Thursday, January 3, 2008

Will VFM Provide Consumer Info?

Will voter-funded media give their communities info on shopping as well as on voting?

To allow complete freedom of the press, VFM contests have so far imposed almost no requirements on media content, format or eligibility. Contest administration is basically an arm of the government, so if the media are to check and balance government power, administrators should have no subjective discretionary authority over contestants. Instead, it is the voters who must sort out the socially beneficial media and reward them. The idea is to empower voters, not to empower government-appointed administrators.

The media are free to try attracting voter support by any means they want, and voters are free to support contestants for whatever reasons they choose. As the SFU contest entry form states:
“We use the term "media" based on what we think contestants will do, but we do not actually require contestants to act like media. This contest is designed to benefit the voting community, and many types of benefit are possible. We think contestants will win high ratings by providing such benefits as websites giving insight on important SFU issues, especially issues to be decided by vote.”

The UBC media contestants in January 2008 will no doubt focus on the student union election that takes place at the end of January, as they did last year, for reasons outlined in this blog two days ago. But at SFU the annual election is not until March, and the media awards are spread throughout the year. What will the contestants offer voters?

Each voter can rate each contestant on a scale of 0 to 10. Awards are given out based on the median of each contestant’s votes: highest median gets first prize, etc. Nonvotes are counted as half a vote for a 0 rating – see rules. To win at this game, contestants must appeal to a wide range of voters.

There are several organizations already providing benefits to the SFU community, including the Simon Fraser Student Society, The Peak (newspaper), and the university itself. Their different mandates cover a wide range of possible benefits. They are well established, and command substantially more resources than the voter-funded media award pool. What could VFM contestants add to this scene? They must look for benefits that are not already being provided.

I designed VFM to encourage media to help voters choose better leaders and to monitor leaders once elected. Existing campus media already do this, but VFM should add a diversity of independent views, with a new competitive incentive linked directly to voters. Different incentives are likely to result in different behaviour, and thus may add some new perspectives on issues important to the SFU community. New media can at least play a gadfly role, critiquing and advising the government.

But contestants may think of other types of benefit that they could offer. For example, these might include information about campus food services or about courses of study. The article “Menu Minefield” (Globe & Mail 2007-11-07) is a good illustration. Media could gather and organize insight from students, in the style of Consumer Reports, Consumers’ Checkbook, and

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