This year at the University of British Columbia, student elections were advertised and covered by the voter-funded media (VFM) initiative, billed as ‘the first of its kind in the world.’ Participants in the contest promoted the election, sought to improve the quality of media coverage, and, by extension, to imporve the quality of the democratic process.
The driving force behind VFM was Mark Latham, who was an economist and businessman until his retirement in 1995. For ten years Latham, the founder of Votermedia.org, tried to sell his idea of a voter-funded media to the corporate world. They didn’t buy.
In 2006, Latham applied his idea to democratic institutions instead. He gave $8000 to the Alma Mater Society election coordinators to distribute among “winners” of media coverage. The cash, said Latham, was an incentive for media to fight voter apathy in the student elections, and, in larger future elections, corruption.
Thirteen participants entered the contest this past January to win one of Latham’s prizes. While some participants relied on comedy and popularity to attract voters, others offered serious coverage.
The competition successfully increased coverage for the AMS elections, but it caused controversy as well. UBC’s campus publication, The Ubyssey, published several articles addressing concerns about conflicts of interest within VFM and criticizing some of its rules. The Ubyssey faced increased competition for readership during Latham’s project.
In an election-time interview, Latham talked about the logic behind his project and some of its most important aspects.
Your expertise is mostly in business. How did you become interested in the media?
I’m a media consumer and an economist. I looked at voting and information in corporate societies, starting off with voting of shares, so I have studied the media and gone to a lot of conferences where people talked about representation in the media. My knowledge of the media comes from there. I also read quite a few books about the media, including Journalism in the New Millennium (edited by former UBC Journalism School director Donna Logan).
How would you describe the VFM initiative?
It’s a way of informing the voters and encouraging the government to do a better job on behalf of the voters. It informs the voters better by letting them allocate money to the media. It gives the media a better incentive than they have now to serve the voter’s interests, especially their interest in voting and knowing who they vote for. In this case, I donated $8000. In the long run, the voters themselves should fund it. For a journalist, a voter-funded budget could mean having budget for more in-depth stories.
Might it lead to people voting for a media they already know – usually a media that is already doing well?
In the short run, yes. In the long run, it encourages new media to come in and build a reputation. If it runs again and again, it will build strength, because it creates a new funding source. It creates a new incentive to provide something more. Here, even some individuals who have a reputation on campus for having a particular insight might be advantaged.
A student election seems different than a municipal or federal election. Why have you chosen UBC?
I feel UBC is perfect. It’s big enough, but small enough. It has a lot of the problems of a democracy; students are disconnected, for instance, which is exactly the problem I’m trying to solve. It’s also small enough so I can afford it, and it’s a community with a wide range of views. You have a school of journalism, so there’s a pool of journalists, and there’s also an academic interest in there. The other really big advantage is the age of the voters. People in their twenties want to change the world. I found there was quite an openness to this new idea. No, I can’t really think of a better place.
In an essay you published about the VFM, you wrote the economic structure of the media was a cause of voter apathy. Could you develop that thought for me?
Voters don’t have an incentive to pay the media. Even though, as a group, we vote for better information, as an individual, I would personally not pay money from my pocket to buy information, because I would be helping the community, not myself. The media tend to serve more sensationalism, fashion, etc. than information, because they get funding from advertising and commercials. A lot of subjects that require a lot of time and energy won’t attract a lot of viewers or readers. To caricature me [as a representative of the public] - I want to spend most of my year looking at Britney Spears. Before an election, I want to spend 15 minutes that are boring to make sure I can cast my vote, because I know that it matters. We really need this information that is totally boring, but we only want to spend 15 minutes looking at it. I want to increase that coverage.
Are you afraid of conflicts of interests on the VFM? [Some of the VFM contestants were also involved in the AMS council.]
I designed the basic idea, but I don’t set the rules. I thought a lot about that - the VFM is all about conflicts of interest and reducing them. I think VFM will police itself. People digging up conflicts of interest are about the best protection we have. Therefore, my design says even electoral candidates can have their own media outlet. I do care about conflicts of interest, but the best protection is having other media monitor it.
So more coverage is better coverage?
If you have well-motivated candidates, yes. It would be a better protection than having the government control the media.
How would you feel if a joke candidate wins?
Of course I’d like my donated money to go for something that helped the voters. But even if some money is wasted that way, I think it will be a success if there’s a substantial amount of positive, successful coverage and a small amount of that joke stuff. If all the money were going to joke media, I would consider it a failure. I forecast that they would vote for helpful media, but I might be wrong. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, that’s why it’s so interesting. My hope is that it’s going to be successful and people will say that this was useful for UBC voters. But overall, I think it is working, we have got a better coverage than we’ve ever had so far.