Next April, media scholars, media practitioners, and policymakers will meet in Montreal to discuss ways to ensure the survival of civic-focused journalism in Canada. Lisa Lynch talks to lead organizer, Christine Crowther, about how this isn't just about the survival of an industry: It's the preservation of journalism that allows citizens to get the information that they need to be active citizens.

Next April, a conference organized by faculty and doctoral students from three Quebec universities will bring media scholars, media practitioners, and policymakers to Montreal to discuss ways to ensure the survival of civic-focused journalism in Canada. The conference, titled “Deliberation, Diversity and Dollars: Public Strategies for Journalism in the Canadian Media Ecology,” represents a new phase of an ongoing conversations about how to sustain Canadian journalism. Instead of merely dissecting the problem, conference organizers have structured the conference around coming up with solutions.

“This isn’t just a conference in which attendees present papers,” says Christine Crowther, a former CBC journalist-turned-doctoral-student and the lead organizer of the event. “The goal here is to craft coherent policy proposals that we can advocate for.” Crowther says the idea for the conference came to her in 2009, when she first began hearing dire predictions about the future of Canadian media — and when the CBC made severe financial cutbacks that affected news programming around the country. A lifelong supporter and former employee of the CBC, Crowther was alarmed: at the same time, as a McGill graduate student studying with Marc Raboy, she began to think less about the future of individual media outlets and more about the future of the Canadian media system as a whole. Though her own research focuses on journalism in post-conflict situations, she realized that her interest in using public policy to support civic-based journalism could also be applied to “her own backyard.”

Last year, Crowther began reaching out to like-minded people in academic, journalism, and the non-profit sector to see what kind of an event might be developed. With the help of a steering committee consisting of faculty and students at Concordia University, McGill University, and the Universite de Laval, she began to plan a conference that was a hybrid between traditional academic gathering and mobilizing session. Half the conference will consist of papers solicited from scholars and practitioners; the rest of the time, high-octane speaker sessions will set out concrete examples of successful media ventures and breakout panels will focus on discussing and framing policy proposals.

Crowther emphasizes that the conference is not simply about the survival of journalism as an industry, though that will certainly be part of the conversation. Rather, she says, the subject at hand will be the preservation of “journalism that allows citizens to get the information that they need to be active citizens; i.e. contribute to society." She is quick to add that the CBC is not the only place where this kind of journalism happens. Rather, there are increasingly “other important players” in the media market, many of them a consequence of the increasing role of new media technologies. “The technological turn plays an important role in changing the relationship between journalists and citizens,” Crowther says, and thus the role of new forms of journalism is central to any discussion of Canadian media futures.

One of the event’s highlighted panels will tackle the question of how to foster diversity of media forms in Canada, shaping institutions that are both civic-focused and financially viable. Called “Paying The Bills,” it includes representatives from public broadcasters (TVO CEO Lisa De Wilde and CBC/Radio-Canada and CEO Hubert Lacroix); independent media (Le Devoir publisher Bernard Descôteaux and founder and CEO of OpenFile Wilf Dinnick); and community-based media (APTN CEO Jean Larose and National Campus and Community Radio Association Director Shelley Robinson). According to Crowther, though these institutions may have quite different histories, demographics, and even editorial viewpoints, they all produce the sort of journalism that “facilitates citizenship,” and thus all play an important role in a healthy Canadian media system.

In order to better understand how other nations chart the health of their own media, the conference will feature a panel of scholars and policymakers from the US, UK, France and Australia, including Craig Aaron from the Free Press and Bruce Patino, head of the digital strategy department at France Television and France 5 TV. “We share with the UK and Australia a strong history of public service broadcasting,” Crowther notes, while the United States has had to work with different levels of government media funding.  The comparison with both models can help highlight what the unique challenges of Canadian media practitioners as well as point to some overlooked strengths in the Canadian system.

At the end of the three-day event, Crowther hopes that conference attendees will not only come away with a series of policy suggestions, but also a sense that they share a common interest in promoting civic, deliberative media that unites them in the face of the differences they bring to the table. In order to change media policy in Canada, Crowther says, “we need to break down silos” between professional journalists, citizen journalists, policy analysts and academics. Even if a three-day conference may not be the place in which the problems of Canadian media get sorted out, “Deliberation, Diversity and Dollars” might just be the right venue to get the sorting under way.

More information about “Deliberation, Diversity and Dollars,” including a call for papers, can be found at the website journalismstrategies.ca. The conference, which runs from April 19-21st, will be fully bilingual, with simultaneous translation and moderators versed in English and French. Lisa Lynch is a member of the conference organizing committee.

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