Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wane of traditional media leaves information gap

I’ve been slow to slip into Chicken Little mode on the question of whether the Internet will be the death of traditional media. People have asked me about that for at least 15 years now, and for the longest time I assured them the industry would always survive.
But whether it really is the Web or just a sign of the times we live in, there’s not much question anymore that the industry is in the fight of its life.
Blame the recession for some of that. All media rely heavily on advertising dollars, and those dollars aren’t as dependable during tough economic times.
But the bigger problem for the industry is that its readers, viewers and listeners simply don’t want to pay for information about their community anymore.
Even just a couple of decades ago, that would have been unthinkable. Local media outlets were virtually the only way anyone got reliable information about their community and the world. Most households had a subscription to at least one newspaper, a favourite radio station for catching the news of the moment, and a nightly TV newscast they rarely missed.
No more. Now, on-line news from around the world is at the fingertips of anyone who has an Internet connection - which is to say, virtually everyone.
Where once there were local newspapers read daily by almost everyone in town, now there are customized news feeds from thousands of different sources delivered directly to your e-mail inbox. Where once there were popular radio and TV newscasts providing the topics for that day’s water-cooler conversations, now it’s podcasts and YouTube videos and astounding footage from somebody’s cell phone camera.
And hey, maybe such competition will be a good thing in the long run for the traditional media that manage to stay in the game. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and those that make it through these deeply uncertain times will have a whole new set of strategies for staying relevant.
The impact in the short term, however - well, that’s just a little scary, and not only for people like me who work in the business. How will we talk to each other as a community about the things that matter if the day comes when none of us have any news sources in common?
The Internet is a marvellous vehicle for finding information you want. But what about the information you don’t know you want? Or the information that you ought to want, but aren’t likely to go looking for? Without traditional media, what is the mechanism for getting us news that we need to know?
Those questions go to the heart of what it means to be a community. Don’t get me wrong - I love living in a wired global village. But it’s still traditional media that covers local news best. It’s still traditional media that’s most effective at bringing us together in our own home towns to rally behind a cause, a concern, a crisis.
In the new age of on-line information, we can all become experts in the things that we take an interest in, and active participants in a virtual community of people around the world who think just like us. We can find all the stories we’d ever want to confirm what we already believe.
But our exposure to the stories that might challenge those beliefs, or promote new ways of thinking, will be greatly reduced. On the one hand, the Internet opens up the world as never before; on the other, it narrows it dramatically by placing us into skinny streams of information that don’t accommodate the flow of contrary thought.
Then there’s the fact of the on-line information itself, much of which stems from the reporting work of traditional media. I overheard a woman talking to a friend the other day about why she no longer bothered with a daily paper: “Everybody just gets their news on-line now.”
But much of that news comes from the newsrooms of traditional media, which heavily subsidize the cost of their on-line presence through their other operations. If those operations falter, the news as we know it will falter as well. We may like to gripe about the shortcomings of the media, but life without them is a frightening concept.
When Conrad Black ruled the roost in Canada, people were downright hysterical about the impact of concentrated media ownership on a free press, for what ultimately turned out to be just a blip in the business cycle. Alas, the real bogeyman has arrived.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Old West-style justice system strands binner in Oak Bay

Hear the one about the homeless guy stranded in Oak Bay?
It’d make a pretty good opening line for a joke. But there’s nothing funny about it in reality, seeing as the man who it happened to had no access to food or shelter for 10 days because of a court order banishing him from the City of Victoria.
The courts routinely use “red zone” orders for drug charges to keep people away from certain areas where drugs are bought and sold. The red zone in our region is typically downtown Victoria - roughly the area bounded by Cook, Store, Belleville and Discovery streets.
But binner Ron Beland got hit with the red-zone order of all time last month. Charged with assault after a fight with another homeless man, Beland found himself ordered out of the entire City of Victoria until his next court appearance 10 days later.
Seeing as the region’s only services and supports for homeless people are in the City of Victoria, that left Beland to dig through dumpsters for food and sleep in an Oak Bay park for the duration. Lucky thing it all happened during a stretch of good weather; had it happened during winter, it might have been “a death sentence,” notes Beland.
“Everything I need - everything - is in the downtown,” said Beland. “I showed the Oak Bay cops my order, and they were like, ‘What??!’ They can’t even take me to the drunk tank, because Oak Bay doesn’t have one and I’m not allowed in Victoria.”
Crown counsel spokesman Robin Baird was unaware of Beland’s case and surprised to hear of the extent of the order, although he recalled another time when a judge ordered a Nanaimo man to stay south of the 49th parallel.
“It kind of smacks of the old westerns - taking someone to the outskirts of town,” admitted Baird. “I think that’s too broad a brush for the court to be using. [The justice system] bears the onus at every stage to show that the restrictions on a person’s liberty are not being unduly infringed upon.”
Oak Bay Mayor Chris Causton hadn’t heard about Beland’s banishment either. He was concerned both for Beland’s well-being and the risk to Oak Bay citizens, seeing as Beland was charged with assault.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Causton. “I don’t know what the backup is at times like this, but we don’t have any services.”
John Howard Society executive director Dave Johnson said he’s been noticing “red-zone creep” in the court orders of his organization’s clients, both in the reach of the zones and the types of offences the orders are used for. It’s not uncommon to see red-zone orders nowadays that extend all the way to the John Howard neighbourhood of Rock Bay, said Johnson - meaning a client risks breaching a court order just by coming in for support.
“But I’ve never heard of anything like this,” says Johnson of Beland’s order. “The downtown red zone at least had boundaries that kind of made sense. Being compelled to reside in Oak Bay - well, that’s interesting. It wouldn’t surprise me if police helped him relocate to Saanich.”
Defence lawyer Tom Merino deals with people like Beland all the time through his legal-aid work. He didn’t know the Beland case personally but said he’s not surprised by it, given the court’s ever-more desperate attempts to manage problems beyond its realm of expertise.
“I find these kinds of orders offensive in the extreme,” said Merino. “I understand the frustration of those in power, trying to use the limited tools available to them. But this doesn’t work. You can’t solve social problems through the courts.”
People can return to court to argue that an order is too onerous, said Merino. But they certainly can’t count on having a lawyer represent them, what with ongoing cuts to legal aid.
Had Beland breached his City of Victoria ban by sneaking downtown for a meal, for instance, he wouldn’t have qualified for legal aid. “Category one” offences such as breaches were delisted as a legal-aid category in B.C. two months ago.
Last we talked, Beland was surviving his 10-day banishment with a little help from his friends - two Victoria binners whose daily bottle routes take them to the Oak Bay border. They shared food, sherry and companionship with Beland, who wasn’t used to the quiet Oak Bay scene.
“I have to get back downtown. I need the services,” said Beland. “It’s also the money spot for a binner like me.”

Friday, June 05, 2009

Confessions of a disease vector

Like many other Greater Victorians, I caught a bug recently and am sick this week.
I doubt it’s the infamous “swine flu,” seeing as any number of more common colds and flus are hanging around out there right now. But for a moment let’s pretend that it is, if only for the purposes of demonstrating that there isn’t a sniff of hope in these modern times for containing the spread of new viruses.
The new H1N1 flu is contagious 24 hours before you show any symptoms and for at least seven days after you get sick, as are all flu viruses. That means I was contagious as of last Saturday.
That was the day I was shopping in Seattle with my daughter and stepdaughter. We were jammed into the basement of Nordstrom Rack with at least a thousand other women over the course of the afternoon. I can’t imagine how many articles of clothing I handled that day - how many hangers I jostled, changing-room doors I pushed open, people I brushed up against while engaging in the intense contact sport of discount shopping.
That night, I went to a packed restaurant full of Saturday-night revellers and beautiful young people in prom clothes, out celebrating their high-school grad. I hugged a friend from Seattle who had joined us for dinner, and we all shared an appetizer that involved us breaking off pieces of flatbread and dipping it in a single dish of melted cheese. I spent the night in a very small hotel room with my daughters, both of whom were already sick with some cold-like illness.
On Sunday, my stepdaughter flew back home to England, taking whatever bug she had - and perhaps mine, too - onto two planes, through three airports, and aboard a train ride to Exeter. My other daughter and I spent the morning weaving through throngs of tourists and locals packed into Pike Street Market, then went on to more discount shopping at the bustling outlet mall near the Tulalip Casino.
My credit card passed from me to a store clerk and back again any number of times over the weekend. I shared pens, passed along my passport at the border, handled a whole lot of merchandise in a whole lot of stores. I took a busy BC Ferry back to Victoria on Sunday night.
You get the picture: I shared public space with large numbers of people before I even knew I was sick. I know now, of course, which should mean I’ll take steps to avoid infecting anyone from this point on. But here we stumble into another unworkable theory for flu management: That people will stay home for seven days after the onset of symptoms to prevent the spread of the virus.
Are there people who can just close up their lives for seven days due to possibly having the flu? I know I can’t.
For one thing, I’m self-employed, which means no paid sick time. But even when I did have that fringe benefit, there was no way I would have stayed home for seven days straight just because I thought I had the flu. The truth is that people work through sickness all the time, and the modern workplace depends on it.
On the bright side, I work at home, sans co-workers. But I’ve got two contracts hitting deadlines over the next two weeks, and they require me to get out there and meet with people, flu or no flu. My plan: A couple Dayquils when needed and onward into my regular life, albeit with a bit more attention to hand-washing and avoiding close spaces.
The flu experts want me to wear a mask if I have to go out in public. Maybe I’d consider that if knew absolutely that I had some virulent flu strain and not just a garden-variety cold.
But therein lies the other difficult aspect of controlling the spread of influenza: How often do any of us actually know that we even have a confirmed case of the flu? It’s my opinion that I’ve had the flu many times in my lifetime, but I’ve never gone for a blood test to confirm any of it. Health officials anticipate confirming as few as five per cent of the H1N1 cases currently spreading around the world.
A pandemic strategy is a good thing, of course, and I’m glad for all the stockpiled Tamiflu and scientists working away on new vaccines. But best practice and human habits are leagues apart when it comes to spreading the flu. Eat your veggies and hope for the best, because avoiding each other simply isn’t an option.