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Salim Jiwa at Social Media Club Victoria

This is not a press release…

Tonight I had the great good fortune to attend Salim Jiwa‘s presentation at Social Media Club Victoria. Focusing on newspapers, the industry of professional media, and the revolution that is digital media, Jiwa’s talk was one of the most refreshing I’ve heard on the subject. It was the kind of open, forward-looking perspective I wish Kirk Lapointe had offered listeners at Northern Voice 2010 earlier this month (or had been on offer at an earlier Social Media Club Victoria panel).

“Print media faces extinction,” was Salim Jiwa’s key message: like it or not, we’re living through a revolution created by digital media. In this new paradigm, the economic models of sales and advertising that we may have grown up with don’t apply anymore. Whether you’re getting your news for free online or shopping for the cheapest tires online (and then taking that quote to a bricks-and-mortar retailer for a price match – which you’ll probably get), the bottom is falling out of old-style business models.

Note the common denominator in both consumption practices (consuming news, buying tires): o-n-l-i-n-e. Consumers, driven by the need to find the best price for everything (with “free” being the jackpot), are changing their consumption habits. But as Salim noted, traditional newspapers depend on reader habits – such as picking up a physical newspaper in the morning, to read over coffee. The people who still have that habit are aging, and they’re not being replaced. Our new habits let us reach for online news sources instead.

And we want news quickly. Why bother reading a story in print when that story is already ten hours old by the time it gets printed? When that story can be read online within minutes of an occurrence? Canwest (the Canadian media corporation) says it plans to “go web-heavy,” but doing so means cannibalizing its print outlets even more. If you’re going web-heavy by putting all your good content online as soon as it becomes available, why should anyone bother to read that content in print, given it’ll be a day old by the time it finally appears?

Those were just some of the cold facts Salim Jiwa described. But for me the biggest “aha!” moment came when he spoke about press releases – or journalism-by-press-release.

Consider this: The White House keeps up a running stream of information (including press releases) on its site, to the point that journalists become nearly redundant. You could just as well outsource the story-writing itself to a journalist in India: all he or she needs to do is read the official press releases online and cobble together the story. Eventually, you could ask, “why bother doing even that?” Interested readers are probably already following @WhiteHouse on Twitter, reading those same press releases as they appear. The newspaper no longer has (1) exclusivity; or (2) the financial wherewithal to do investigative journalism – which at any rate is being obviated by press releases and an open stream of information from the source itself.

That combination (funds drying up even as cultivating sources behind the scenes becomes redundant because organizations and institutions are releasing news and information through official channels) means that a kind of press release culture is actually helping to make journalism obsolete (also see this article).

This is funny (not haha-funny, but weird-funny).

On the one hand, we’re living in this incredibly open, accessible digital age where anyone with access to the internet can set up a website (blog) for free and produce content (including news content), or, consume (for free) content created by others. We should be awash in information – and we are, for the most part. I would hope that with the push for Open Government, there’s hope that enough information is available in addition to sanitized press releases, meaning we will need journalists (and others) who can interpret (and investigate?) the information and present it back to readers.

On the other hand, however, consider the agencies that don’t release information in an open way and instead over-rely on corporate communications to “inform” the public and the press (albeit a tame lap-dog – not watch-dog – press).

Take, for example, the City of Victoria, which is one of 13 municipalities in the Capital Regional District (which locals and outsiders often refer to simply as “Victoria,” even though the City of Victoria proper is just one small piece of that agglomeration). The City of Victoria has a population of just ~80,000 people (the Capital Regional District has ~350,000). Yet the City of Victoria has a Department of Corporate Communications (headed by a director whose 1998 salary was only $2,000 under the six-figure $100,000 mark). In addition, this department of Corporate Communications is staffed by two coordinators and a graphic designer, and the City found $180,000 worth of spare change to hire two additional communications coordinators, …and (since that was not enough) the City recently hired another basic communications person at $61,000 annual salary (a two-year replacement, possibly for maternity leave?).

All this, just so Victoria can issue well-groomed press releases and control the outgoing message. Where are the reporters digging in at City Hall? The newspaper for the most part relies on what the City tells it, and what the City tells citizens is massaged by Corporate Communications (which does not, however, appear to have its own webpage on the city’s site: it is opaque and unavailable to scrutiny…).

Journalism-by-press-release does not help democracy or make for a healthy city.

Tomorrow: more on Salim Jiwa’s talk, with special reference to his digital news project, Vancouverite.

(Update May 29: Second part of my report posted here.)


  1. Thanks for the post! I also felt that Mr. Jiwa’s point about press releases negating the need to correspondent journalism interesting. I’m concerned this is leading to the general public being spoon-fed government/corporate copy without investigative journalism holding it accountable. If news agencies aren’t funding proper journalism (assuming they were to begin with), and governments/companies are only giving us a polished news release, then how are we ever to know what’s really going on?

    Comment by Jenni M. — May 26, 2010 #

  2. Good question, Jenni. Here’s what I think could be a good scenario: if we have more open government, more transparency, more open data, then we will need reporters/ journalists/ investigators/ citizens who can take that information and interpret it, connect the dots, and tell the story. (Granted, that doesn’t address the problems of how to fund accountability journalism (whether it’s done by pros or citizens), so that problem remains. A worst case scenario, however, is what we tend, still, to get too often: not much open data (and the stuff that is available isn’t machine-readable), not much transparency, and the only information coming out are Corporate Communication’s “polished” press releases (as happens with our government structures here in Canada). A friend of mine who worked for the Province before retiring said the trend to “corporate communications departments” started there about 20 years ago, and now it seems the municipalities are doing it, too. What a shame on them. (By the way, are you the woman in the 2nd to last row – and after the break in the last row – who made a comment along those same lines? Good questions/ discussion!)

    Comment by Yule — May 26, 2010 #

  3. I don’t believe that was me, I was in one of the middle rows.

    I agree that a lack of funding seems to be at the heart of the decline of investigative journalism. Its such a shame! I think of companies like British Petroleum and wonder how much might have been prevented if their public image and professed safety measures had been more heavily scrutinized. That being said, even traditional media in their heyday would have been reluctant to ruffle the feathers of such an influential company.

    Comment by Jenni M. — May 26, 2010 #

  4. Thanks for writing this, Yule. I missed the presentation, which is a shame since I would have enjoyed it.

    I don’t know the answer to the loss decline of investigative journalism, but perhaps a bottom-up system is better than a top-down system because multiple sources provide a more accurate picture. Having blogs, twitter, and so on allows people to present many points of view, which I prefer to the press release style.

    Comment by Daniel — May 26, 2010 #

  5. […] I was going to write a “part 2″ to last night’s post about Salim Jiwa’s talk at Social Media Club Victoria. It will have to wait until a later […]

    Pingback by » Gertrude Stein might agree: -ectomy is an ectomy is an ectomy Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — May 26, 2010 #

  6. Yule. Thank you. You have accurately reflected what i said at the Social Media Club gathering. I very much enjoyed talking to my friends – very much enjoyed talking to an interested and interesting group of people. Please accept my warmest greetings and please pass on my gratitude to the organizers for inviting me.

    Comment by Salim Jiwa — May 27, 2010 #

  7. […] writing the blog post now in my (imaginary) “must-write” queue (namely, a follow-up to Salim Jiwa’s presentation at Social Media Club Victoria) because I went to PechaKucha Night Victoria Vol.2. Instead, tonight’s post is a quickie […]

    Pingback by » Women in movies: where are they? Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — May 27, 2010 #

  8. […] with us at Social Media Club Victoria: I blogged about one aspect of Jiwa’s talk that night (journalism-by-press-release), but Jiwa touched on so many other aspects as […]

    Pingback by » A bit more on Salim Jiwa’s talk at Social Media Club Victoria Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — May 29, 2010 #

  9. Salim – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment! It took longer than I anticipated, but I finally took a stab at writing the second part of my thoughts on your presentation.
    Thank you again for a really thought-provoking evening, I’m so glad I had a chance to hear you.

    Comment by Yule — May 29, 2010 #

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