Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Chitchat with Mark Latham - he's going to take over the world!

Last year, the ex-wall street strategist, UBC alum, and ex-professor Mark Latham walked into an AMS council meeting waving around 8 thousand dollars. He wanted to use the AMS as the first testing ground for his media revolution. The result was Voter Funded Media, the contest that this blog was created for.

For those of you that have been under a rock this year, Voter Funded Media was the contest that accompanied the February AMS elections here at UBC. It was a pilot project meant to increase the information available to students about the elections, leading to more informed voting. The basic idea is that voters reward the media sources that are best for them through a public financial incentive which they award by voting. When students cast their ballots for their favorite candidate, they also voted for their favorite elections-coverage media sources. So media groups (either established, or new) were vying for eight prizes collectively worth 8 thousand dollars (amiably proffered by Mark himself).

I was surprised, but happy to be summoned by Mark for a chat last Wednesday. "I'm bored," quoth he. "I'm waiting for the contest to start again. You're the only one that's still active and we hadn't met yet." In fact, boredom figured prominently in the short meeting's thematic material. All the major professional milestones he cited were the results of boredom. This, combined with Mark's idealism about his big idea resulted in a decidedly adolescent vibe. Not that that's a bad thing at all. Mark preemptively refused to delight in the AMS meeting's (which we were both planning to attend that evening) delicious and nutritious free food. Instead, he tucked into a substantial sandwich, courtesy of the Delly, as we talked. We chatted about some of the successes and challenges of the first year's VFM contest. He seemed interested in whether the results of last years' contest (whereby, the familiar campus publications did better than newer, more interesting ones) would be a deterrent to this corner participating again. I assured him that as far as I was concerned it wouldn't.

The theoretical rational behind the project has been Mark's work of over the last 15 years or so - basically since he quit his overpaid Wall-street job with a handsome nest egg. I got to find out a bit about the genesis of Voter Funded Media: because of his business and financial background, Mark originally conceived the idea in the context of shareholders making decisions about company executives. He recounted that during his years on Wall street he had seen a lot of waste and mismanagement in companies because of bad executives. The idea was, that if shareholders themselves decided to pay outside consultants (call them 'media') to advise them on who to vote into the company's executive, better people would be chosen and improved management practices would result. Over some years, between waking up late and writing the occasional article, Mark purchased shares in companies for the express purpose of trying the idea out. He wrote up and proposed this plan to his fellow shareholders at their annual meetings. Interestingly, these proposals never got more than 20% in favour. That's when he started thinking about the parallel opportunities in politics and public life: essentially, the premise of VFM is that as information about civics and government can be thought of as a "public good" with a collective dimension, that it should have a dedicated public reward system. This public reward system will encourage "good" reporting in civics and government, leading to better election choices and improved policy.

I'm not entirely sold on this line of reasoning. First, it's not clear that the definition of a "public good" - that is, something that either applies to nobody or everybody, like the environment or national security - applies to information. Most people seek out the information they care about individually, and share it with a select number of people that are also interested. Mass entertainment maybe reaches a certain degree of "universality," but the type of in depth investigative reporting Mark wants to encourage never has - only a subset of people are interested in that. Moreover, while we are forced to contribute to public goods through taxes, VFM only asks us to add another way to reward media - through voting on a public purse. It is unclear whether people would vote for media choices differently than the way they already support media - through their viewership. If everyone voted in VFM for the same networks they watch all the time, no change would take place. It is possible that the very act of conscious voting for media sources on the basis of their elections coverage would create a consciousness different from the one that informs our natural preference for entertainment - but that's speculation.

The other interesting aspect of VFM is the creation of new media groups - ones that in theory, would slowly gain reputations and be able to compete with existing sources. Here at UBC, where there's limited existing media in the first place, and they contain almost no political coverage on a regular basis, that seems reasonable. With time, blogs like this one or future VFM outlets could become players in the UBC information market. I'm skeptical that the same thing could be said for the real world though: large and small media organizations saturate the market already, and it would be tough to break through if all you're doing is in depth politics.

In my view the biggest success of VFM is in its capacity to excite, reach out, and re-engage sullen or cynical voters. It's a neat idea that people like to talk about. It makes people want to jump in. At least here at UBC, it created the most interesting campaign is years. Mark is planning to start VFM with some more student unions in BC this year, and then take it to municipalities. From there, his idea will take over the world, or that's the plan.