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Grassroots media: a new approach

By: | March 8, 2013

A chat with three founders of The 4 O’Clock Whistle, the grassroots publication that emerged from Occupy Corner Brook.

A group of students at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook is dissatisfied with mainstream media’s news coverage on the island’s west coast these days. So they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

In late 2011, as Occupy supporters camping out in cities and towns across North America faced the imminence of a cold winter, many began exploring other creative ways to facilitate public dialogue about outstanding issues the movement had drawn attention to, like social and economic inequality, poverty, global warming, the banking system and, perhaps above all, a way to hit the reset button on ‘democracy’.

Occupying the media

Occupy Corner Brook’s encampment didn’t last as long as its St. John’s counterpart, but some of its supporters called a meeting in late fall of 2011 and collectively decided to start their own publication, a zine they would call “The 4 O’Clock Whistle”, after Corner Brook’s pulp and paper mill whistle, which sounds at 4 p.m. each day.

“We chose it out of respect for the workers of The Bay of Islands, as a salute to them,” says Corner Brook native Conor Curtis, one of the publication’s founders.

Its inaugural issue was published in December 2011, both in print and online. In it, the publishers welcomed readers:

Geared towards the propagation of financial equality as well as social and environmental justice, this publication is meant to be a tool for learning and dialogue. The size and location of Corner Brook is by no means an indicator of our global relevance. Western Newfoundland and its people are inextricably connected with the political, economic, and environmental networks that are woven together in a global tapestry; a tapestry which is moth-eaten, frayed and in danger of falling apart. We compile articles which summarize and reflect on the many issues that tie our land and people to a severely unbalanced and unstable economic system.

Though its print run is presently limited to 150 copies due to a higher cost of printing than the publishers can afford, the zine is slowly building a following and readership on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The sixth and most recent issue was published at the end of February.

Curtis, a history student at Grenfell, and sustainable resource management students Tara Gadoua and Stephan Walke, are three members of the group behind The 4 O’Clock Whistle.

“When we were part of Occupy we wanted to have a vehicle to … give people a chance to talk freely about issues because, writing for the (corporate media), you have to be afraid of censorship,” says Gadoua, explaining the group’s motives to found the publication. “We just wanted to give people the opportunity to promote their own thoughts, so we started The 4 O’Clock Whistle, and eventually Occupy was starting to lose steam a bit and we just thought (by) distancing ourselves from the Occupy movement we’d be able to better open up our mandate and really just tackle a wider variety of issues.”

Choosing the news, by consensus

Not only did Occupy Corner Brook meetings bring to light many issues and topics the group felt local media weren’t adequately covering, it also gave the aspiring publishers (and writers and editors and artists) the impetus to apply and further explore the Occupy movement’s consensus-based decision making model in a new way.

“A consensus-based group was one of the prime parts of Occupy and the starting of this zine as well, and that seemed to be lost in the Occupy movement a little bit,” Walke explains. “And so people wanted to keep something manageable and something where we could keep that consensus-based decision-making and disconnect it from a lot of the other stuff that was going on.”

Though they still work with Occupy Newfoundland, Curtis says, “I think what the zine has given us … is a chance to present news without having some sort of bias within the organization. And I think one of the most important aspects of that is, if you are getting news that, you know, is perhaps more radical, perhaps somebody’s opinion, it’s harder for that (kind of publication) to become a stagnant organization.”

Members of The 4 O'Clock Whistle team use a consensus model to determine what they will publish. Submitted photo.

Members of The 4 O’Clock Whistle team use a consensus model to determine what they will publish. Submitted photo.

Having grown up in Corner Brook and attending his first protest at age nine, Curtis says he was compelled to better understand his local newspaper, The Western Star, now owned by Montreal publishing, media and marketing company TC Transcontinental, which owns newspapers in the Maritimes, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and almost every newspaper in Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2012 the publicly-traded company’s reported revenue was $2.1 billion.

“Having looked into a bit of history, it turns out (The Western Star) was quite a radical publication, and of course in recent years it’s lost that sort of radicalness,” says Curtis. “One of the aspects we like about consensus is that it gives us a chance to continue writing the news that people really want to put out there, no matter what it may be containing. It just makes it more democratic I guess.

“We’ve recently been covering the issue of the possibility of exploratory drilling in  Corner Brook’s watershed,” he continues, “which is of course where we get all our clean water from.”

The group has also been publishing information on, and efforts to stop, hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) for natural gas on the island’s west coast.

“We’re not sponsored by anyone so we’re not influenced by any external sources except for ourselves really,” says Gadoua. “So we can find the truth and give it – we don’t get censored, we write what we need to write.”

Walke says the fact he, Gadoua and Curtis all oppose fracking based on what they know of the controversial practice won’t stop them from publishing contrary opinions on the matter.

“We’re open to somebody writing an article about fracking … and showing its benefits, being pro-fracking,” he says. “Because what we want this publication to be is not just a means of news but also a community, a dialogue. So that’s why we’re inviting all members of the community to participate in this, to send in their ideas and send in their articles and stuff. So if someone was to bring up some alternative points to some issues that even core members of the group have a problem with, then we’ll still present that – and we may present a counter-side to it, but it’s important to have all aspects I think.

“One of our stipulations is the fact that any information that’s given, in terms of statistical information and stuff, it should be backed up,” Walke continues. “People need sources, and so if there’s any actual discrepancy of information then we’ll have to point that out. And then, from there, if I was to write a response to something that someone had sent in and then we published – some article on the benefits of fracking (for instance) – then I would directly look at the points they’ve made and, provided they’re backed up, I would then try to find alternative ways of looking at that.”

Diverse, ambitious and inclusive

The 4 O’Clock Whistle also features art and poetry from local artists in its “Creative Corner” section, in-depth interviews with other artists, healthy recipes, short essays, other forms of creative writing, and has taken on topics like Muskrat Falls, pesticide use, capitalism, globalization, electoral reform, progressive taxation and subcultural values and alternative lifestyles.

“[W]ith some of the big changes to legislation that are happening with our current government … we realized that because of the electoral system we have now, all of these huge changes to all of Canada that are relevant to everyone’s life are sort of going without any possibility of (being changed),” says Walke, explaining why he chose to address electoral reform with his article “A Fair Vote?” in the October 2012 issue.

“Pretty much 100 per cent of the power is in the hands of people who actually got a very small percentage of Canada voting for them. So a root problem we’ve got in this country is a flawed electoral system. So it’s a starting point – instead of looking at a branch it was looking at the trunk, for me.

“Around election times it often comes up … but as time goes on if you want these stories, popular media doesn’t keep on the same stories, even if they’re pertinent,” Walke continues. “But groups like Leadnow.ca are working all year round to try and push for (electoral reform). And now we’re coming up to the Liberal leadership election, so this is also an issue because there are certain people running who may be pro or con in terms of whether they support the participation of parties in the split ridings, and that kind of thing. Sometimes that doesn’t come out unless it’s (election time), and then it’s a story and it’s gone.”

Building on a solid foundation

Though The 4 O’Clock Whistle’s future depends on whether or not it can be made sustainable, its publishers say the important thing is that the underlying principle of consensus that was engendered in the Occupy movement continues to permeate other forms of social organization and communication, like community groups and media outlets respectively.

“There was an Occupy Bay St. George just south of us and they’ve rephrased themselves as the Bay St. George Sustainability Network, and they’re running off that similar consensus model,” says Gadoua. “And I think we’re seeing the evolution of that – we all still work together, even underneath different names. So it’s been an interesting evolution to watch because that’s what formed the base membership for a lot of these organizations now and brought people together.”

The students have formed a journalism society at Grenfell and receive $100 per semester from the student union, which they put toward the cost of printing. They also hold bake sales and invite donations from readers. But the publication’s future ultimately rests in the hands of the public.

Fortunately, for Curtis, Gadoua, Walke and the others behind The 4 O’Clock Whistle, their innovation and efforts come at a time when other media outlets are recognizing the fragile nature of depending on a healthy economy, particularly the advertising industry, and being bound by law to satisfy their shareholders before serving their readers. That, coupled with the fact more and more people seem to be embracing the possibility of collectively effecting unprecedented changes to our flawed and corrupted political and economic systems, puts these young publishers one giant step ahead of the rest.

The 4 O’Clock Whistle is @4oclockwhistle on Twitter, ‘The4OClockWhistle’ on Facebook, and their Tumblr blog can be found at www.4oclockwhistlenews.tumblr.com. For free digital subscriptions, to enquire about back issues or contributing, email 4oclockwhistle@gmail.com.

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