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Les Leyne: Eby adviser deeply involved in online media world

A key adviser in the premier’s office, Meghan Sali, is also on the board of directors of Constellation Media, a news organization run by a non-profit society with an acknowledged progressive bent
B.C. Premier David Eby. The premier’s office said this week that advisor Meghan Sali has no input into the editorial product of Constellation Media and just volunteers time to the board’s fiduciary responsibilities for the enterprise. DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Premier David Eby made national news several weeks ago with some harsh criticism of an established Canadian news giant, Bell Media.

After it announced a major retrenchment involving layoffs and selloffs due to mounting losses, Eby said the moves were “catastrophic” for local news and were dictated by unrestrained corporate greed.

Bell was a “corporate vampire,” buying up local media assets and “sucking the life out of them” by slashing news staff to boost profits.

“Encrapification” was his description of Bell’s management of community news.

“Shame on you,” he said. His condemnation was one of the strongest statements he’s made in his 15 months as premier.

He’s not just criticizing the floundering traditional media industry, though. He’s also hired a staff person who is deeply involved in the online media world that is shaping up as the news business fragments and reconfigures.

A key adviser in the premier’s office, Meghan Sali, is also on the board of directors of Constellation Media, a news organization run by a non-profit society with an acknowledged progressive bent.

It has big plans in B.C. and publishes two community news sites in the Coquitlam area — the Tri-Cities Dispatch and The Ridge in Maple Ridge.

(Disclosure: The company that owns the Times Colonist — Glacier Media — stopped printing the Tri-Cities News in the Coquitlam-Port Moody area last year, but maintains it as an online publication.)

Sali is a “director of policy” in the premier’s office. She joined the office as a director of special projects in December 2022, shortly after Eby was named premier. She was made policy director in April 2023.

Earlier, she was involved in his re-election campaign in 2020, co-hosting podcasts and handling communications. She was a volunteer on his first campaign in 2013 in Vancouver-Point Grey and was an aide to a cabinet minister in 2017-18.

Sali has also written extensively on digital rights and privacy issues as a member of an advocacy group and law student.

Constellation Media’s description of its board, however, just refers to her as a law student and makes no reference to her current job.

The premier’s office said this week that Sali has no input into the editorial product and just volunteers time to the board’s fiduciary responsibilities for the enterprise.

The society describes itself as “focused on creating mission-driven digital-first local news in communities across B.C.”

Its website states that it adheres to “the principle that progressive media should contribute to the advancement of society through the pursuit of social, economic and political reforms.

“Original factual local journalism is a critical part of a healthy media landscape. We seek to create sustainable local media outlets that put the concerns of residents and community members first.

“Constellation believes that at its best, journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Another board member, and chairperson, is James Coccola, identified on the site as an executive vice-president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union. (Now the B.C. General Employees Union.)

The union is acknowledged as a funder of Constellation Media. Coccola is also a registered in-house lobbyist for the BCGEU.

The society’s bylaws stipulate that every member of the union’s 20-member executive committee is deemed an associate member of Constellation Media Society.

Also on the board is Jen Hassum, described as publisher of PressProgress, an Ottawa-based online news site with reporters in B.C. and other provinces. It was started by the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think tank.

Hassum was named executive director of the Broadbent Institute in 2021. She was quoted in a B.C. government news release warmly endorsing one of the members of Eby’s transition team during his takeover as premier.

Neither the Tri-Cities Dispatch nor The Ridge display any obvious political bias. They appear to post routine community news.

Coccola, who identified himself as the publisher of The Ridge in a newsletter, said in an interview that Constellation was started out of concern for local newspapers shutting down. It’s a small operation and the board handles governance and operational matters, but not editorial control, he said.

The description of board member Sali as a law student rather than a policy director in the premier’s office “is simply that we haven’t updated the bios since she took on the role. It wasn’t anything intentional.”

He said her “two paths have never crossed.”

He said Constellation Media is always looking for communities that are underserved by media. “It’s a balance between the resources we have and the place we think we can make a difference. It’s quite possible we’ll have further expansions in the future.”

Frances Bula, adjunct professor at UBC’s journalism school and a veteran B.C. reporter, said it’s important that all interests and connections be disclosed by news organizations, and that Sali’s job should be disclosed.

No media is ever pure and free of potential conflicts, she said. Mainstream news has always relied on corporate advertisers, and the CBC relies on federal government funding.

“The main thing you want to do is be very open about what people’s potential affiliations are and what their potential conflicts are.

“If there is somebody with a direct connection to the premier of the province, that’s of interest. … That’s kind of a weird thing.”

There are an increasing number of new media sites sponsored by individuals or groups with particular social missions, she said, and most try to be clear about their mission and funding.

Eby’s interest in community journalism goes back years.

In 2010, when he was with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, he appeared on a panel where he spoke encouragingly about web-based news services that he said were eating into weekly newspaper revenues of Black Press. It owns numerous B.C. weeklies and recently emerged from creditor protection with new owners after a financial crisis.

Eby mused on that 2010 panel: “We have to ask ourselves how we can support these independent news outlets? And for the communities that don’t yet have these independent media outlets, how can we work with local communities to help them tell the stories that they need to tell?”

Last year, while criticizing Meta for its clampdown on the posting of news from Canadian sources, Eby said the corporation’s conduct was “disgraceful.”

The government halted advertising on Facebook and Instagram, with limited health and safety exceptions.

Eby isn’t the only NDP premier with an interest in the media business. Former premier Glen Clark last week became the executive head of Overstory Media Group, a Victoria-based online news company that has started up or acquired several titles in recent years.

Another online site — The Logic — reported last week that he is taking the job temporarily with a plan to engineer a turnaround. He was previously on the board of that group, after leaving the top rank of the Jim Pattison Group in 2023.

He was premier from 1996 to 1999.

There has been little good news about the news business in B.C. or elsewhere for years now, with dozens of closures and curtailments arising from evaporating ad revenues.

There has been a proliferation of online news entities trying to fill the space, funded by a variety of different interests.

The political involvement in Constellation with the premier’s policy adviser on the board and NDP-friendly union’s financial backing is an interesting sidelight.

But the bigger issue it faces is likely the same dilemma that every news outfit is grappling with — how to make money in a world where information as a commodity has essentially become free.

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