Sources Publisher Barrie
Zwicker looks back
- and ahead
By Paul Weinberg
"I am in a reflective mood," remarks Barrie Zwicker,
the publisher of the twice yearly Sources, now celebrating
its twentieth anniversary.
We are sitting comfortably in his Toronto living room where I am
introduced to a visiting Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainath, author
Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts.
Sainath is travelling in Canada where he has been interviewed by
various journalists including Zwicker, Vision TV's resident media
critic, about his two-and-a-half year old documentation of India's
poorest citizens. The result of his findings was published in a
lengthy series of articles in the widely circulated The Times
of India, which then instructed its correspondents to follow
Sainath's example and provide a similar type of reportage at least
once a month. This means going beyond the standard, often corrupt,
elite sources in government and business circles to approach ordinary
people shut out of the political process.
India's stark polarized third world realities are not directly
comparable to Canada. But Sainath does remind one of what happens
when reporters fail to appreciate the value of relying on the widest
diversity of sources with a broad range of ideas and outlook. Their
absence has a profound impact on the media, says Zwicker, culminating
in this "terrible sameness which tends to perpetuate the status
Through his lectures, commentary, and Sources itself,
which circulates in countless Canadian news rooms, Zwicker has preached
the message of more and better sources to reporters, but with less
effect than he'd like. "The standard cast of characters, the
regular lineup of villains get quoted repeatedly. It is time to
put that Rolodex aside and get some new sources. I don't think it
is getting worse; I don't think it is getting better. It is a structural,
generic, fundamental, elemental problem in journalism."
It is a cliché to say modern society faces an information
glut which also means more sources to contact. Zwicker suggests
there are four kinds of sources: data (basic numbers), undigested
information, knowledge (a synthesis of data and raw information)
and wisdom (insight which may reduced to a simple aphorism like
"knowledge is power").
Zwicker recalls that when he launched Sources in
1977, he never foresaw the extent to which it would evolve into
a research tool for journalists and others with its combination
of listings and articles detailing ways to find information.
Earning a small profit almost immediately, the directory was supposed
to underpin his national journalism review, content
magazine, a perpetual money-loser, not supplant it. "Sources
was born as a revenue producer. content was going
to go down the tubes unless I got more revenue."
Nevertheless by 1981 deteriorating financial circumstances had
forced the closure of content, which Zwicker then
sold to Humber College in Toronto. It has since merged with a publication
published by the Canadian Association
of Journalists. "I had to suspend publication because it
was dragging down everything. I had to face the music or I was going
down the toilet."
Unlike content, sold by subscription or directly
to consumers through a small number of outlets, Sources
was from the start distributed through controlled circulation, whereby
a selected audience of staff reporters, editors, freelancers and
researchers receive free copies. The publication is financed by
the listed organizations, including corporations, government agencies
and non-profit groups. Zwicker was simply following a trend in the
Canadian magazine industry. But he also realized one basic, unfortunate,
truth about journalists.
"I realized in the first 20 minutes, you can't sell anything
to journalists. They won't buy anything. They won't even buy clothes
for God's sake; they would rather go to a clothing store and say
they'll review the clothes, and get free ones. I am being a bit
cynical here [but] freebeeism is endemic to the media."
In this area Zwicker can claim a small victory. The campaign by
content and others against journalists accepting
free gifts from the people they are supposed to cover finally led
Canadian managing editors to agree among themselves that their newspapers
would not accept free tickets from travel agencies, resorts and
hotels. He suggests this decision, made before the recession began
to eat into the profits of media organizations, might not have been
possible amidst the atmosphere of retrenchment and cost-cutting
in 90s. "If the media had continued as much on the take, as
it did in 1940s, 50s, and 60s, there was no way you would have been
able to reverse it."
The face of journalism has changed since Sources
started. Zwicker now provides an online as well as a printed version
of his service, but nobody in the information-providing business,
including himself, has figured out how to make money on the ubiquitous
Also, the "sameness" in news coverage that Zwicker refers
to has mushroomed with the concentration of ownership of the press
in fewer corporate hands coupled with layoffs and downsizing within
Other critics like Rick Salutin have noted that bland, non-aggressive
reporting is a fixture at the beleaguered CBC, reeling from federal
government budget cuts. Furthermore, more freelance journalists
may be operating but the desire by large media organizations to
seize their electronic rights without additional payments will undermine
their financial ability to remain in this line of work.
With rapid change occurring in the news media Zwicker agrees that
Sources cannot sit on its laurels.
I took an unscientific poll of various journalists to discover
their view of Sources. Ottawa Citizen reporter
Angela Mangiacasale, who writes for the home section, often consults
the online version of Sources. Also in the nation's
capital, Stephen Dale, an author and the Canadian correspondent
for Inter Press Service, a Rome based Third World oriented news
agency, finds the hard copy version of the directory handy in his
frequent "deadline crunches." Another author, freelance
writer and Toronto Life columnist John Lorinc uses Sources
"sparingly," among other reference material for his assignments.
In an E-mail message, Regina Leader-Post columnist Will
Chabun says he finds Sources and other World Wide
Web sites on the Internet are competing to grab his attention in
his research. "I'd be disappointed if it disappeared,,"
says Chabun, "because it is a tangible sign that somebody out
there cares, really cares about linking journalists and sources
of information." He sees a downside to Sources'
professionalism if it makes it seem "too slick and well-produced,"
creating an unfortunate impression that "it was put out by
a big anonymous corporation" rather than a small enterprise
concerned with "getting official and alternative sources of
information in the public domain."
My immediate reaction is that this is a bit unfair. Sources,
a modestly sized $600,000 operation, has in fact increased its number
of alternative sources following a partnership with another directory,
Connexions, a compendium of non-profit advocacy groups. Zwicker
has also offered low listing rates for financially troubled non-profits
in order to enable them to stay in Sources. He agrees
however that alternative voices are in danger of being undermined
by government funding cuts.
The target audience for Sources has always been the
working journalist with the power to write a story and get it published.
But Zwicker is concerned that his directory needs to reach younger
journalists at the start of their careers. That is only possible,
he says, if copies of Sources are freely available
to students in the university and community college journalism schools.
"It would enable journalism profs to use Sources
in their basic research, reporting or magazine classes."
Lets face it. Zwicker uses his publications and teaching to support
his activity as a media critic but then why not? It has meant wearing
the hat of the hard-nosed businessman on occasion to maintain the
survival of Sources. But then I don't believe his
protestations that as the son of a progressive clergyman, he has
no "head" for either business or marketing.
Most small enterprises fail and go bankrupt. After 20 years, Sources
is full of life and plans for the future.
Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer.
This article originally appeared in Sources
#40, Summer 1997.
Sources Select Online Story
Sources, and Getting the Most Out of the Internet:
Including Six Internet Fictions to Consider
A Quick History to 1997
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