Joey Coleman is the editor of The Public Record.
The crisis in local journalism is not one of failed business models; it is a failure-of-ownership model. Across Canada, locally owned and operated, accountable news agencies continue to provide the day-to-day coverage of civic government, civic life and civic safety that is essential to our democracy.
I run a hyperlocal, audience-funded news website in Hamilton, Ont., called The Public Record.
I cover nearly every public meeting at Hamilton City Hall, and publish unedited video of entire meetings for the public to see.
Across Canada, conglomerates are closing local newspapers in communities small, medium and large as they focus on their mission – the delivery of financial returns to their stockholders.
Local readers subscribing to truly local news agencies can provide the revenue to fund journalism; it is the diversion of funds to pad profit margins that is the primary cause of the current dilapidated state of local news across Canada.
But the greatest threat to freedom of the press in local journalism is the same as for national journalism: government obstructionism and unethical behaviour by those in power.
Consider the case of Justin Brake. The RCMP charged Mr. Brake, an independent journalist, with mischief and disobeying a court order for following a group of mostly Indigenous demonstrators, in the course of reporting, onto the site of the Muskrat Falls hydro project site in Labrador in October, 2016.
It took two and a half years for the Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador, in a connected civil proceeding, to rule that Mr. Brake’s journalism was not criminal. It upheld the importance of Charter protections of journalists to cover protests, even in light of the court order barring the protesters from trespassing on the hydro project site.
These proceeding were costly for Mr. Brake in both time and money.
I have faced similar attempts to silence my work. In 2014, I was reporting on the Hamilton City Council’s Accountability and Transparency Committee, which, despite its name, refused to publish its agendas and minutes online. In the course of reporting, I was assaulted by the chair of this committee, Hamilton City Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who felt that I unfairly targeted the Accountability and Transparency Committee because of its name. This is true – I felt it should be both accountable and transparent. Mr. Ferguson was also chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board at the time.
Hamilton’s Integrity Commissioner Earl Basse, a person appointed by the Accountability and Transparency Committee and who reports to that committee, conducted an investigation. In his investigation, he spoke with only Mr. Ferguson, did not interview any of the witnesses to the incident, and wrote a report that concluded, "Notwithstanding that it was a long and contentious day of meetings from 8:20am until 10:45 pm, Councillor Ferguson should not have made physical contact with Mr. Coleman.” The Integrity Commissioner determined that, because I was carrying camera equipment outside the doors to the Council Chamber, in the public foyer, I could’ve been recording in the public foyer where media scrums occur. Therefore, according to Mr. Basse, Councillor Ferguson could’ve reasonably believed that I was “eavesdropping.” So, while Councillor Ferguson should not have “made physical contact,”he wrote, the councillor should not be sanctioned, not even censured.
As for the accusation that I was “eavesdropping,” the city took action by removing me from the City Hall media room, and by disallowing the livestreaming of public meetings. I was only able to regain my access when the Ontario Ombudsman’s jurisdiction over municipalities began in January, 2016.
As a journalist, I’m not alone in facing violence in my workplace, not alone in encountering illegal government obstructionism, not alone in being unable to obtain public information due to our oft-ignored Access to Information laws and not alone in being denied access to public meetings owing to improper practices by government officials and politicians.
We face a dilemma: To fix journalism, we need to fix government, but to fix government, we need the robust local journalism we’ve lost in small towns and mid-size cities across our country.
We have to start by fixing journalism.
Prior to the launch of The Public Record, it was common for city council meetings to occur with no journalists present who would ensure the accountability of public processes. City halls across Canada face this dilemma every day.
In Hamilton, I addressed the problem by covering nearly every meeting, including sub-committees and advisory boards. My coverage enables Hamiltonians to be engaged in our local democracy, increases civic engagement and helps increase public trust in both journalism and government. Local journalism is long hours, and is rewarding – I see the impact of my work daily, and people thank me on the street.
Local journalism, more than any other branch of journalism, needs readers to financially support it.
Funding journalism isn’t enough. Citizens need to be actively engaged in our communities to create the conditions for viable journalism.
We, journalists, need to assist citizens in accessing government, in engaging government, and we need to work to ensure transparency is for everyone.
Only then will the public support us in pushing for the adoption of penalties for government officials and politicians who violate Access to Information laws, penalties for violations of open meeting laws and independent watchdogs with teeth.
We, journalists, need to lead in assisting and training citizens to use public information to inform their communities, to watch for corporate and government wrongdoing and to ensure the honesty of those in power.
During the days of rich newspaper profits, we allowed the government to put information behind walls of high fees. Land registry, corporate records and freedom of information are all too costly for sustained watchdog reporting by most journalists – to say nothing of barriers to our neighbours, the “regular” citizen.
To reinvigorate freedom of the press, we all have our role to play. We can’t expect government to voluntarily open itself to public accountability and transparency.
I’ll keep working to inform and to assist the public in fulfilling the duties of citizenry in our democracy, and I hope you will join in the mission of improving democracy by financially supporting journalism that makes a difference in your own communities.