News publications across the country are collapsing — why you should care and what’s coming next
Christopher Waddell leans back in his chair, squinting through the sunshine pouring into his corner office in Carleton University’s Richcraft Hall.
Waddell’s career took him from publication to publication, city to city, and print to television, finally landing him here, a few stories above the Rideau River as a professor in the school of journalism and communication and director of the newly-launched media production and design program at Carleton.
His eyes crinkle with a sarcastic smile when he’s asked if the death of print journalism is inevitable.
“How do you feel about travel agents and record stores?”
No industry has escaped the digital revolution of this millennium unscathed, but perhaps few industries have struggled to evolve as much as journalism, which clung to the traditional advertising revenue model even as social media conglomerates wrenched eyeballs and ad dollars from its ink-stained fingers.
Advertising sales in the Canadian newspaper industry are steadily declining, down about 22 per cent in 2016 from 2014, according to a Statistics Canada study published in 2017. In the same year, digital advertising sales accounted for less than 15 per of all advertising sales.
Facebook and Google established themselves as the masters of data analytics and the digital sphere before print publications had even begun developing their websites. Social media sites have the ability to collect detailed information about their users and sell it to advertisers to craft a catered and personalized experience, making them the perfect market for the advertising industry, something news publications can’t match.
Brett Popplewell, a journalism professor at Carleton and career journalist, admits the traditional advertising model never stood a chance online.
“Who are you going to give your ad dollars to? You’re not going to give it to the magazine or the newspaper, you’re going to give it to Facebook, or Google because they know the person better,” he says. “So all of a sudden, the revenue stream that used to support journalism just disappears, and instead goes to this thing (social media) that’s actually eroding our concept of what news is.”
As the revenue stream evaporates, local news outlets disappear with it. About 260 Canadian media outlets have gone under in the last decade, according to the Local News Research Project led by April Lindgreen, a journalism professor at Ryerson University
“It’s been a technological crisis for the last decade or so, and an advertising crisis, and now it’s sort of an existential and geographic crisis,” says Popplewell. “If these things don’t exist — if the reporters and the institutions disappear from towns and campuses and cities and provinces — all of a sudden it’s just news darkness.”
Black screen, blank page, white noise
News darkness, news poverty, news deserts: There’s no shortage of terms coined in recent years to describe the phenomenon that has forced publications to wave the white flag and stop their presses. There’s also no shortage of consequences of their disappearance.
Like Waddell, Paul Adams’ career spanned multiple mediums, including print, radio, and television, before he arrived as a professor at Carleton. He’s concerned the democratic function of civic education that was once a major part of the media’s role is lost when news goes digital, meaning news coverage in certain regions just disappears.
“How do you find out about your local member of Parliament when there’s an election on, who goes to city council and tells you what’s happening in city council, who holds those institutions to account?” Adams asks. “(Who) makes sure there isn’t skullduggery and corruption going on at city hall or in the police force if you don’t have eyes on those institutions?”
“You need somebody to be the intermediary to communicate issues back to the public,” adds Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and director of news and current affairs at APTN.
“The public is making poor choices at the local level just like they do at the federal level … they need accountability. Accountability happens because journalism is there. Even when it’s not a question of corruption, it’s a question of participation.”
Adams adds local news plays an important role in highlighting what people should know, or what they should be paying attention to.
“There’s a saying in some academic circles that ‘the media doesn’t tell you what to think but they do tell you what to think about,’” he says. “Newspapers, by deciding that this story or that story was important, and by implication that other stories weren’t, really decided where people’s attention focused.”
Democratic shifts and the fourth estate
Democracy was once thought of as the product of three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. As society evolved and democracy strengthened, there emerged a fourth estate: the press.
The media has played a fundamental role in the success of democracy, acting as the political agenda, the marketplace of ideas, and, most importantly, the protector of truth. But media has become domesticated, personalized for individual use. Recent decades witnessed the birth of social media, and the customization of exposure to not only news but also opinion, education, and even truth itself. This is concerning to the journalists who had to watch these changes unfold.
Popplewell references a quote by 19th-century political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who famously declared that “nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.”
“That’s no longer a true statement,” he says. “The main thing that drops the same thought into a thousand minds is social media. But we all pick and choose who and what we follow. So is it dangerous to democracy when there is sort of no common understanding of reality? Yes. And we’re already seeing that.”
In 2017, the Public Policy Forum released the Shattered Mirror report, which quoted the Uncertain Mirror, a 1970 Special Senate Committee on Mass Media report. It proclaimed that “in a land of bubblegum forests and lollipop trees, every man would have his own newspaper or broadcasting station, devoted exclusively to programming that man’s opinions and perceptions.”
By 2017, this satirical criticism came startlingly true. The need for diversity in media has never been starker, but social media has concocted a world of lollipop trees. And while the subjectivity of reality may have started with social media, there is concern that news organizations are being forced to lean into it.
“People used to study the coverage of the same story in the Globe and Mail and the National Post and it would reveal bias on both sides. That was the old story,” Popplewell says.
“The new story is there’s a scandal on Parliament Hill and a large portion of the public might not know about it because they’re getting all their news from their news feeds, and they pick and choose to the point that they don’t know what the hell’s happening.”
Paradigm shifts in media production and consumption
We’re not quite there yet, but Popplewell warns that may be the path media is heading down.
As media outlets rely more on data analytics to tell them what their audiences are interested in, it becomes harder for people of different backgrounds, political affiliations, or communities to access the same stream of information.
Experts are united on the importance of the media as the fourth estate. Where their opinions diverge is on the sustainability of the media’s role as a mechanism of accountability in its current form.
As readers move away from print, they also move away from traditional means of news consumption in general. As a result, the way news is produced, presented and distributed digitally has had to change as well.
“If you’re going to go into something that is subscription based, then your news has to be salable … it becomes more like a product,” argues Pugliese. “It means that you’re going to go for (news) that’s more profitable.”
Another Statistics Canada study from 2016 found that every type of medium but the Internet, including print, radio and television, was being used to access news frequently in 2013 versus 2003.
On the other hand, data from a 2017 Vividata study found that while the majority of baby boomers visit publications’ sites directly, and in doing so continue to access diverse content, 63 per cent of millennials find their news via social media, meaning it’s most likely targeted at them by algorithms tracking their established patterns of preference.
Randy Boswell, a journalist and Carleton journalism professor, also worries that the news consumed by social media users is less diverse in perspectives, but also is engaged with less meaningfully.
“There’s a lot of concern about not just misinformation, fake news and the bubbles that people might inhabit, but also just about the distraction,” Boswell says. “Of superficiality … of people feeling like they’re being informed but they’re really just learning more about the Kardashians.”
The federal budget and Canadian media
The transition from print to digital mediums doesn’t necessarily correspond to a decline in high-quality journalism. In fact, the importance of ensuring that it doesn’t has become a priority of journalists, professors, and students, and even the Canadian government.
In the federal budget released on Mar. 19, provisions for the support of Canadian journalism were announced, including $595 million in subsidies and tax credits (for subscribers to digital publications).
While the governmental provisions are considered a step in the right direction, both Pugliese and Waddell think the initiatives are somewhat misguided.
“Clearly the large news media organizations like the Globe and Mail and the National Post are going to benefit from this,” says Pugliese. “We’ve been seeing the emergence of startups trying to move into this space where the legacy media is failing, and they’re not going to benefit very well from what’s been announced.”
“The problem with that is when those boutique tax credits have been tried in the past, the evidence is that it overwhelming benefits people who are already doing it, it doesn’t actually bring in new people,” adds Waddell.
“Entrepreneurs working alone will not receive any of the federal funds,” says Gabriela Perdomo, coordinator of the U of O’s digital journalism program, in an email to the Fulcrum. “This will discourage many people with big ideas from entering the world of media. The money will mostly go to legacy media operations.”
The lack of attention paid to the publications who work to diversify perspectives in the online world is baffling to Perdomo, who adds the funds will mostly focus on written journalism as well, which she says is a problem.
“This is a massive oversight, precisely when podcasting is gaining great momentum around the globe. Perhaps most perplexing of all, the budget seems to completely ignore Indigenous journalism.”
Geneviève Bonin-Labelle, an associate communications professor at the U of O, laughed out loud when asked about the budget.
“I don’t think that’s what the industry needs … I don’t think it will excite a whole bunch of people who normally wouldn’t have read news,” she says. “It doesn’t even cover the costs in the long term. It’s a very short term decision. Ephemeral, if anything. It’s a joke, quite frankly.”
“We need to say that (journalism) is something important for society, we need it for democracy, and it needs to be funded like roads, or telephone lines. It’s a public good. It’s not just a service or a product. It’s more than that.”
In the 2018 budget, the government proposed $50 million to support news in underserved communities. However, the government failed to provide mechanisms for the implementation of this money, and no mention was made of it in this year’s legislation.
“It’s incredibly important because of the number of newspapers that have shut down or news services that have shut down,” says Pugliese. “There’s no shortage of underserved communities.”
“Where I live, it’s the same editor writing all the newspapers … it’s one perspective, it’s not real news,” Bonin-Labelle adds. “There’s a need, it’s still there, people are hungry for it, but the reality is the content was abysmal.”
Waddell is less inclined to hope for local news initiatives.
“I mean, where have the people gone that used to read newspapers? I think that we need to answer some questions before we really know how much of a role that local news plays in communities other than the theoretical one,” he says. “It’s great to talk about local news, but it feels a little bit like a romanticized version of a world that may have never existed.”
“I am not really someone to long for the good old days of pre-online journalism,” agrees Perdomo. “I think online media has forced journalism to be better: more transparent, more honest, more purposeful.”
The overwhelming response to questions about the future of journalism is that it’s uncertain.
When asked about the widespread fear among journalism students that the industry will be in shambles by the time they graduate, Waddell didn’t hesitate to respond with another smile: “It probably already is.”
That said, Waddell insists that the advantages introduced by multimedia and virtual reality have the potential to revolutionize storytelling in the near future. He also urges the government to rethink their investment in legacy media.
“I think the organizations that are going to have the most difficulty surviving are precisely the ones the government is trying to subsidize, which are the mainstream organizations that try to do everything for everyone,” he says. “I think if you’re going to subsidize anyone, you should be subsidizing people who have demonstrated some sort of ability to survive. The big ones haven’t actually.”
Boswell shares Waddell’s optimism regarding journalism’s adaptability and the importance of continuing to encourage young journalists.
“I’m not just whistling through the graveyard,” he says. “I really do feel that the entire world is moving in a digital direction. Having a range of communication skills, storytelling skills, visual skills, and audio skills positions young people pretty well for a wide range of job opportunities.”
“I think there’s going to be a restart,” Pugliese says. “First of all, the government money, whether people think it’s good or evil, it’s going to support the legacy media and it’s going to be around a little while longer while we go through the transition. Then you’ve got the smaller startups. We can put a lot of hope in those smaller startups.”
“People always focus on the 260 news outlets that closed in the last decade, but 93 outlets launched in that same period,” adds Pugliese.
Bonin-Labelle, who spent much of her career in radio journalism, thinks there’s potential for local perspectives to survive, if only they migrate to the airwaves.
“A lot of people are saying community, non-profit radio has a role to play in this … they’ve always done the local,” she says.
Bonin-Labelle concedes that radio may not offer the same impact in terms of democratic engagement and accountability but it may be able to provide a much more stable environment for the preservation of the elements of community cohesion that were once promoted in the pages of a small town paper.
According to Bonin-Labelle, community radio has only lost seven stations between 2013 and 2017, and in fact, the sector experienced modest financial growth during that time. Radio may not be prospering, but it is hasn’t necessarily endured the same cataclysmic type of revolution that has ravaged the industry of print journalism.
The media industry is in a time of flux, and changes will continue to occur while it recalibrates to the digital world. However, most journalists, Pugliese among them, are confident that journalism will emerge from this time of transformation different, certainly, but robust.
“Democracies don’t work without journalism, Pugliese says bluntly. “We don’t have journalism because there’s a democracy; We have a democracy because there’s journalism. So we have to have journalism in Canada. And I think Canadians realize that.”
Updated, Apr. 4, 5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated to include comment from Gabriela Perdomo and Geneviève Bonin-Labelle.