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JONESIE: How tax dollars fund local 'news' and the end game of marketing

February 22, 2017 - 2:40 PM

 


OPINION


There’s a deeper subtext to my story yesterday about the City of Kelowna communications department’s direct relationship with Kelowna Now, a marketing company that markets itself as a ‘news’ organization.

To recap: In 2012, the City signed a five-year ‘agency of record’ agreement with a marketing company from Kamloops to do various work, including buying ads for the City. Last year, that marketing company merged with Csek Creative of Kelowna, which publishes Kelowna Now, which ostensibly covers this city with news.

For a year, neither the City nor Kelowna Now disclosed that relationship.

I recognize the inherent difficulties of reporting a story on a competing news agency, but there’s no way around it. The relationship is news.

Is there a scandal here? City politicians and staff certainly don’t think so and neither does Kelowna Now. That's the reason for writing this column.

And also for you, because it is something you, as a consumer, should know and understand in a greater context about what has happened to ‘news’ in this city and how the marketing people are taking over. And that you pay the difference with your tax dollars.

There can be no argument this arrangement with Kelowna Now, through no fault of its own, works very well for the City of Kelowna and its aims.

Quick Digression: The City of Lloydminster made national headlines in February 2016 when it launched the Lloydminster Record to deliver ‘straight facts on City of Lloydminster matters.’ A Lloydminster City spokesperson told me last year the Record was created specifically to refute untold information in media reporting. It drew eyes and exclamation points from national media for its boldness in assuming the role of news media in that city which, like every other community in Canada, has been decimated by layoffs.

Where did Lloydminster get the idea? The City of Kelowna’s For The Record page, which is a clearing house for various quibbles with information contained in Letters to the Editor or media reports. The latest update there is Mayor Colin Basran’s attempts to persuade you that the City’s sidewalk bylaw was not really targetted at homeless people, despite the fact that of course it was about homeless people.

This is what politicians and institutions want: To provide the information direct to you and define for you what it means. 

Holding the line on that spin and the selective release of information has long been the role of the news media, whatever you may imagine that term to mean. But if you haven’t noticed, it’s now a shell of its former self.

In the mid-1990s, the Kelowna Daily Courier had roughly 33 employees in the news department. A few years later, in 2000 (the best comparison I could make and I am simplifying a little here) Carla Weaden, now the communications director at the City, was the third or fourth person in the communications department.

Today, the Courier has maybe a dozen employees in editorial and the City of Kelowna has 14.5 positions in communications, if you include Weaden as director — dwarfing not just the largest newsroom but every media outlet in the city.

They aren’t alone. Interior Health has 14.2 positions. The provincial government puts out as many as a dozen releases per day. 

True, there are more reporters spread out among a half dozen news outlets in Kelowna but they are all under-staffed.

You may find reporters from the Courier, the Capital News, Castanet, Kelowna Now, AM1150 and iNFOnews regularly cover Kelowna City Council and many managed press events.

But it’s rare to see them at or providing anything beyond cursory coverage of the Central Okanagan Regional District, School District 23, Interior Health, Westbank First Nation, City of West Kelowna, UBCO or Okanagan College, the Okanagan Basin Water Board, the Joint Water Committee, local MLAs or provincial government ministries, MPs and even court gets short shrift by inexperienced reporters.

We still have plenty of good and great reporters in town, to be sure. But beat reporters, who once had the time to understand the nuance, history and context of these institutions and who can investigate and challenge their narratives — are gone. Where do they go? Often to fill out the ranks of communications jobs at some of the same institutions they covered.

Most of that important coverage beat reporters, senior reporters and editors provided has given way to simple stories and prepared news events and a typical day in news looks nearly identical regardless of the outlet. And you will hear very few politicians or public bodies complain about that.

This scenario is playing out in cities and communities across the country and it’s hard to explain the loss because I can’t tell you what a depleted Vancouver Sun isn’t digging up about the provincial government and political parties, or what The Globe and Mail hasn’t learned about federal politics.

The federal Liberals at least recognize the problem. They are wrapping up hearings on what to do about the loss of real local news reporting, including proposals from the Public Policy Forum’s ‘Shattered Mirror’ report on the state of the news industry.

The response to Shattered Mirror has been rightful concern about tax dollars subsidizing journalism. It largely fails to recognize that taxpayers already fund the institutional eagerness of public bodies like the City of Kelowna to mimic the role of journalism as drawers and presenters of information.

Social media — Facebook and Google primarily — soak up the vast majority of online advertising (the City of Kelowna spent $9,000 with Facebook last year) and make matters worse, that is if you believe as I do, that a vigorous, vibrant press, while at times uncomfortable, makes society and its institutions better.

Weaden says the City of Kelowna doesn’t see the need to advertise much at all anymore, beyond statutory newspaper advertising for public hearings and meetings. Instead, it’s content to push out its own information through in-house channels like its own website and social media.

And why wouldn’t it?

The waters are muddied even further by sites like Kelowna Now or The Daily Hive in Vancouver that provide safe harbours for politicians and businesses. They borrow the words ‘news’ and ‘reporter’ and ‘journalist’ but they use them as marketing terms, banking on their connotation of credibility by readers to grab them by the eyeballs, then shove saccharin stories and ‘sponsored content’ down their throats and never delivering dinner after a constant diet of dessert.

Kelowna Now has no editor. Reporters, (listed on the site alongside ‘content strategists’) with little to no experience, take direction from owner and Chief Operating Officer Jim Csek. In May 2016, it hired Dave Trifunov away from his role as managing editor of the Daily Courier to be the editor but fired him two months later. Trifunov said he is ‘still mystified’ about why.

Any experienced editor would have understood the inherent, even if only perceived, conflict of interest on its own part in a Kelowna Now/City of Kelowna arrangement I described, would have understood the challenge that would pose to any claim of editorial independence and damage to credibility.

But that's not what they do. They proudly pronounce that they don’t do ‘negative’ stories. The result is an endless stream of re-written press releases, social media scraps and ‘positive’ feature stories, anything but questioning, critical reporting — the end game for the marketing industry. 

Maybe that doesn't matter, maybe you dig that, I don’t know. I do know social media-savvy politicians like Councillor Ryan Donn and Mayor Colin Basran do. They have an arms-length (?!) ‘news’ organization where they can point to show how good they are doing. Look at their social media feeds or Google Kelowna Now and Colin Basran and look at the headlines for a sense of what I mean.

(I put that to Basran. He claimed all media are positive about his council's record (again, not at all true) and said: “With all the negativity and division dominating news headlines these days, a little positivity is certainly welcomed!”)

I don't know what to call Kelowna Now, but based on the facts, I dispute their claim of being a news organization, just as I dispute the City or any other institution's press releases as 'news' — not that they would be so bold to make that claim outright.

Here's the fundamental difference: News is a service to the citizenry, for democracy and good government, an honest contemporary record of a community, that strives for transparency and accountability with verified information and eschews plagiarism in any form. It must be delineated from those who would mortgage its values, however much they have declined, to a service for marketing and marketers.

This whole scenario is troublesome for me, as a journalist in this market, to explain. Read into this any bias you wish.

But as a journalist and editor, it’s my duty to disclose it, inform my readers and explain it the best I can.

If that troubles you, take heart: There aren't many of us left. And you always have Kelowna Now. 

— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca

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