Old Media Atrophying – Should We Care?

Odd that I should be posing this question in a magazine, a so-called old or even “legacy” media. But it’s not the successful Ottawa Life and Toronto Life type of publication in question. No, it’s the strictly old daily “news” media – including news magazines, newspapers and the news on radio and tv that seem in perilous decline. Should we care?

The sad closing of local print dailies like the Guelph Mercury, where I got my start over 55 years ago, really grabbed my attention. It became clear that what was really being lost forever was not just the physical newspaper but the newsroom where I worked and gave value to what happened locally.

It’s a story playing out across the country. The overall number of print daily newspapers in Canada has shrunk from 135 in 2008 to 104 in 2014. It’s staggering that in the last year alone over 600 journalists were fired. That’s a lot of columns of information about our towns and cities that will never be written or read.

Where mastheads don’t disappear,they are devalued. Take Ottawa where owner Postmedia in its desperation to cut costs is merging the Citizen’s newsroom with that of the Ottawa Sun. So in the nation’s capital, a competitive daily is gone along with many reporters. It’s of concern both for local and national journalism.

Perhaps the highest profile journalist to be sacrificed in Ottawa is 18-year Citizen veteran Glen McGregor who left the paper unceremoniously in mid-February. It was his persistence that uncovered Elections Canada’s investigation into fraudulent calls that misdirected voters in 2011, and earlier his dogged computer analysis that led to the revelation that a disproportionate share of the federal stimulus money was going to Conservative ridings. A public anxious that politicians and bureaucrats be held to account will miss him dearly.

Together with downsizing at the Ottawa bureau of CTV, reductions at CJOH (the former dominant TV player in the area), and a world capital is left with a less than world-class fourth estate.

For the many in Ottawa who want a solid appreciation on what is going on internationally, beyond Trump and US politics, there is less and less reporting in our newspapers, and on TV. Many I know, are forced to tune into the BBC if they want solid coverage of the Middle East, Europe or the Far East. On the domestic side in a country as diverse as Canada, news from outside Toronto or Ottawa is hard to come by. There is almost no Quebec or Atlantic coverage in our media, and there is no longer beat coverage of the military or science. In a town full of ambassadors and diplomats, there is only Diplomat Magazine and Embassy published by The Hill Times.

Some in the political class, already expert at using social media to get their news out directly to the public, may rejoice in fewer pesky media gatekeepers. There is little doubt that the ability of much – reduced traditional print and broadcast media to take the time to dig out scandals and hold government to account has been dangerously reduced. Would Senate spending scandals have come to light today? It was the Citizen and CTV that did the original digging, and both have had defanged.

People of Glen McGregor’s stature will likely not be replaced in newer online media outlets. Admittedly, there is standard daily national political coverage and it is extensive. The Hill Times, iPolitics and the Huffington Post cover the Hill like a blanket, and the HuffPost’s sharp Ottawa Bureau Chief Althea Raj is ubiquitous on national radio and tv political panels. Canadian Press’s understaffed Ottawa bureau pumps out reams of Parliament Hill news to radio and newspapers across the country who long ago gave up their own bureaus.

Related: A Revolution in Political Communications

Then there is the crowd-funded blog site Canadaland run by a former freelancer, the unflinching Jesse Brown who first broke the Ghomeshi story. Canadaland is doing politics now and gets over 60,000 downloads a week. Buzzfeed claims it is establishing a well-staffed Canadian newsroom but a sampling of what it covers shows anything but serious news.

So, despite claims from new media that they are supplanting the old, only real major newspaper and network newsrooms have the financial and legal clout to take the time to dig out controversial stories. They are threatened as advertiser support goes to huge targeted internet mega sites like Google, Yahoo and Facebook. CBC and Radio Canada maintain major investigative units, and the public broadcaster, about to get new federal funding, is alone among major news organizations actually enhancing its newsgathering, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star also pride themselves on their units, but both tend to like to focus on unearthing grabbing scandals.

So, we should worry about the reduction in serious political and local journalism that goes beyond simple coverage and digs and probes and investigates and holds power to account. Chantal Hébert in her Toronto Star column in late January believes the result will be a less-informed electorate that is more easily manipulated, and a decline in political literacy at the very moment the government is looking at electoral reform to get voters more engaged. Lawrence Martin in The Globe and Mail said: “What good is a new voting system if the voters don’t have the information on which to make an informed decision?”

Oh well, some believe that where the majority get their news has so changed that there is little that can be done to staunch the decline of traditional media. As a US Rolling Stone writer argues: “The now-familiar declines in viewership and readership, and the wholesale slashing of newsroom jobs, have meant more problems for reporters than just questions about job security. New kinds of news sites have swept in to fill the vacuum, offering cheaper and clickier stories… people are increasingly getting information from an atomized, partisan, choose-your-news smorgasbord, where you’re as likely to process [a major story] through your brother-in-law’s Facebook rants, or the tweets of a few favorite reporters…”

John Stackhouse, former editor in chief of The Globe sums up the challenge facing our traditional media succinctly in a preface to his new book: “A non-stop torrent of free digital content stole advertisers and devalued advertising space so quickly that newspapers struggled to finance the serious journalism that distinguished them in a world of Buzzfeed…Yahoo and innumerable bloggers and citizen journalists.” The struggle goes on. Few think they can win in the long run. We really should care.