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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 of Everybody 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 quo."

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 Internet.

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 news organizations.

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.

See also:

Sources 10th anniversary
The Sources Select Online Story
You, Sources, and Getting the Most Out of the Internet: Including Six Internet Fictions to Consider
Sources: A Quick History to 1997
Publisher's Letter (Sources 42)
Sources Corporate Profile



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