Speaking notes from my presentation at the first annual Hamilton Independent Media Awards panel discussion on media and democracy.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 24, 2015
Last night, I was honoured to be a panellist on the first annual media panel organized by the Hamilton Independent Media Awards. The theme was Media and Democracy, exploring the role of independent media in supporting democratic participation. (Thanks to a fat-fingered calendar appointment, I ended up showing up late, but the hosts and audience were more than gracious about it.)
Following are the notes I prepared for my short presentation.
The genesis of what became Raise the Hammer started in 2003 among a group of Hamiltonians who came together because we believed the mainstream media discussion about Hamilton was missing some important perspectives and ideas.
Personally, I got interested in civic affairs in the summer of 2003, when Hamilton hosted the Canadian Cycling Championships. The route ran up the Queen Street Access and down the James Mountain Access and the area inside it was blocked off to automobile traffic.
I didn't know anything about urban planning or architecture or transportation or land use policy, I just knew that the environment inside the "lockdown zone" was like nothing I'd experienced before.
Everyone was just out on the street enjoying their neighbourhood. Every time we turned around, we ran into someone we knew who we hadn't seen in a while.
Kids were playing together in the middle of the road. Someone brought out a case of beer to share around. Someone else brought their TV onto the porch so we could watch the helicopter footage of the race when it wasn't passing by where we were.
For the first time, my city felt like a real community - and I wondered, Why don't we do this all the time?
Ben Bull, who also helped found RTH, had grown up in Leeds, England, and watched that city's transition from a fading manufacturing economy to a dynamic urban centre based around quality of life.
Another RTH founder, Jason Leach, had attended school in Portland, Oregon and saw firsthand how that industrial port city was transforming itself with complete streets, new rapid transit investments and an innovation economy that was attracting lots of new creative residents.
We all realized that lots of exciting things were happening in other cities but Hamilton was stuck in a particular way of thinking about itself that was based around suburban sprawl and universal driving.
We believed that was holding the city back from its potential as a vibrant urban centre, but the public discourse was very narrow.
We had a municipal election that was effectively a referendum on the Red Hill Valley Parkway, a planned municipal freeway running through a protected watershed that was being driven by property developers.
We believed the city should be building in and up, not out, but it was hard to get a word in edgewise when all the local media were lined up in support of the highway and more sprawl.
We ended up starting a website because I knew how to write software and another founding member, Trevor Shaw, was a graphic designer and knew how to design a website.
We were also inspired by Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), which had recently started covering City Council and Committee meetings and writing about what we being decided in the public's name.
Raise the Hammer launched quietly in December 2004 and has been growing slowly and steadily ever since.
We made a few key decisions at the start that I think have served us well and contributed to the site's longevity. The first was our accountability model.
With mainstream media, their credibility comes from their authority. You have professional journalists writing stories with professional editors reviewing, fact-checking and editing them. It's printed or aired by a professional publisher who can't afford to publish crap that no one will read.
The accountability to readers or viewers is indirect, because most of the money traditionally comes from advertisers, who are paying to gain access to the readers or viewers. That means the content can't be offensive to readers - or else they won't read - but it also can't be offensive to advertisers because they'll stop buying ads. That is an important prior constraint on what is allowed to be published.
With Raise the Hammer, we were amateurs and we wore that badge proudly. In the absence of professional accreditation, we went for broke on direct accountability to our readers. Whenever we cited a source, we linked to the original so that people could check our claims.
We had commenting from the start so that if someone found an error, they could note it in a comment and everyone who read the piece would see the comment. When we made a mistake, we corrected it right inside the article and added a note explaining what we changed and why.
That oversight helped keep us honest and careful about what we published, because we knew we would be called out if we got something wrong.
The other important decision we made was that we would not run RTH as a business. The website had no capital costs and has an ongoing monthly operating cost of around $10. We have never collected any revenues - not from subscriptions, advertisements or donations - and as a result we can't compensate writers.
However, lots of people have been willing to contribute good content because they see RTH as a community resource rather than a commercial enterprise.
People contribute for lots of reasons: they want to share something they're passionate about, they want to give back to the community, they want to show off some cool thing they made, they want to rally support for a cause.
If we started charging for content or slapping ads on the site, I firmly believe we would destroy that bond of trust among the site's administrators, contributors and readers. I would spend most of my time trying to make enough money to keep the site running instead of researching, writing and editing articles.
I don't think we'd still be around if we tried to make it a for-profit venture.
As for our mission, I think we've had some success in widening the boundaries of debate in Hamilton. Certainly the mainstream media have moved a lot in terms of where they stand on civic issues.
On more than one occasion I've read a Spectator editorial and thought, "That sounds like something I would write!"
And the civic advocacy that is at the centre of what we're trying to do has had some important successes.
The Yes We Cannon movement, which grew out of some RTH articles in which we decried the state of Cannon Street, succeeded in getting Council to vote unanimously to build a protected two-way cycle track.
Just recently, the Province committed to full capital funding for light rail transit in Hamilton, despite a lukewarm Council, in part because so many Hamiltonians expressed support for LRT through our citizen campaign.
The conversation in Hamilton today is more optimistic, more open-ended, and more inclusive than it was ten years ago when we started. There have been a lot of changes that have contributed to that, but I think RTH has played a small but important role in helping to spread information, share ideas from other cities, highlight problems, celebrate successes and bring people together to advocate for their community.
I realize that some of the things we write about seem prosaic or parochial compared to large national and supernational issues like climate change and foreign policy, but people live their day-to-day lives in specific places, and when we have a chance to participate in how our own communities are shaped, our communities can better reflect our values as citizens.
Something as small as a crosswalk on a busy street or a safe cycling route for someone trying to get to work can make a big difference in people's quality of life.
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