture experience," Local Environment, 10, no. 2: 109-125; and of course small town social cohesion has also been often lampooned, nowhere more skillfully – or lovingly – than by Stephen Leacock in his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (see http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3533 for a free ebook version of this humourous classic).
  6. Jackson, J.B. (1994) A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, New Haven, Yale University Press; Jobes, P.C. (2000) Moving Closer to Heaven: The Illusions and Disillusions of Migrants to Scenic Rural Places, Westport, Conn., Praeger; Rudzitis, g. (1999) "Amenities Increasingly Draw People to the American West," Rural Development Perspectives, August: 9-14.
  7. Small towns and First nation reserves have essentially the same status as Third World countries in the context of national and global media. See for example, "Johnsons Landing residents remember deadly landslide one year later," http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/johnsons-landing-residents-remember-deadly-landslide-1-year-later-1.1403440; "5 killed in northern ontario plane crash," http://globalnews.ca/news/958863/5-dead-in-plane-crash-in-northwestern-ontario/; 13 dead, 37 missing in Quebec train explosion, residents demand answers from railway," http://globalnews.ca/news/700988/13-dead-37-missing-in-quebec-train-explosion-residents-demand-answers-from-railway/; "Typhoon Haiyan: Philippines declares state of calamity," http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24901993.
  8. Tencer, D. (Aug. 13, 2012) "Concentration of Media ownership in Canada Worst in G8 for TV industry, Study Says," Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/13/concentration-media-ownership-canada_n_1773117.html); Theckedath, D. & Thomas, T. (2012) "Media ownership and Covergence in Canada," ottawa, Library of Parliament Research Publications (http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/researchpublications/2012-17-e.htm).
  9. Herman, edward. S. (1995) "Toward a Democratic Media," in Triumph of the Market: Essays onEconomics, Politics, and the Media, Boston, South end Press.
  10. The UK's Journalism Foundation is a good example of trained, experienced journalists helping community members shape their own media using new and emerging technologies. See http://www.thejournalismfoundation.com.
  11. We are finding little difficulty recruiting experienced media workers to help us achieve a level of journalistic competence that might otherwise go begging. Journalists looking to help change current media models abound. See, for example, http://disgruntledjournalist.tumblr.com; http://seanblanda.com/blog/college/our-disgruntled-young-journalists/; http://malcontents.tripod.com/main.html; the list goes on….
  12. Flora Stormer Michaels, "Why Did Kai nagata Quitting CTV Strike a nerve?" The Tyee, August 4, 2011, http://thetyee.ca/Mediacheck/2011/08/04/CTVQuitStrikesnerves.