Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Friday, July 29, 2016

What is the "Guelph Back-Grounder"?

I've been going to the "Breezy Breakfast" meetings started by Phil Alt and James Gordon this summer. It's a good way to get to know various local politicians. (I've seen Mike Shreiner, Lloyd Longfield, June Hofland, Mike Salisbury, and, Leanne Piper there too.) A lot of good conversations have ensued raising a lot of issues. But a few things in particular really struck me.

First, I heard our local officials talk about the huge workload that they face. Amongst other things, they routinely get a big stack of paper---often several hundred pages long---on Friday afternoon that they are expected to read and assimilate by Monday night. Even worse, it turns out that staff don't prepare executive summaries for them. (That's something that our local MP at least gets.) This means that we, as citizens, cannot expect the people we elect to have a handle on everything that comes before them on at any given meeting. This has left me scratching my head as to where I am expect to look to be able to answer complex, in-depth questions about city issues. Staff are just as busy. Moreover, they aren't really supposed to take a stand on anything---which makes it very hard for them explain their point of view on an issue.

Second, I've been struck by the great wealth of experience that exists in this community. Lots and lots of people are "stake holders" who have spent a great deal of time getting to learn a lot about some specific issue that is of interest to them. This is a tremendous potential resource for the community. Unfortunately, this resource has tended to be wasted. There are a variety of reasons why this happens.

The traditional news media---even when we did have a daily newspaper---couldn't use it. This is because paper-based news vehicles were all based on selling advertising and then sticking in as many news stories as would fit in the space that the ads paid for. I wrote a weekly column for the "Mercury" for three years and I was given 800 words and that was it. It can be very difficult to explain a complex issue that very few people have heard about in such a short space. Even if we did still have a newspaper, it would have to compete with many other venues for advertising dollars. This is why papers get thinner and thinner, reporters get fewer and fewer, and, stories get smaller and smaller.

Television and radio are much worse---often if something cannot be explained in a half-minute it simply doesn't exist. Beyond the space limitations, there is the fact that a new newspaper or news cast has to be created every day. This is not a recipe for allowing people a full introduction to the complex issues at play!

Luckily, we have the Internet and social media. There are new news websites popping up.  In fact, I've been adding their links to the Guelph Back-Grounder's home page. But on-line news sources have their own dynamic, which has many similarities to the others. Advertising dollars are paid on the basis of "clicks", which means that the news site has to put out a lot of sensationalist "click-bait" in order to make their money. And they need to create big, repeating readerships in order to get enough clicks to pay the bills. They don't want someone to come in and read a long-complex story because they have a genuine interest in it. Instead, they want people to come back over and over again to read small, sensationalist stories. There's no conspiracy, that's just how you make money in this economy.

The Guelph Back-Grounder has a different model.  First of all, the people writing the stories are not expecting to get paid. Some of them work for Non-Governmental Organisations and part of their job description is "getting the word out" about specific issues. Others are engaged amateurs who are really involved in an issue because they are passionate about it. But in each case they are not professional writers who are expected to produce so much copy every day or else they don't get a cheque. This is a "one off" for them. Not having to pay the writers allows the Guelph Back-Grounder the opportunity to work in the "long form" format instead of the standard for-profit "click-bait" style.

Long-form stories are not primarily designed to be read quickly by a large number of dedicated subscribers and then quickly fall into oblivion. Instead, they are meant to wait on a server and sit until someone actively searches them out using a search engine. These sorts of stories can also be very popular and get lots of hits, but they are very difficult to monetize. But just because something doesn't make a lot of money  doesn't mean that they aren't tremendously important to society! As Ross Perot would say "the Devil is in the details", and we can't run a society with everyone working on the basis of what they've learned from "dumbed-down" news sources.

The Guelph Back-Grounder will require a lot of Editorial work, however. Stories don't just "show up"---someone has to go out and find the people who specialised knowledge that the community needs. In addition, most people who do know a lot are not writers. They will need someone to work with them very intensively to ensure that a minimum standard of quality is created.  People need to know that the facts are probably true and the language understandable. Making sure that this happens is a big job.

This is where I come in. I'm close to retirement and once that happens I will be able to use my pension to subsidise my lifestyle. This means that for the first time in my life I can do what I want to do instead of what I have to do to make money. Having said that, it will help if I can make some extra cash off this project. To that end, I've added a tip jar. If nothing else, it will prove the concept if I can make some money off this "fool's errand".

[Addendum: since I wrote this, my financial situation has changed and I now actually can use extra money, so I've taken steps to monetize the website. 😞]

I've already gotten lot of really positive feedback on this project and am busy soliciting stories. I'm hoping that I can come out with the first of them some time before the New Year.

Bill Hulet
Publisher, Editor, Webmaster, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer 
of the Guelph Back-Grounder

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