What would Mr. Atkinson do?

Colette Murphy is the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation.

With our help, a new reporting position has been created at the Toronto Star to increase coverage of issues related to democratic renewal — and we’ve been wondering what Mr. Atkinson would think about this decision.

We can imagine the current state of the news industry would keep him up at night. But it would be the news itself that would get him up in the morning, determined to keep people informed about the uses and abuses of democratic power. Workers were less nervous about organizing for decent work when reporters like Mr. Atkinson were covering them. Similarly, over 50 years as the Star’s publisher, he demonstrated that voters were less complacent and more engaged in civic life when high quality public interest journalism was on offer.

We’re sure Mr. Atkinson would not let his readers be kept in the dark about new employment standards or labour reforms while new media platforms are under construction. Nor would he accept inequitable access to information about how elections are run or democratic institutions are restructured. In times like ours, he would be calling people to join a campaign to make the city and everyone’s lives better.

The Atkinson Foundation’s job is to continue fighting for the kind of Canada Mr. Atkinson fought for in the first half of the 20th century. That’s why we’ve decided to step up to the challenges presented by coverage deficits and news deserts, and to engage a new generation in our country’s great democratic experiment.

Sabrina Nanji, most recently a Queen’s Park reporter for an online news service, will be responsible for daily news reporting, feature stories and in-depth investigative articles on electoral and Senate reform as well as citizen engagement, participation and innovation. Nanji will report on the systems, policies and practices that create inequities in voter participation, representation and benefits — what’s known as “inequality of voice.” She’ll cover signs of erosion in our democratic values but also signs of hope: promising solutions, public debates, and people-powered campaigns on critical public policy issues.

This is the second “philanthro-journalism” project we’ve developed with the Toronto Star. Three years ago, we established a beat to report on issues related to growing income and wealth inequality — a thoroughly modern labour beat. These projects follow the example set by the Ford Foundation and the Los Angeles Times in responding to coverage deficits created by economic disruption in the media industry. They too recognize the critical connection between journalism and democracy, and the need for innovative strategies to keep everyone informed and engaged during confusing times.

The Atkinson-Star projects, in particular, are overseen by the foundation and managed by the newsroom day-to-day. Atkinson observes the principle that the paper has complete editorial independence. The terms of reporters’ employment are subject to the paper’s human resources policies and practices. These beats have been created in consultation with Unifor Local 87-M.

We believe journalism, like philanthropy, is a public good. And we know Mr. Atkinson would expect us — all of us — to fight for it with everything we’ve got.

Colette Murphy is the Executive Director of the Atkinson Foundation.