Is real journalism gone?
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
TO QUOTE A famous American journalist, Howard Kurtz, “There is a cancer eating away at the news business—the cancer of boredom, superficiality, and irrelevance—and radical surgery is needed.” With the advent of the Internet, a handful of media owners controlling the news, and fewer people buying papers, some would side with Kurtz and commit the first incision themselves.
However, there is a flipside. Some say the media isn’t dead; it’s just evolving. Just because the way we receive our news has changed in the past 20 years doesn’t mean that we should start writing eulogies and making funeral arrangements.
Point: Bye-bye, good journalism
I first began to have misgivings about the state of Canadian media during and following the G20 Conference in Toronto two years ago. While I didn’t attend the protests myself, many of my friends did, and I listened to their stories once the weekend was over.
Some related the camaraderie of the 20,000 peaceful protestors who came together to voice their opinions. Others had darker stories to tell, of police brutality, unprovoked arrests and detentions, and rampant civil rights abuses.
These stories were shocking and moving; yet these were not the stories the mainstream Canadian media chose to relate to the rest of the country. Instead we saw images of masked youths breaking windows and setting cars on fire.
Two years later, the same media reaction to the unprecedented student uprising in Quebec cemented my fears that something was terribly wrong with our country’s fourth estate.
In the last few decades, what was formerly a diverse network of public and privately owned media has quickly fallen to monopolies at the hands of gargantuan corporations.
According to Elizabeth May’s informative book Losing Confidence, the Canadian media world is essentially dominated by five large corporations, with two in particular—Bell Media and Shaw Media—acting as the reigning disseminators of news and information in the country.
It is not just the outlets in major urban centres that have been hijacked, either. Osprey Media, a subsidiary of Sun Media, owns the rights to many small-town and local newspaper chains throughout Ontario. Whether you pick up the Toronto Sun, the Ottawa Metro, or the Haliburton County Echo, you are essentially acquiring the news from the same source, with the same perspectives and biases.
In 2012, information is power. It is no surprise that massive corporations like Bell continue to swallow smaller media outlets year after year in an attempt to acquire this currency. Whoever owns the means of information dissemination owns the information itself. By controlling the content of newspapers and television stations, as well as Internet bandwidth, these conglomerates hog consumer attention and make it incredibly difficult for diverse opinions and information to be exchanged on a national level.
Unless Canadians become informed, attentive, and resilient, our media will continue to be dumbed down and dominated by corporate interests. What is the point of free speech if only five voices are allowed to say anything?
Counterpoint: It’s a brave new world
Journalism isn’t dead. Like so many of the other industries people have labelled “dead” in the wake of the Internet’s integration into daily life, a number of individuals have opted to give up on formal media. This is an absurd thought.
Journalism has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. When a population becomes large enough that it wishes to remain informed about events beyond their direct neighbours, they turn to the media.
Some may argue that good journalism is dying because media companies are increasingly falling into the hands of monopolies like Bell Media. With smaller companies being taken over and fewer people buying print newspapers, where does journalism turn to ensure it doesn’t trail along with just enough rope to hang itself?
Many of the print publications owned by these monopolies have decided to try to place their content behind pay walls online—taking what was once free information and charging a fee to access it. Subscription-based models for online distribution isn’t a terrible idea, and in many ways is probably a good starting point. However, these publications have done nothing to modify the content, only charged for the same content they always had. These changes have resulted in media monopolies that have yet to see a strong response from their new online models.
So, even if the monopolies control a large portion of the content, if the content fails to attract the audience, where’s the threat? Now is the ideal time for strong, talented, and content-oriented journalists to find their own audience.
Amid re-strategizing to optimize online monetization and streamlining production to reduce overhead, the large media companies have failed to place any focus on the content they’re providing.
The U.K.-based print magazine Monocle, founded by Canadian-born journalist Tyler Brûlé, has proven that a strong focus on the product yields results. With the slogan “A briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design,” the magazine launched in 2007 and publishes 10 issues a year plus two seasonal supplements—one in the winter to complement the ski season, and the other in the summer to join you at the beach.
The Monocle’s focus on a great product can be seen through its unique paper quality, sharp modern layout, and carefully chosen word–to-photo ratio. This combination has allowed Monocle to not only grow its subscription base, but its staff numbers too.
So we should not fear the media monopolies, since they seem to have forgotten what they’re doing. Journalism isn’t dead, it’s simply lying dormant. All we need is a creative and focused Prince Charming to give her the refreshing kiss she deserves.