If you’ve been following recent changes in the media market, you may have heard that traditional news outlets in Canada are struggling to stay afloat. Within the last year alone, there have been a number of major disruptions: In September, 2015 La Presse, a 130-year-old French language publication, announced the end of its weekday print edition. As of January 1, 2016 the print edition of La Presse is only available on Saturdays, as the publication has decided to re-direct efforts toward their online and digital platforms (CBC). In mid-January of 2016, Postmedia announced 90 job cuts across the country, merging major newsrooms in Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver (CBC). Most recently, on January 29, 2016 the Guelph Mercury, a publication which predates Canadian Confederation, printed its final print edition (The Globe and Mail). All this to say what, exactly? That the future of journalism is in jeopardy, and we stand to lose much more than paper routes with a depreciating press. As Paul Morse, president of Unifor Local 87-M (which represents workers at the Ottawa Sun), articulated: “You can’t have one newsroom to produce two newspapers and pretend they are two distinct entities (Toronto Star).”
In Canada, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are considered “fundamental freedoms,” as protected under section 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now, I don’t believe for one second that the rise of the Internet and the digital age threaten Canadian’s right to free expression – in fact, the application of this freedom has likely never been more prevalent (this blog being one very obvious example). It does, however, threaten the freedom of the press, insofar as the ‘press’ is meant to act as an “uninhibited, robust public discourse (Lee Bolinger).”
So, what exactly do we stand to lose as media outlets continue to collapse? Unfortunately, a number of things:
- Local news: For Canadians who don’t live in a booming metropolis like Toronto where local news is readily available, the collapse of traditional news outlets will create significant challenges. Luisa D’Amato wrote an opinion column for the Guelph Mercury on the day of its print close, addressing this issue. Discussing local news reporters, she wrote, “These men and women are your eyes and ears at city council, courts, and school board meetings. When we hear about something you might want to know, it goes in the paper (Guelph Mercury).” In a similar vein, CBC posted a story one week later with the following title: “Mercury fallen: Where Guelph residents may go now for local news (CBC).” Suggestions included: TV broadcast outlets in Kitchener, blogs, social media and local radio stations.
- Investigative journalism: Does the recent Oscar-winning movie ‘Spotlight’ ring any bells? The move depicts how “Old school journalism triumphs in the story of the real-life team who knocked on doors and scoured the cuttings library to reveal a scandal that may have begun centuries ago (The Guardian).” More recently, The Globe and Mail launched ‘The Taken,’ an ongoing, investigative series that examines the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada (an issue previously discounted by the Harper administration). This year-long investigation was an enormous and immeasurably important undertaking that involved countless ‘old-school’ journalistic efforts: the compilation of a robust database (building on data collected by the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Ottawa-based researcher Maryanne Pearce), as well as dozens of interviews with victims’ families, lawyers, law-enforcement officials, authors, researchers and indigenous organizations. As an overview of the series states, “We obtained court transcripts and secured access to case exhibits. We pored over news stories and inquiry reports. We conducted reporting on the ground in Manitoba and British Columbia (The Globe and Mail).” Investigative journalism of this substance is an incredibly important resource, as a society, we simply cannot afford to lose it.
- Accountability: In a recent article by John Honderich, Chair of the Board of TorStar Corp., he argued the following: “The functioning of a well-informed democracy is predicated on a well-informed population (Toronto Star).” Honderich argues that newspapers – both in print and online – “have always played a unique and leading role” in maintaining a well-informed citizenry, through “…investigative projects, searing features, sharp commentaries, insightful columns and hard-hitting editorials.” Despite his obvious, vested interest in this topic, I can’t help but agree. As Honderich argues, “…the quality of public debate…is a direct function of the information people have on which to make informed decisions.” Access to objective, credible information is precisely how public accountability, and therefore democracy, is maintained. Our ability to access public information is how we hold our government accountable, our communities accountable, our businesses accountable, and one another accountable.
How, then, do media firms address these fundamental challenges in the news industry?
William Thorsell, in a recent Maclean’s article, asserted the following: that the “fundamental challenge for journalism…arises from journalism’s own value proposition in a changing world (Macleans).” As we move towards an increasingly over-saturated and, unfortunately, advertorial-based media market, the news outlets that will survive will be those who purport a ‘value proposition’ as such: a research-focused, investigative news source with unrivalled insights and unmatched credibility. In short, they must make themselves unique and indispensable.
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Authored By: Emma McKay, Co-Founder mPolitics.co