“Independent media is vital in finding where niches are and amplifying the voices of people who aren’t usually heard,” said Terri Monture, a staff representative at the Canadian Media Guild. Monture was one of six participants at Independent Media and Democracy, the first panel discussion hosted by the Hamilton Independent Media Awards. The discussion, which was moderated by long-time Hamilton Spectator reporter Jeff Mahoney, took place on June 23 at the Central branch of the Hamilton Public Library.
Alongside Monture, the panel discussion explored the importance of independent media in a democratic society through the knowledge and diverse experiences of Michelle Both (Unpack Magazine, a publication of the Immigrant Women’s Centre), Luz Hernandez (La Presencia Latina), Ryan McGreal (Raise the Hammer), Nahnda Garlow (Two Row Times), and Joey Coleman (The Public Record).
“How and where we see stories impacts how we see ourselves,” said Both, speaking to what became one of the discussion’s central themes: The critical ability of independent media to cover the stories of marginalized people who don’t fit into the profit-driven mainstream media’s narrative. Unpack Magazine highlights the experiences and issues faced by women, immigrants, and refugees in Hamilton.
“Being represented and included in media can be transformative for the settlement experience,” she added.
Independent media’s crucial role of bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront of discussion was echoed by Hernandez, whose publication La Presencia Latina unites and informs the Hispanic community by focusing on and delivering positive news. Garlow, whose publication, Two Row Times, prides itself on presenting an authentic Haudenosaunee voice, cited independent media’s ability to present Indigenous perspectives that are often watered down in mainstream publications.
“When we explain in our voice, people get less afraid,” she said. “The gaps close.”
“I don’t think there has ever been a time that independent media has been so relevant,” said Mahoney, who, despite his long-standing position as a member of the mainstream media, remained objective. In an age when traditional media is too expensive to produce and the mainstream media is struggling to monetize a digital model, independent media is crucial. This is especially true in Hamilton, a city where discourse among citizens is affecting real change.
“In the local sphere, citizens can make a difference,” said McGreal. When Raise the Hammer emerged in 2004, discussions in Hamilton were missing many crucial perspectives. While McGreal recognizes that a safe crosswalk might not be as exciting as global climate change, local media empowers people to become active in their communities. Raise the Hammer was instrumental in engaging citizens in discussions surrounding LRT.
Despite its many successes, independent media is not without challenges, most notably, creating a model of sustainability. Most independent media outlets operate on a small, or even non-existent, budget, and many are run entirely by volunteers. While some publications rely on an advertisement-based revenue model, “ads would destroy our model of trust,” said McGreal, who is committed to keeping Raise the Hammer advertisement-free.
“I believe people will pay for stories, even if they don’t read those stories,” said Coleman, who is well-known as Canada’s first crowd-funded journalist. “They just want to support the citizen watchdog.”
One thing is certain. The face of journalism is changing. Citizen journalists, equipped with little more than a cell phone, are forcing the mainstream media to up their game.
They’re covering city council meetings, interviewing activists, and reporting on city politics before decisions are made.
“Journalism can come up from the roots,” said Mahoney. “Professional journalists need to acknowledge this isn’t a secret priesthood.”
In her final remarks, Terri Monture summed up the lively and informative Independent Media and Democracy discussion best: “Independent media is truly the heart of democracy.”