` Columbia Journal - Media: Having Lousy Local Media
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Having Lousy Local Media

BY FIONA JACKSON-BUSS - The firing of Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills was only the most recent and dramatic example of the Asper media empire censorship, says David Beers

The former reporter for the Global Canwest owned Vancouver Sun spoke on June 12 to a rapt audience of fellow journalists, students and social activists, outlining his experience working with and eventually being fired from the paper for diverting from corporate editorial policy in news coverage.

What I Learned at the Media Circus was a talk sponsored by Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Although Beers is an award winning writer, both in his native US and here in BC, last October he was told by Sun management that although he was "one of the best writers at the paper," they'd have to let him go because they needed to save money.

His firing came shortly after he wrote an essay on what he saw as "war hysteria" following September 11 voicing concerns about a possible new McCarthyism.

But Beers' talk did not chiefly concern his firing and how Asper ownership of The Sun has affected content, although he outlined those. Instead he lamented the ongoing poor quality of the paper. "The cost of having lousy local media which feels no pressure to improve is profound," he said. He also shared his vision of what a newspaper should be.

"I like to think of a city's leading newspaper as a kind of mirror that all the city looks into…to see itself reflected back," he said. "If the city is inspired by what it sees, the citizenry is emboldened to tackle big problems, or dream creatively, or get what needs to be done for the benefit of all."

Beers asked for creative solutions. "We need to develop something special, culturally as well as economically, to offer the rest of the nation and the world. Our newspaper of record must act as a trusted forum, giving free play to conflicting views, ideas, and different ways of imagining our future. And it has to be credible in terms of minimal political bias.

"Victoria is experimenting with some pretty radical new political approaches to what it means to create a good society," Beers said. "(In order) to think through the best, most creative and clear-minded solutions to the challenges we face, we need the most grown-up, wide-ranging examination of these issues possible."

Here's some of what's happening at The Sun according to Beers:
  • the Aspers have a considerable debt in Winnipeg and in order to make the Sun profitable to service that debt, they're cutting costs. Rather than improving quality to do this, they are cutting content. According to Beer's sources, The Vancouver Sun is currently profitable.

  • The Sun has been publishing what it calls a "supplement" called Believe BC which is filled with feel-good promotional pieces about BC business which is actually losing money as it attempts to attract more business investment. The pieces in this supplement are written by public relations professionals rather than journalists.

  • Convergence is the concept that the Aspers are currently using of publishing the same editorial piece in all their papers across the country and they plan to extend convergence to entertainment reviews and other columns thereby cutting local content.

  • Quality problems at the Sun run the gamut from headlines are strikingly similar to the BC Liberals' press releases to imported fluff stories and lack of local writers.

Beers ended his talk with a call to action. "I think there's room for another broad-based media source in this town." He agreed with the idea of a labour sponsored autonomous press that would not depend on major corporate advertizing or government funding.

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