Why Queen’s Park Today might not be journalism (yet)

Private journalism might not be journalism.

I think the question “what is journalism?” is very important. Sure, it’s a big, muddling, abstract question. And there are many contexts where we don’t need to know the answer. And it can be boring.

But now more than ever we need to think hard about what journalism is, before the Canadian Government goes and bails out the wrong sorts of institutions.1

But there are also particular instances where having a theory of journalism, or a test for journalism, or at least a journalism-radar, a journadar, is helpful and important.

One particular kind of case where it might matter is when you’re trying to figure out who gets access to Question Period in the Ontario Legislature. Getting press access there, apparently, requires approval of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery. Essentially, the other journalists have to recognize you as one of their own.2

Back in March, Canadaland interviewed Allison Smith about just such a situation. She was, for quite a while, not recognized as one of their own.

Allison Smith is the brain behind Queen’s Park Today. It’s been going since February of 2012. It’s a special kind of service, in part, because it arrives only by email. As a PDF. That might sound cumbersome, but having subscribed to the free version of her service I can say unequivocally that her service is very valuable. Here’s an example dispatch from March 11 (PDF).3

As it turned out, shortly after the interview with Canadaland, she was accepted to become a member of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery. Call that the Canadaland bump or, more likely, persistence on Smith’s part. Smith tells me that 90% of the press gallery had never seen her dispatches and when they did they voted in favour of including her. Which is as it should be.

It’s also worth noting that Smith received letters of support and endorsement from the presidents of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the National News Media Council.

So what idiot is going to argue with them, right? Eek.

Here’s the thing. There is a real possibility that Smith’s service, Queen’s Park Today, as good as it is, is not journalism. Here’s why.

Journalism is supposed to be in the public interest

Smith’s independent subscription service includes briefing notes, summaries, and detailed descriptions of the various events that unfold at the Ontario legislature.

Smith herself has described her work as quite niche. Anyone can subscribe that wants to, but her clients probably include public affairs firms, companies whose business models are impacted by provincial governance, lobby groups, politicians, public service workers and unions, public relations agencies, special interest organizations and political party personnel.

She is, as Jesse Brown puts it, covering politics in Ontario for the industry of politics. It’s a kind of “trade publication.”

Except. It’s not really a publication.

Work that is in the public interest, has to be public

There’s no public record of what Smith writes. The PDFs arrive by email to subscribers. It’s not like I can go to the library and look up what she wrote on August 8th of 2014. Everything is private.

It’s worth noting here that Smith did once maintain a private online archive of the PDFs. And even more importantly, she is open to them getting archived somewhere like the Legislative Library or a University Library. That would certainly satisfy my interest in her reports being publicly accessible.4

Because there is no public record of her work, it ought to be seen as substantively different from news that gets archived.

Without it being publicly accessible, it’s not available for public scrutiny. And neither is it available for public consumption, even years later.5

Generally I subscribe to a more-and-less approach to journalism: an article can be more journalistic or less journalistic based on it’s various features.

But it’s possible that public accessibility, whether immediately, or via an archive, is a necessary feature of working in the public interest. If so, Queen’s Park Today might not pass the test.

Yet.6

  1. Journalism is also a brand and I think it affords some status and we should be careful to ensure that articles that deserve it, get some, and articles that don’t, don’t.
  2. I actually don’t think it ought to be it necessary to be a journalist to get ongoing access to the Press Gallery. Or rather, I’m somewhat agnostic on this issue. For the sake of this post, I’m deferring to the Press Gallery tradition. But seriously, the Queen’s Park Today is great and I think that Allison Smith ought to retain her membership to the Press Gallery regardless of the point I’m pursuing here.
  3.  Smith has kindly said I can post this PDF.
  4. Initially I had also worried that she may have been writing different briefing notes, for different clients. For example, she could have been writing a general briefing for the bronze clients, more detailed notes for silver clients, and custom notes for gold clients. A client, for example, could ask her to look for very particular political facts that pertain to their business interests. Or, a client could be paying her to look for a very particular detail that relates to an issue that they want to leverage against a political party. Anyway, I asked her and Smith tells me that all clients receive the same thing.
  5. Other news agencies have paywalls, I know. But I believe (hope) that eventually their work is available for public scrutiny. For example, I can search the UVic library and find old articles from the The Hill Times. Really I need to look into this more.
  6. Given the predicament that journalism finds itself in, I think a pass can be given for now. One interesting corollary of this is that it could be the action of another institution, like the Guelph University Library that archives Smith’s reports, and therefore “graduates” them to journalism.

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