I’m going a little off topic today. This has been a tough week for print media in Canada, and it deserves reflection because we are seeing similar – troubling – trends in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Within five days, we have learned: the largest newspaper chain in Canada – Postmedia – is undertaking another round of job cuts and is amalgamating many of its daily newspapers; one of our oldest daily newspapers is discontinuing its print edition; and our oldest independent newspaper – the Halifax Chronicle Herald – is facing a strike because working conditions for reporters have gotten so bad.
These are a few of this week’s examples, but it is all within a context of a print media that has undergone massive cuts and restructuring in order to competed with internet news sites and compete in a 24/7 media cycle.
Some may say: ‘So what… it’s the evolution of media and I’m perfectly content to get my news from the web’.
But this glib reaction – writing off the stone age newsies as victims of technological evolution- misses the point. An important point. Traditional media is not in decline because of its format –large newspapers are – finally – realizing they need a digital presence that is at least as professional and fostered as their print editions.
No. Print media is in decline because they spend money on reporters, investigation, fact checking and writing. And this is absolutely essential is we are to keep our politicians, corporations, and public institutions accountable. Online news sites, on the other hand, curate content from newswires, freelancers and stringers, all of whom are paid by the word, irrespective of the quality of those words. There is an aphorism in journalism now that every story is a ‘two paragraph context, one quote from each side, online within 15 minutes’.
In this age of complex issues and divisive politics, we have never needed a powerful ‘fifth estate’ more than we do now. Politicians and businesses are attacking very complex issues – think terrorism, climate change, stimulation of industrial innovation – that need long term, nuanced approaches. And the current news media need to reduce everything to a quote or a sound bite – quite simply – failing to provide us with the tools we need to engage.
The news media was never supposed to become an opium for the masses; it needs to be a tool for informing us – objectively – on the important issues of the day. To enable us to exercise our roles as citizens of a democracy . In order to do this, we need journalists who hold politicians – fairly and objectively – accountable; critiquing their policies and positions and not how much they spent for breakfast that morning. We need journalists who don’t simply tell us what we want to hear and what pleases (or aggravates) us, but makes us think more deeply on complex issues. And this means journalists who are given the time, resources and editorial license to research, investigate and write their findings.
But we are not getting this quality of journalism. And the newspapers and websites are not at fault. They are providing exactly what the consumer wants. So while the free market media is giving the market what it wants, it is failing society. So what do you do?
We fund public education because, even though kids would likely not choose to go to school, we know it’s good for society if they do. I think it’s time for governments to rethink their relationship with the media. We obviously don’t want the government owning or controlling the media – this clearly is at cross purposes to a media that holds government accountable. But what about public broadcasting? Using public money to fund – no strings attached – the investigative capacity of a limited number of ‘newspapers of record’ for the country. It has worked quite effectively in radio in Canada and Great Britain.
Our America neighbours are quick to point out that citizenship come with responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to become informed though impartial, thoughtful analysis… even if it reveals to us truths we do not like. This is worth investing in!