Tuesday, October 23, 2007

VFM intro, or, how complicated can counting be?

Voter Funded Media, the contest that saw the birth of this and other (now defunct) charming student publications, is soon to be re-launched for this year. Yay! The media-reform project is meant to improve media culture, and by extension democracy in general. This is theoretically accomplished by making media into a public good: you reward media by votes, from a public fund, that voters pay into. In our case, that means that when you vote in AMS elections, you'll also have a ballot for your favorite elections-media group, and prizes will be allocated accordingly. Also, our "voter funding" is actually being proffered (to the tune of $8000) by VFM-originator Mark Latham, not a public fee.

Last year the contest had many successes and some failures. This year there are some changes afoot. Here's an intro to a few features of the contest:

  • Contestants - VFM is open to both established media, and new media. So, for example, last year the established Arts undergrad paper, The Underground, entered the contest and won. Tim and Gina started this blog from scratch, and also did a great job. As the contest matures, and more "new" media sources stick around and get established, the name-recognition advantage for established groups will decrease. The Ubyssey, our official student newspaper, didn't enter last year, to leave the field more open for new groups. They even paid the entrance fee for a bunch of new media groups.
  • Start time - This year, the contest will be launching several months before the AMS election campaign begins. The ultimate intent of VFM is to establish permanent, healthy media choices, not just during elections time. This will give media that start early a chance to establish credibility and a reader base. Last year, the contest was pretty rushed, due to last-minute planning and approval at the AMS.
  • Formats - Contestants can use a wide range of media formats: internet-based, paper-based, magazine-based, whatever. The mix is pretty fun.
  • Media strategies - Last year, a fair number of styles surfaced through the contest. There were some joke entries, ranging from great (Radical Beer tribune) to lame (Cameron Funnell). There were more serious, issue-focused entries like The Knoll and this blog. There were some informative, but unenlightening elections newspapers like Election Erection and The Underground. And there was of course, the Duncan-Kearny group that did no media coverage whatsoever, but got people to vote for them based purely on personal popularity.
  • Allocating prizes - At the simplest level, prizes are allocated on the basis of voter's preference. Theoretically, they reward the media that best served them. It gets more complicated though: this year's VFM committee has decided upon a rather complex, unintuitive voting system for the contest, which they claim will minimize the impact of "strategic" votes and narrow-appeal media groups. The system involves each voter weighing the contestants by giving them more or less theoretical money. Then some percentile (not the mean) of the allocations determines how the prize pot is "sliced". Don't worry, a primer on this later.

Last year, VFM sparked some really decent debate. The candidates had to learn alot, and know the issues. It established a lively discourse during election time that was great to be part of. The new media that popped up was exciting and fresh. However, VFM didn't increase overall voter turnout, which is still mired at about 10%. Arguably, the best media contestants did not win. And FVM took up alot of candidates' time, preventing them from pursuing more traditional campaigning methods and getting out the vote. The good thing about VFM though, is that it improves with maturity: with more years, the contest will have more momentum to begin with, and the quality of contestants will be progressively pushed up leaving little room of get-rich-quick punks and deadbeat hacks.

We'll see how things go this year. UBC Insiders' awesome VFM roster is being established as we speak, so stay tuned. Here's to media! *clink*

FYI: The VFM contest is hiring an administrator. This person would be reporting to the AMS Elections Administrator, Brian Peiovesan, and they're offering 750 bucks. The job posting is found HERE, for those interested.

A chat I had with Mark Latham, and revelations thereof, can be found HERE