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News without the sponsors
August 16, 2007


An independent news website aims to tell it like it is, writes Michael Dwyer.


A few years ago, documentary maker Paul Jay decided to stop producing his long-running political debate show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and write a movie. The result was a political conspiracy thriller set in 2020.


When the full horror of his futuristic plot revealed itself, however, he realised there was no time for fiction after all. He recommitted himself to telling the truth with new urgency.

The result is The Real News (, an internet-based news service with an old-fashioned uncompromising ethos and a revolutonary way of maintaining it.


“After 9/11, one could see the complete capitulation of American television to a political agenda that was extremely dangerous,” Mr Jay says.


“It started to occur to me it was like I was living in the 1920s and looking ahead to 1939. I thought, Gee, I don’t want to be in 1939 and say to myself ‘What could I have done about this in the ’20s?’ “


Mr Jay says he realised that the new century’s storm clouds have a silver lining: cheap digital technology, a global communication revolution and a potentially huge audience of subscribers savvy enough to reject the agenda of large media players.

“There’s an incredible convergence right now to do with the technology and the need, and people’s consciousness about the need,” he says.


“As dangerous and dismal as much of it looks, there’s also a tremendous opportunity for a new future here. Now is the time we have to create a bridge to that future.”


The website is an impressive demonstration of intent, with its bold shaming of TV news failures and a plan to “change the economics of television journalism” by refusing sponsorship and advertising, and asking viewers to donate $US10 ($A11.85) a month instead.


There are video testimonials from such eminent supporters as authors Gore Vidal, Naomi Klein and Lewis Lapham, and a stunning roster of highly experienced journalists from all over the world.


But Jason Rok, the project’s chief technical adviser, stresses that this is more than a website. The Real News aims to take advantage of the gamut of existing and emerging media platforms by dealing with YouTube, Facebook and other established online forums as well as distilling its content for a weekly TV show, currently in the production stages that is aimed for a mainstream network audience.


“The reality is if you still want to reach a lot of people, television and linear programming is still the way that most people are … influencing opinion,” he says.


“Convergence goes both ways. You’re moving from television to other devices, but other devices are now bringing content to television as well,” he says, citing the fact that TV now uses vision from mobile phone cameras and websites, for instance, and refers viewers to online services for discussion and information.


“We’ll see television change very much,” Mr Rok says. “There’s going to be a lot of live information happening in real time because movies will be on demand or (on) specialty channels.


“So you have to respect TV and where it fits into the whole game. It does reach a lot of people, and those people will pick up the phone (to subscribe) faster than an internet user will fill out a PayPal credit card application.”


Mr Jay says the initial internet launch of The Real News site avoided the traditional “gatekeepers” of television, as well as keeping production costs manageable. For now, content is being added almost daily, often in raw video form.


Crucial to the operation are new and portable technologies such as “sling boxes” – video relay devices that can transmit vision in real time without satellite costs. The station will facilitate “citizen journalism” by distributing hundreds of $US15 USB video cameras around the world.


Ultimately, though, the challenges ahead are perhaps less about what the Real News site uncovers and more about how it maintains independence from a range of its rivals, from conventional media channels to Google, YouTube and ISPs.


“We won’t take government money, we won’t take corporate money, but we never said we wouldn’t deal with those players,” Mr Jay says.


Perhaps the most important deal The Real News has done is with, a foundation that donates bandwidth to non-profit companies. “Part of being able to deliver this level of media is being able to manage your bandwidth costs,” Mr Rok says. “That’s a significant (concern), especially when you’re moving into an area where net neutrality is becoming an issue. In the US it is an issue. That’s a significant threat to the independent voice. So the gatekeepers are back again, basically, at the last mile.”


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