The demise of the blue bag hit hard. The new City of Vancouver recycling brochure announced a grey bin for glass, but absent from the new regime was the blue bag – designated, for years, for newspaper recycling. Newspapers, the pamphlet explained, would now join other paper products in the yellow bag. The services of the blue bags would no longer be required. We wish them well in their future endeavours. (Okay, the brochure didn’t say that.) While the reasons for the change are more complicated than simply the decrease in the number of newspapers being collected, I took blue’s absence as a sort of harbinger.
This was a rotten week for media in Canada. Competitors no longer gloat when a rival announces downsizing or layoffs – or, as Postmedia also did, the merging of competing newsrooms. (Last year, the Competition Bureau concluded that the sale of Quebecor’s English-language newspapers to Postmedia was “unlikely to result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.”) Reporters will submit stories to a “rewrite desk” that will adapt the copy to suit the style of each platform in what sounds like a nasty sort of content-mill experience.
So no, we don’t gloat. We shudder.
Obviously, I have a personal stake in the future of the business, but make no mistake: We all do. Solid journalism is how we keep governments, politicians, corporations, charitable organizations, powerful individuals – I could go on – in check. The news media are (or should be) a sort of unofficial opposition, everywhere.
Without good reporting, Rob Ford might still be considered some kind of hero and brother Doug Ford could be Toronto’s mayor; Jian Ghomeshi could still be hosting Q (not q); Bev Oda might at this very moment be sipping overpriced, taxpayer-funded orange juice.
Ask the thousands of Syrian refugees starting new lives in such countries as Canada about the power of photojournalism. Ask the victims of Canada’s thalidomide tragedy about the power of tenacious, compassionate reporting – and the value of an editor who allows the time for journalists to conduct it.
Because these stories don’t unfold in a day or even a week. Reporters may spend months working on a story before you ever read a single word about it.
There’s a scene in the tremendous, Oscar-nominated film Spotlight – about the Boston Globe’s exposé of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and subsequent cover-up – where the incoming editor learns the investigative team generally takes a couple of months to find its next story and a year or more to work on it. Sitting in the theatre, I laughed out loud. It sounds so preposterous, given the current frenzied climate.
But give a team of investigative journalists a year (or so) and they’ll give you a game-changing story that not only exposes corruption – but saves children from future abuse.
Good journalism is not limited to the mainstream, of course. As companies such as Postmedia cast about for ways to stay afloat in this new landscape, there’s a lot to learn from alternative outlets, ranging from Vice to Pro-Publica.
But there’s also danger in thoughtless mimicry. Buzzfeed is a master of listicles and clickbait. But when it presents news in a series of tweets, photos and short bits of copy with headlines like “Dang, Canada, Why Your Cauliflower So Expensive?!” and “This B.C. Bus Driver Looks Exactly Like Walter White And People Can’t Handle It,” I ache for a little more gravitas.
On Facebook this week, I read through many threads about the Postmedia cuts. One comment that particularly enraged me went something like: When is the last time a newspaper actually broke a story?
News flash: probably today. And the very day that friend-of-a-Facebook-friend wrote that. And the days in between. They’re not all Watergate, but stories are regularly broken by newspapers – exposing government corruption, inappropriate behaviour, even a scoop on a high-profile resignation or new development proposal.
Further, consistent coverage of an issue can lead to meaningful change.
Imagine if we lost that.
Oh, but we have bloggers now, I’ve heard people say. We don’t need to be fed our information by the mainstream media.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a Google Alert about a story on my beat, clicked on it and found my own work published on someone else’s site. It’s not plagiarism – they credit The Globe and Mail and sometimes me – but they have taken the work that I was paid by my employer to conduct and either riffed on it or pretty much cut-and-pasted it verbatim.
So if the day comes when media organizations are no longer paying journalists to dig up these stories, what will these sites do for material?
I in no way believe that day will come, but this disruption continues to wreak havoc on our news media. Classifieds lost out to Craigslist, the availability of free news (or “news”) online has had an impact on newspaper subscriptions and ad revenues – and until someone much smarter than I am figures out an effective business model, there will be more bloodletting.
It comes at a terrible price – beyond colleagues’ employment woes and shareholders’ bottom lines. The impact on news coverage is bad for everyone. So next time you go on Facebook to bemoan the lamestream media, or cheer for the demise of that columnist you always disagreed with, or rant about newspapers having the audacity to charge for their content, I urge you: Be careful what you wish for.Report Typo/Error