the importance of “paid journalism” or my response to Sudbury wikileaks.

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Something made me very angry today. I read an editorial in one of my local newspapers (The Northern Life). The editorial is defending one of the reporters against accusations made on an anonymous website that calls itself “wikileaks Sudbury.” Wikileaks Sudbury makes me very, very angry.

The Wikileaks article lacks anything convincing. Does it say anything beyond that we should take the anonymous person’s interpretation (what the blog wants to call a “lengthy investigation of many reports”) as so-called proof that Darren MacDonald is the on the city’s payroll? Where are the details? The point-by-point analysis of how the articles provide this? And even if Mr. MacDonald’s articles side with the city policy, how would that be evidence of pay? If a website wants to call itself wikileaks, where are the leaked documents to back up their nonsense, or are they simply hoping the name provides some sense of legitimacy?

The article talks about “paid journalism” as though there was anyone paying the journalists beyond the newspapers. It says “paid news” destroys journalism. I’m much more concerned about the decrease in paid journalists and the increasing reliance most major newspapers show in using news network stories, rather than local stories. Less paid journalists out there mean less real reporting happening, and more cutting-and-pasting from press releases. Less paid journalists is bad for democracy, not good.

I think the Northern Life’s rebuttal is cleverly written, tying in the city’s suggestion of who runs wikileaks without stating any accusations of their own. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even had a lawyer look it over first just in case anyone too litigious minded person should attempt to silence them.

So here’s why I’m angry. I read about “Wikileaks Sudbury” trying to cast blind slander upon a newspaper, and I think about the care with which the newspaper has crafted its response. Running an anonymous blog slandering others is a cowardly thing to do. It is the newspapers that have the tougher task of real accountability.

My parents own a small town newspaper that they run out of the house I grew up in. (They don’t actually live there anymore, but the newspaper continues in the basement like it always has, and my dad does his share of the work via the internet and telephone.) My parents were sued on occasion, and each occasion the insurance company settled the lawsuit and the insurance costs went up. I remember occasionally they would have a lawyer check over a story prior to publishing it, to see how much a risk of lawsuit it put them at. Sometimes they would debate whether to run something at all. For a while they were the third most often sued weekly newspaper in… I can’t remember if it was Alberta, western Canada or all of Canada. My point is, taking a principled position can be expensive. Newspapers take risks to do it, and they get held accountable for being risk-takers. Besides the financial cost to my parents, there was tremendous emotional stress and despite their best efforts to protect us children from the stress, we felt the stress too.

The Wikileaks article claims that the advertisement money from the city makes the newspaper biased. To be honest, I haven’t read the newspaper close enough to know what its slant is on the city, though a pro-city stance could potentially cost subscribers, given how negative many people are towards city hall. I do know that my parents received advertising money from both the town and county councils that they report on. For most of their newspaper’s life they had a contract with the town whereby the town bought (discounted) subscriptions for all ratepayers and in exchange received discounted ads. It allowed the town to use the newspaper as an official means of communication, knowing it reached all ratepayers. It also helped their paper get started. Did fear of losing the contract prevent them from being tough on the town? I can’t say for sure. I remember the fear they had, but I remember the fear because they went ahead and printed things, therefore had  reasons to fear. The bigger issue though, is that the advertisements from town and city helped keep my parents’ newspaper going, and without it there wouldn’t have been any coverage of local issues. My parents newspaper is much smaller than the Northern Life. The economics of it was different, and I don’t know how important municipal advertisements are for the Northern Life. My point though is that someone has to pay for journalists and to accuse journalists of being biased simply because they are paid and their employers collect advertising fees is problematic. We need more journalists and journalism, not less, and there needs to be secure funding for journalists. Having regular advertisements from a municipal government is one way of helping to secure the presence of journalists.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to call journalists out. A detailed post about the ways in which Darren MacDonald’s newspaper articles shape public opinion in the wrong way would have been great. Simply jumping from “I don’t like his slant” to “he must be paid by the city” shows a horrible lack of understanding and nuance. Doing so anonymously is cowardly.

A much better example of citizen journalism comes from sources like http://dominion.mediacoop.ca/ where the volunteer journalists sign their names, and can be rated for accuracy. (Sudbury even has its own mediacoop page: http://sudbury.mediacoop.ca/)

Also, the wikileaks website seems to misunderstand what editorials are. Excerpts from another person’s writing should not be passed off as an “editorial” just because someone signs the post “Editor, wikileaks Sudbury” at the bottom.

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