The Journalism Strategies Conference at McGill in Montreal was full of interesting critiques, insights and thoughtful discussion. Professor Robert Washburn provides a summary blog on a few impressions from this past weekend where academics, journalists and students examined journalism and its role in democracy now and in the future.

By Robert Washburn

There is an inspiring moment in the award-winning television series West Wing when Martin Sheen’s character, President Jed Bartlet, asks, “What’s next?”

It is a defining moment. Rather than go over points he already understands, Bartlet is anxious to move on to the next challenge rather than waste time laboring over things he cannot change. Once a decision is made, then what is next?

Having spent a weekend with some very inspiring academics, journalists and amazing students at the Journalism Strategies conference at McGill this past weekend, it feels like a Jed Bartlet moment. The panels, speeches, presentations, discussions and plans, both formal and informal, left a great sense of anticipation, but a heartfelt need to move forward.

The experience was wide and varying as panelists shared their ideas surrounding the relationship between journalism and democracy at a time when the news industry is undergoing seismic changes. And, because these changes are so fundamental, some panelists dug down into some of the most core values of journalism, such as objectivity and journalist/audience relationships. Others looked at more recent challenges such as the use of Twitter and collaborative storytelling.

If there was a theme coming from all this discussion, it was the importance of news being local. While the news industry is working hard to find efficiencies and cost-effective ways of delivering news in a more competitive marketplace, there was a real sense of the overwhelming significance of providing news aimed at a geographic community or a community of interest.

One presentation focused on a show called Groundwire, which is produced for members of the National Campus and Community Radio Association. It gives small radio stations across the country an opportunity to produce reports on news otherwise not found in mainstream media and shared with all the members of the association. Its focus is to give voice to many people and issues ordinarily not heard.

Karen Wirsig of the Canadian Media Guild, along with Cathy Edwards of the Canadian Association for Community Users and Stations, talked about their work in trying to access local resources to build opportunities for communities to create venues for local television and radio journalism. One really neat idea presented was that of taking abandoned CBC towers and creating small radio and television stations. Another was getting local libraries to create media centres were people are able learn how to create their own podcasts or videos about local news and information.

Prof. Kelly Toughill, director of the School of Journalism for the University of King’s College, provided insight into the business model for, a successful online publication focusing on local news for the past decade and featured in a recent story on

Even the public policy discussions had a local twist as Christopher Ali, a doctoral student from the Annenberg School of Communication, examined how politicians and other public institutions view local news coverage.

Following a rather dark, gloomy critique of the current landscape of Canadian news media by a panel on Thursday night, there was a most uplifting panel on Friday called Paying the Bills, where the presenters outlined numerous innovative approaches to creating operations that were viable both economically and produce high quality journalism, one of the greatest balancing acts facing journalism.


TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde outlined how the Ontario educational channel produces stellar journalism via such programs as The Agenda using a combination of government grants, fundraising and sales of its own programming and services to remain viable.

Bernard Descoteaux, editor-in-chief of Le Devoir, gave a most compelling account of the historic newspaper’s survival, where investors provided funds with little or no hope of return because they valued the newspaper and its contributions so highly. This got the operation through some very tough times. It was a most compelling and inspiring story.

Next, Wilf Dinnick, founder and CEO of OpenFile, provided snapshot inside his innovative news operation, talking at length about the way he and his editors interact with audiences to create an amazing relationship. Through the exchanges, the editors and audience collaborate to set the news agenda and determine coverage. It smashes all kinds of preconceived ideas around news judgment, editorial direction and audience interactions.

Jean LaRose, CEO of APTN, and Shelley Robinson, executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association, both gave accounts of their respective operations, sharing their successes and future challenges.

Sadly, Michel Cormier, head of CBC Radio-Canada, had the tough job of trying to place a positive spin in the face of massive cuts as it tried to deal with $200 million in financial pressures over the next three years. One message resonated and it was the need for CBC to innovative.

Certainly, there was much more. And, if there are some ideas missed, then anyone should feel free to add more in the comments below.

As an advocate of hyperlocal news in Canada, the idea of providing high quality journalism to communities can be a bit daunting. The transformation of the news industry is not undertaken because a series of visionaries is running the show. Instead, it is being forced upon everyone in journalism from the reluctant small group of owners of massive conglomerates who are struggling to survive down to the frontline reporters trying to manage in an ever-evolving newsroom.

Yet, this presents great opportunity. Large or small, the answer seems to be innovation and experimentation. Nobody can expect the status quo. This opens the door to possibilities and nothing could be more exciting. And, it was this aspect of the Journalism Strategies Conference that rang through loud and clear.

A series of recommendation was collected and discussions held to develop an action plan. That summary report is coming.

So, what’s next?

Related story: The challenges of collaborative storytelling for television news