As newspapers fall by the wayside, Canada’s democratic future dims
By Ross Howard
Not long ago, I was working overseas training journalists in countries torn apart by bloody conflict, like Sri Lanka, Burundi or Kyrgyzstan or suffering under dictators and thugs like in Egypt or Somalia.
The training programs were an offshoot of my career as a reporter for big Canadian media outlets and my teaching post at Langara College’s journalism school. Most of the journalists I trained abroad were the bravest reporters and editors I’d ever met. They really understood how critically important good journalism was.
Despite the lousy pay, terrible shortage of equipment, personal danger, and abuse by corrupt authorities—at least a couple of my trainees have been killed—the journalists were pretty clear about the importance of telling accurate and balanced news stories that would enable the public to make well-informed decisions, eventually.
I didn’t need to tell the journalists that it’s more than just a professional credo that a reliable, diverse, and independent news media is a crucial underpinning of democracy. There’s plenty of research confirming that conflict resolution, law and order, economic development, public health, education, the arts, and social harmony can’t flourish without trustworthy information and free speech. It’s a fact, not a theory.
So I find it more than ironic that after a decade talking up the media-democracy connection in downtrodden places I find it being destroyed here in Canada, with barely a word of protest. I wonder if my trainees abroad would consider foreign aid for Canada.
Quiet on the front
One of the reasons we’re silently drifting towards a flimsy pretence of democracy is because much of the Canadian media won’t talk about it, because they’re intimidated by a handful of owners who are businessmen first before democrats. A dozen companies own the 90 daily newspapers in Canada. One corporation owns most of the big city English-language ones. For three decades the federal government, often as a political favour, has allowed publishers the privilege of profiting through take-overs and cost-cutting while ignoring the media’s responsibility that comes with being the public’s educator, voice, and watchdog.
The giant company Postmedia now owns all but two of the large English-language daily newspapers west of Quebec. Postmedia claims to reach 75 per cent of all adult Canadians through its papers and websites. It recently gobbled up the Toronto Sun chain and a hundred weeklies and websites for $300 million. The Harper Conservatives said, “OK.” Postmedia also owns both the Vancouver Sun and the Province.
In January, Postmedia suddenly killed off the Sun and Province by merging their newsrooms and urging unhappy staff to resign, as a cost-cutting measure. “We will no longer have Sun reporters or Province reporters,” warned management. At least temporarily, the surviving journalists will print a separate Sun and Province newspaper each day but one will just be a fancy version of the other’s same old news.
Almost nobody in Vancouver knows the two long-standing and still-popular dailies in town are dead as reliable, independent and diverse news sources. The death of the dailies should have been front page news but was buried in a business story deep inside the Sun. Sun columnist Shelly Fralic wrote she was sad about recent changes to the industry but she never mentioned that her own newspaper had just been gutted. Television news largely treated the Postmedia manoeuvres as a one-day wonder. Talk-show radio, aside from CBC, nattered incoherently as usual.
Postmedia’s brutal and dishonest evisceration of journalism—it promised it would never kill its competing papers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa—is the latest desperate move of a crippled media colossus. Since 2014, Postmedia has fired half its journalists, cross-country. It has slashed staffs; scrapped local reporting for centrally produced arts, entertainment, business, foreign, and political stories; and launched hapless schemes to produce online and tablet news; all to save enough money to pay off a half-billion dollar debt run up by the previous owners’ ultimately bankrupt schemes of similar mass media monopoly.
Postmedia’s heavy-handed desperation is driven by the disappearance of advertising revenue in newspapers everywhere in the last decade. In the old days of 1980, advertising brought in 80 per cent of the cost of producing a newspaper. Now the ads have gone online where they reach vastly larger audiences at a much cheaper price. Postmedia alone has suffered a $300 million drop in advertising revenue in its newspapers over the last three years. Canadian newspapers and magazines together are losing $430 million a year to online sources.
Check your sources
Almost no one in the industry has figured out how to earn enough money to replace the lost advertising and pay for newsgathering. After the first horrendous mistake of giving all their news away for free on websites, newspapers have tried interactive comment sections, paywalls or pay-per-view, and special online editions for tablets and smartphones. None of these bring in enough money. None.
The crisis is not limited to Postmedia’s newspapers. Since January the decimation has been accelerating. The daily papers in Guelph and Nanaimo closed, and Rogers Media dumped 200 journalists from its magazine empire. The crash echoes throughout B.C.: four firms own almost all the small-city daily and weekly papers in the province and they’ve swapped, sold, and killed off a dozen in the last year.
Eventually some newspapers will survive, because they’re so good, so informative, and essential that enough consumers will pay to read them online, or the papers will suckle on charity support or government grants, or philanthropic owners. Eventually. And lots of more unreliable, distracting but entertaining online sites will pop up too.
But here’s the problem. Right now, while newspapers and magazines are dropping off or being dumbed down like Postmedia’s, there is no reliable replacement for them. This is where our democracy gets fragile.
There isn’t a capable television, radio, or online editor in Vancouver who doesn’t spend their first hour every morning looking at the newspapers for stories to match. Newspapers, with their traditionally much larger and more experienced staff, were and still are the overwhelmingly largest source of news. Newspapers cover local news like city council, schools, parks, health, and transit boards that make decisions important to ordinary citizens. Television reporters prefer to chase dramatic crime, crashes, and weather stories, and avoid talking heads. News radio mostly talks about what’s in the papers. Exclusively online news sites and bloggers, with exceptions, are amateur and not credible. Even on Facebook the vast majority of stories originate from traditional news media sources.
And it's not just news. Opinions count too in a democracy. The media, especially magazines—including this one—is really the ultimate in free expression of anybody’s ideas, promises or warnings (as long as it’s respectful). It’s the public debate and our pressuring of politicians and their responses that makes us a democracy.
In one of those offshore assignments not so long ago I attended a eulogy for a newspaper editor in war-torn Sri Lanka. Lasantha Wickrematunge published the dictatorial government’s news as required, plus contrary news. And gave free reign to informed opinions and insights in his paper. It was the only place in the country to hear another side, a different argument, another view.
“Whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view,” Wickrematunge wrote two nights before assassins riddled his car with bullets as he drove home.
“Political and cultural authoritarianism dislike good journalism,” observed Bambang Harymurti, editor of Indonesia’s Tempo Weekly, in a later comment on Wickrematunge’s murder.
Contrast that with Postmedia’s directive to all of its newspapers across Canada to support the Harper Conservatives in the last election. Postmedia suppressed contrary viewpoints by its columnists and ran pro-Conservative voting day ads. Probably 75 per cent of English Canadians were subjected to the political dictate of one single corporation, or at least its CEO, longtime Conservative loyalist Paul Godfrey.
Nobody’s getting murdered for their commitment to an independent, accurate, and diverse news media in Canada. But the majority of journalists in the country are getting worried about the prospects for jobs and for free speech if Canada’s media monopolies carry on slashing to cope with their debt and digital nightmares.
But most journalists aren’t used to advocating for anything. It’s against the unwritten rules. They prefer to quote somebody else and build an argument for change. Younger journalists, especially, just repeat that “it sucks” as the privately circulated lists of good reporters thrown overboard grow longer. They also talk hopefully about new digital opportunities, like Blendle, a new pay-per-view money-back-guaranteed site for quality journalism. But they don’t protest much.
Within two years, debt-crippled Postmedia will likely go bankrupt and have to flog its deeply damaged newspapers to anyone interested. Without help many of the new owners—unless they’re other monopolies—won’t make it to profitability. There’s no model yet that replaces all the ad revenue lost to online, basic journalism.
What will be needed is many more philanthropists funding non-profit independent news outlets—online or in print, like The Tyee in Vancouver or Pro Publica in the US—encouraged by federal tax write-offs for such philanthropy. Ottawa can also legislate an end date for monopolies, and certainly provide grants for small weeklies and dailies to keep their diverse and essential voices alive across the country.
Technology alone is not the answer. It has changed the speed and shape of the news but it does not replace the need for brave, truth-telling content, and independent free speech. That’s worth more.