Forget The Box?

I am Palestinian, Lebanese, Abu Dhabi-born, Montreal-raised, fluent in Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and sometimes Italian, and am a public relations activist who spurs initiatives from neighbourhood clean-ups to dialogue dates between Palestinian and Jewish Montrealers.

In my constant search for excitement, I learn of Forget The Box’s call for writers! Intrigued, I invite founders Jason C. McLean and Chris Zacchia to meet. And meet we did on a stormy Monday evening at a McGill ghetto café.

McLean, a native Montrealer raised in Westmount, owner of a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Concordia University, published in the Montreal Mirror, actor mostly in theatre, and who dubs his new Montreal apartment Brooklyn, arrives first.

Jason C. McLean in character as JC Sunshine (photo Chris Zacchia)

JC Sunshine’s Fireside Chat. Say what? McLean tells me that Forget The Box (“FTB”) was born in 2009 as a live video web series called JC Sunshine’s Fireside Chat, a talk show/stream of consciousness comedy starring McLean as a schizophrenic host with an imaginary technical assistant and a stuffed dog that he believes is alive. Willing people were interviewed, he asserts.

Quickly, the Zine portion was added to the website covering film, video games, theatre and music.

“It really took off, and we’ve never looked back.” McLean gives props to Cassie Doubleday’s vivacious music column that gave the writing team a real push. As the readership grew, Forget The Box started to cover developing stories like Montreal’s Cabaret Café Cleopatra’s battle to escape expropriation by a major developer who had bought most businesses to turn the area into condos, office towers and an entertainment complex.

What about the name? McLean tells me that he had started a personal blog that he baptised Forget The Box, but he and his partner-in-blog, Zacchia, turned into the blog.

“We wanted to create our own media. Why blog alone when when we can blog together? Together, we can get better noticed,” McLean explains.

Today, Forget The Box is a family of 30 writers, photographers, editors and administrators reporting on Montreal, Canadian and international politics and events; the environmental scene; festivals, films, theatre and concerts; as well as analysis of major events. Quebec’s Maple Spring  is now a homepage mainstay. “The idea is to reach several niches. If you come to our site to read our music column, you may also mosey over to see what’s shaking in the politics or environment column.”

The site welcomes 3000-5000 visits every day and is #2 blog in Montreal Mirror’s Best of Montreal; up from 3rd position in 2011.

Or as McLean puts it, “I knew things were getting better when the number of friends on [the Facebook page] outnumbered the number of friends on my Facebook page.”

Seriously, producing an impact as a credible information site means higher responsibility, McLean asserts. “It’s not just about making sure we don’t have spelling mistakes.”

FTB’s mantra is to ensure that facts are checked and to allow for opinion to transpire in the articles. “Our news coverage is very editorial. Our writers are not asked to hide their opinion as long as the facts are correct,” he shares. “We wear our biases on our sleeve and do not feign the opposite.”

“I always say that unbiased media is a fantasy.” McLean’s view is that since all media is produced and presented by human beings, the journalist’s personal bias or the enterprise’s interests seep through. He points to the way in which corporate media present facts. An example is the student protests in Montreal. A well known major news publication insists on writing “tens of thousands marching in the street,” when the real number is in the hundreds of thousands.

So what’s coming up at FTB? Growth. FTB wants to add nodes to its network by interlinking with sites that cover complementary topics in depth such as sports, which FTB does not report on. FTB also wants to feature non-journalistic content such as poetry, short stories, fiction, photography and art. And, developing local teams in sister cities to cover what’s going on is on FTB’s radar.

“Sky’s the limit!” says McLean. “Man power is really the limit,” Zacchia chimes in as he pulls up a chair. “You need very special people to have them be so committed on a voluntary basis.”

Zacchia, raised in the Montreal borough of Rivière-des-Prairies, boasts a BA in Communications from Concordia University, is a photographer, videographer, a web entrepreneur veteran of 10 years, and, in his words “spends too much time online” and is “an ambassador of culture.”

So what’s an FTB contributor made of? Chris and Jason agree that an FTB writer is someone who believes in what the FTB crew is doing, who wants to be part of it, and who wants to cover more territory in subjects of interest.

“Montreal is a fantastic city to grow an organic global media collective by creating as many bridges as possible with respected independent media collectives such as, Montreal Media Co-op and Open File. There is no money in publishing on the Internet. We all do this because we are passionate about creating a reliable news and cultural source.”

“Corporate control of mainstream media is driving it down. It is halting its own development on the Internet because it sees the Internet as a threat. It homogenizes views and neatly frames any differing opinions.” McLean believes FTB brings value to our reading diet. “We take the good elements and familiarity of the old school model of the newspaper, add in grassroots online content, and drop the ‘big boss man” attitude, drab content, and pretense of objectivity.”

I’m in. Read you around.

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