Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How VFM contestants can help voters and win votes

[Originally posted January 21 in votermedia Google group.]

We can have lengthy theoretical debates on the pros and cons of VFM, but with the UBC AMS election upon us, it's now time for practical action. Political systems are complicated, and we can best resolve these debates by seeing the results of VFM implementations. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." We will soon learn whether VFM can help voters, and whether voters can appreciate it.

The practices currently prevalent in journalism have been shaped by the incentives of existing private and public sector media systems. VFM is a new system with very different incentives, so it may call for very different practices. No one yet knows what those new practices will be. I have been thinking about and discussing this for years, so I have some guesses to share with you.

As emphasized in my January 19 post "My role in the UBC VFM contest", I have no authority over the contest, so no one has to do as I say. I am offering these ideas to help our group learning process, and invite debate on them. The media contestants will do as they think best, and voters will make their own voting decisions for their own reasons.

What follows is a very simplified and opinionated outline of my views. I expect they will differ sharply from those of many of you, so look forward to learning from discussion and from what participants will actually do. I have no formal training in journalism nor in political science, so have a lot to learn. My background is in financial economics.

Consider these different types of voters:

1. Very busy; willing to spend only a small amount of time to fulfill the community service of becoming informed enough to vote.

2. Might spend more time becoming politically informed if it's interesting or entertaining.

3. Willing to do some checking of political information.

4. Really into politics and media (this group includes the media and political candidates).

We could append a category #0 of potential voters who are like category #1, but busier and/or less community-service oriented so that they don't vote. The VFM system is designed especially to help type-1 voters make the most of the time they are willing to spend getting informed. If VFM creates a better information system, this can also gradually attract some type-0 non-voters to convert to type-1 and vote.

Voter-funded media should try to help all types of voters (and potential voters). But the media should not all try to do this in the same way. Ultimately they are a team, and different media will fulfill different roles and specializations. The value of each media organization should be judged in the context of what the other media are already providing. What does each one add to the total?

That said however, next I will outline an example of content and layout that I think would be helpful, especially for the type-1 voter. (We should also ask voters what they want.) Later I will return to the question of how some media might fulfill different parts of this in different ways.

(This outline is for websites. For other types of media, it would need to be adapted.)

1. Link from directly to your
website's main executive-summary voter's guide page.

2. On your main page, show the voting sections in the order they will appear on the ballot. I don't know if this order is correct, but
maybe it's:

- President

- VP Academic

- VP Finance

- VP Administration

- VP External

- Board of Governors

- Senate

- The Ubyssey (3 positions? What are they?)

- Voter-Funded Media

3. For each section, list all candidates in sequence of your endorsement, starting with your top-recommended candidate. I believe there is a long-standing debate on whether media should endorse candidates. More on this later. But to help type-1 voters, I suggest providing explicit endorsements of electoral candidates and of media contestants. Links to the other media would also help voters.

4. For each candidate, give a one-line summary of your assessment (strengths/weaknesses), with a link to explanations that support your assessment. These links lead to the depth and breadth of your
website's content.

Example: The Ubyssey's editorial on January 27, 2006 gave helpfully concise endorsements for last year's AMS elections:!--5--%3EOpinion/1edit.html

The big challenge for a VFM system is: how can a busy uninformed voter have any clue which media to believe? I see three main ways:

1. Brand reputation of the media organization.

2. Quality assessments by other media organizations. [Now that's incestuous!]

3. Spot-checking media opinions against the voter's own knowledge on some particular issue or candidate; or against voter's own research, including reading various media's supporting material.

Even without VFM, voters need to decide which media to believe, and can use the above three methods. The difference with VFM is that voters have a new way to reward media for providing helpful political insight. This should improve media quality generally, and help the key feedback loop in #2 (media rating media) work more effectively. It seems to me very important for the media to give voters quality assessments, rankings and endorsements of the other media. The diverse range of competing media supported by the VFM system provides some check and balance against back-scratching conspiracies of media that might endorse each other regardless of actual quality.

Brand reputation of media organizations will greatly enhance VFM effectiveness as this new system is implemented in more voting communities over more years. Media will build their reputations in the eyes of voters, and voters will learn to reward them and follow their voting advice. But in the world's first implementation at UBC, VFM reputations are not well established, so are less help to voters. This makes it all the more crucial for UBC media to assess each other's quality and communicate that to voters.

There are several different ways that media should refer to each other:

1. Recommending to voters which media to vote for in the VFM contest.

2. Recommending to voters which media to read.

3. Referencing and crediting sources in other media for endorsements and assessments given in your own media. It would be wastefully inefficient for each media organization to do all its own research on every candidate and issue. They should learn from each other. Thus some media could provide valuable insights without candidate endorsements, while other media read and credit those insights, then add their own candidate endorsements.

The ability of voters to support multiple media contrasts sharply with voting for electoral candidates, where voters usually have to choose one instead of another. So we can expect more cooperation among media than we see among competing electoral candidates.

I think one reason why some journalists avoid endorsing electoral candidates is that they fear readers may suspect some corrupt influence. Voter funding of media should reduce (although not eliminate) that fear and suspicion.

Another VFM-induced shift is the incentive for journalists to want people to spend time reading or watching their publications. Especially in the private sector, journalists are rewarded when people spend more time because it generates more advertising revenue. But if the revenue source is voter funding, busy voters would prefer and reward media that give the essential info in less time, as long as it is backed by a reputation for credible research.

With VFM, electoral candidates should find less need for campaign spending. This should attract more high-quality candidates with less obligations to those who helped them campaign.

One final reminder to media contestants: reach out and educate as many students as possible about the election and VFM!

Favouritism/bias in VFM contest?

[Originally posted January 21 in votermedia Google group.]

Various concerns have been raised about possible favouritism or bias in the VFM contest. VFM is all about reducing corruption, so it's appropriate that any such concerns are brought up.

First I'll address a specific minor incident as an example. On January 11, I flew to Memphis for a media reform conference, and returned to Vancouver January 15. I was reluctant to be away during the crucial launch of VFM at UBC, but the conference was definitely worth it (see my January 18 post). I was reachable by phone and email, but didn't take my laptop so couldn't update my website. The VFM contest was in the capable hands of Tiffany Glover and the Elections Committee - see my previous post on how my role is limited to advising.

A key goal of VFM is to better inform voters. My website has pages devoted to the UBC contest, and I update them with info that I think will be useful for voters and others interested. For the last two weeks I have closely followed the progress of contestant registration, linking to the official list at as well as copying it to The last time I copied the list before going to Memphis, only one contestant was on it. Then while I was away, several more signed up, but unfortunately I couldn't update my website's copy of the list until I returned to Vancouver. There were some complaints that this created bias in favour of the first contestant.

Note that I had a link to the official list; and note my January 9 post "Who's going to enter UBC VFM contest?" where I gave the best info I then had on who was planning to enter, listing seven groups. I guess it's true that showing one contestant on my web page for a few days gave them a slight benefit. But it was not done wilfully nor with malice, and I welcomed and responded to feedback on it when I could.

When serving the main goal of helping voters, it's hard to give perfectly equal treatment to all VFM contestants. Those of us involved with creating the contest faced this tradeoff many times, and we tended to choose what would best help voters, even if it meant an unequal competition. The VFM Committee and I especially felt this tension when debating whether to let The Ubyssey enter. (BTW these are my own impressions of our discussion; I speak about but not for the Committee.)

The Ubyssey is by far the best known campus media organization, and receives plenty of student funding. Any other campus media group would be hard pressed to compete with them for name recognition and the votes of busy students. We considered barring The Ubyssey from the VFM contest. But we felt the contest should be as open as possible, and that the absence of UBC's leading media group would detract from the goal of serving voters. On balance we decided to leave that door open. We thought The Ubyssey would enter and take first prize, so to encourage a diversity of media we cut the prize pie into eight slices.

This illustrates not only that we chose effectiveness over equality, but also that the VFM Committee did not stack the contest in favour of its members. Three of the five committee members are involved in VFM contestants, but none are with The Ubyssey. They could have barred The Ubyssey, but chose not to for the sake of the voters.

Choosing the members of the VFM Committee is another case of choosing effectiveness over equality. The contest is open to (almost) anyone, including committee members. Here too, to exclude them would have diminished benefits to voters. And a committee with no one connected to any campus media would have lacked the knowledge to design an effective contest. The final go-ahead decision was made by the full AMS Council, and the contest is run by the Elections Committee (whose members are barred from the contest, along with electoral candidates and Student Court members).

However, The Ubyssey's decision not to enter the contest is understandable for the same reasons we considered barring it. They already get student funding, they cover the elections anyway, and it doesn't look good to enter with a huge advantage - if you win you're a big bully, and if you don't you're a big wimp. Also, staying out may put them in a better position to provide a robust debate on the pros and cons of VFM. I welcome such debate in this group too - please join and speak up.

I will continue to help the contest by advising, answering questions etc., and will try to be even-handed in my treatment of contestants. I have been interviewed by some, and am available to all. The Knoll requested an article on VFM, which I was happy to provide as it gave exposure to the contest. But we agreed that the article is not exclusive to The Knoll. Anyone may copy it from and publish it (title: How UBC Can Change the World). Another contestant requested photos, so I have now posted several at Feel free to tell me if I seem to be biasing the contest (email mark[at] Soon I plan to post here some ideas for how contestants can help voters and thus gain their votes.

Human organizations and political processes all have conflicts of interest. We can reduce their harmful effects by enhanced disclosure and voter insight. An open VFM contest is designed to encourage a diversity of investigative journalists to check and balance politicians and each other. We will soon see how well (or poorly) this works.

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant" - see

My role in the UBC VFM contest

[Originally posted January 19 in votermedia Google group.]

It may be helpful if I clarify the role that the UBC AMS (Alma Mater [student] Society) and I agreed that I would play in this month's voter-funded media contest. The AMS and I signed an agreement in November 2006, when I gave them a cheque for $8000. I have suggested that we publish the text of the agreement, and am waiting for their OK to do so. But meanwhile here are its main points:

1. I have no decision-making authority in running the contest. It is being run by the AMS Elections Committee. [That committee has given the VFM Administrator (Tiffany Glover) primary responsibility.]

2. I help the Elections Committee with publicity, and give them advice as requested.

3. I am free to express my opinions on the process. [The subtext here is that no one has to listen to or agree with or obey my opinions, which is fine with me.]

4. If not all of the $8000 gets used in the VFM contest, the remainder will be refunded to me.

Here is what led to the agreement:

- January 2006 - I watched the AMS elections process and chatted with some participants.

- Jan to July 2006 - I discussed VFM informally with Ian Pattillo (who was elected as AMS VP External) and others.

- August 2, 2006 - I presented to AMS Council the idea of sponsoring VFM in the January 2007 election. They created the VFM Committee (originally called the Turbo Democracy Committee) to study the proposal in detail.

- Sept to Nov 2006 - The VFM Committee and I worked out the details of how it would be implemented at UBC. The Committee submitted a proposal to AMS Council, which debated and amended it, then approved it by vote.

The AMS Elections are a UBC student political process, so should be run by students. An outsider like me (although a UBC alumnus) who tries to influence this political process with money should be viewed with skepticism and criticism. I think the VFM Committee and AMS Council fulfilled their due diligence in looking out for student interests when debating, negotiating and amending this proposal.

I advised but was not a member of the VFM Committee. Likewise I advise but am not a member of the Elections Committee. My role is carefully defined and limited.

I am very pleased with how this whole process has been going. I have learned a lot and am continually revising my ideas about what designs for VFM would be most effective at UBC and elsewhere.

I'm available to anyone involved or interested in VFM, including media contestants - for interviews, discussion, advice etc. Email me - mark[at] I'm planning to attend the candidate forums January 22, 24, 26 and 29 - see you there!

I want to participate in the debate about VFM - what works, what doesn't, how it could be improved etc. That's why I asked for point #3 (above) in my agreement with the AMS. I've thought about this for years, and have some ideas to contribute, so I would like to help participants move up the learning curve. This can accelerate the iterative interactive learning process among voters, media contestants and electoral candidates: how can we use the VFM system most effectively? I plan to post some ideas later in this Google group/blog.

But political systems are complicated, so my ideas may be wrong. I invite debate, and look forward to learning from discussion and experiences of the first VFM implementation. The election and contest rules have been laid down, and participants (electoral candidates, media, Elections Committee, voters) will determine how it plays out.

Media Reform Conference: January 12-14

[Originally posted January 18 in votermedia Google group.]

The National Conference for Media Reform held in Memphis last weekend was the most exciting conference I've ever attended! See for full listing and free download audio of all sessions, plus video of main speeches.

Speakers: Amy Goodman, Jane Fonda, Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, Bill Moyers and many more. Topics included:

- concentration of media ownership

- internet neutrality

- intellectual "property"

- future of public broadcasting

- role of media in politics

- plus a wide range of other media issues

Over 3000 people attended. The media reform movement is growing fast! If VFM is successful at UBC, I bet this movement will pick it up and run with it.

BTW, if you're ever in Memphis don't miss the National Civil Rights Museum -

Who's going to enter UBC VFM contest?

[Originally posted January 9 in votermedia Google group.]

Here's the info I have so far about who's planning to enter the VFM contest. Please note these are not confirmed entries, just talk I have heard about people's plans. Last I heard, no one had yet paid the $100 entry fee, submitted a registration form, and been approved by the Elections Committee. Once that happens, their info should appear at or .

1. The Knoll (newspaper) - see

2. Gina Eom and Tim Louman-Gardiner.

3. Stephanie Ryan (and someone?).

4. The Underground (Arts Undergrad Society newspaper) - see

5. The 432 (Science Undergrad Society newspaper) is considering entering - see

6. A group of UBC School of Journalism students.

7. Heard something about two students planning a magazine called "Election Erection" - gotta see that!

The Ubyssey is not planning to enter. As I understand it, one reason is that they cover the election anyway.

Topic for January 2007: UBC

[Originally posted January 9 in votermedia Google group.]

The world's first implementation of VFM is now underway at the University of British Columbia in their student council elections this month - see and

So we can discuss:

- who's entering the VFM contest at UBC

- issues & questions about contest rules

- impact of VFM on the election

- VFM benefits & dangers

- future design improvements

- what's next for VFM beyond UBC

Welcome to the VoterMedia blog!

Hi --

I'm moving the discussion here from the votermedia Google group to make it easier for people to comment.

So next I'll copy some previous posts from the Google group to here.