3.1 The Dominion: A Noteworthy Experience in Canadian Independent Media
Dru Oja Jay
The vast majority of media in Canada is owned by a handful of corporations. For example, CanWest Global, the largest Canadian media company, controls over 30% of Canadian media. The consolidation of corporate control and ownership in Canada has resulted in a decrease in investigative journalism, an increase in the number of stories journalists are expected to produce and a narrowing of the range of debate on key issues of importance. The Dominion aims to widen the range of debate by covering stories marginalized, spun, or simply ignored by the mainstream press. As an independent publication relying primarily on reader support rather than advertisers, The Dominion represents a new model of newspaper in Canada, created unambiguously for the public good, rather than for the maximization of profit.
The Dominion is a publication of the Media Co-op, which is a member-owned media organization with three types of members: editors, contributors and readers. These members are in some cases grouped into locals, which maintain local initiatives autonomously within the network. The Dominion came about because a few of us were hearing a lot of complaints about the limitations of Canada's two "national newspapers" back in 2003. The Globe and Mail and the National Post were center-right and right-wing in their respective outlooks and priorities. We felt that even if we did not have the millions to start a new paper properly, we could do something different with the limited resources available. These resources mostly consisted of time and skills, but we thought that if we could build up an audience online, we would be able to create something that presented an alternative view. So we published online, sending printed copies to subscribers only, and called ourselves "Canada's grassroots national newspaper" in what was a jab at the Globe and Mail's tagline.
We started out thinking that we were just redistributing and repackaging information and opinions that already existed. But what emerged relatively quickly was a sort of "bottom up" style of reporting where we would look at the grassroots perspective — which we defined as the point of view of people who are directly affected by a policy — and then work our way up to the people making the decisions. This became a sort of ethos of our reporting, which has led us down some unexpected paths. The obstacles we faced had everything to do with our lack of resources. But when you are trying to invent something new, you have to be ready to address the aspects that fail. We started out thinking that we could build up a newspaper with this sort of grassroots perspective through word of mouth, and that the idea would capture peoples' imaginations. We realized, a few years in, that the producer-consumer relationship was not a good way to accomplish this, because people expect media to be free, when it is actually heavily subsidized by corporate advertising.
We realized that we could not continue on the same model, and after a lot difficult re-visioning, we decided to incorporate as a co-op. The idea was that we would essentially hand over co-ownership of the project to the members, and ask for more in return. That decision has drastically transformed the way we operate. The latest hurdle is the question — we have 700 members, but how do we actually meaningfully engage them in decision-making? This is an issue we have been working to address in the last few years. It also goes back to the very first challenge: how do we attract the support of thousands of people for this project? There have been hundreds of people who have contributed over the years, and we draw from a huge pool of content that comes from our four locals, which are local cooperatives that operate independently within the Media Co-op network. There are thousands of people who have signed up for accounts on our website, and hundreds of contributors. In terms of the actual editorial team, we have four paid editors and one graphic designer, who are based in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax. They do the bulk of the work. Then there are a number of volunteer editors and copyeditors. The paid staff is in charge of most of the coordination, but the actual work is spread among a large number of people.
The Dominion is now one project among many in the Media Co-op. What we are aiming for, overall, is to change the way media is created in Canada, and to challenge the corporate media's dominance. Our vision of media organizations is one that facilitates the timely exchange of relevant information and stories for the benefit of society as a whole, in a way that directly addresses issues of power and oppression. For us, that means paying critical attention to social movements, and cultivating a relationship with them. It also means, to quote a recent collective statement, producing "grassroots coverage that prioritizes the perspectives of those most adversely impacted by power". The corporate media has a structure where power flows from the top down. Owners and publishers make the big decisions, and the editors, who report to them, make decisions about what to cover and how. The reporters are accountable to the editors. Whether one receives the next assignment or a promotion depends entirely on the superiors. In this model — which includes the CBC — the readers and viewers are almost entirely disempowered. As consumers, they have only two options: tune in or tune out. There's no obvious way for them to change any particular aspect.
We are hoping to turn this pyramid-like structure upside down. Both in our kind of coverage and the way we run our organization, we are promoting — and helping to invent — a new form of media organization: One that starts with the voices of those directly affected; one that empowers its members to make their own media, and have a say in how the organization is run. This is difficult, however, because even among progressive and alternative media, the idea is still prevalent that there are a few experts, who should run the show, and that reporting is a professional journalist’s job, not a community member’s. We still struggle with this problem ourselves. There is a tension between putting out high-quality material in the short term to get an audience and doing the long-term work necessary to create a culture where thousands of people can effectively communicate their own stories. Thus our dream, I think, is at least in part to fundamentally shift the way people see their relationship to media. To convey that it is okay for people to demand democratic rights when it comes to their information supply, and to decommodify the news. In the past, we have done a series of special issues on topics like the tar sands, foreign policy, mining, the social cost of the Olympics and climate justice. Our future projects will be planned and initiated in consultation with our members. It is a fascinating process. For the last special issue, for example, we asked all of our members to submit their ideas for a special issue. Then we put out a list of the top ten ideas, as chosen by a committee, and put it to a vote among all the members of the co-op. This is how we decided to do the climate justice issue.
Plans are currently in the works for a larger visioning process that involves all the members who want to put in the time, so perhaps there will be some clues in that process about where the co-op will head next. That is the exciting attribute of such a broad-based process: unexpected ideas and energy can emerge from all kinds of places. We welcome pitches and submissions about artistic topics. In the past, people have had some difficulty squaring our political mandate with the world of art. This is, to some degree, a comment on how art and social movements have become separated. I think, however, that the two had a much richer relationship in the past. Commercial and governmental interests alike have taken to funding art, which, in my opinion, discourages artists from addressing critical issues directly. There have, nonetheless, been some vital and interesting attempts to make connections between art and movements without reducing one to the other, recently here in Montreal. We would love to see new ideas about how artists relate to power structures to get involved and use The Dominion and the Media Co-op sites to explore those questions.
Dru Oja Jay is a Montreal-based writer and organizer. He is co-founder of the Media Co-op, a founding editor of the Dominion, and a long-time solidarity activist. Dru is a co-author of Offsetting Resistance, a report about the effects of foundation funding on Environmental NGOs.