These are strange times for newspapers in Canada. A recent survey across the country shows that in the last ten years, more than 16,000 Canadian journalists have lost their jobs, twenty-seven daily newspapers and 222 weekly have either closed or merged operations. That is a worrying statistic. Part of the reason for this is the growing consolidation of newspapers, with more and more community papers being bought out by the large corporations like Postmedia and Torstar (owners of the Advance). In an attempt to shore up declining advertising revenue, these corporations have been closing local papers and merging others, as they did with the EMC and Advance a few years ago.
This has resulted in less local news being carried in what once were local newspapers. Instead, according to David Beers, the founding editor of the independent Vancouver newsmagazine, “The Tyee”, and adjunct journalism professor at UBC: “”You’ll be reading your local newspaper and you wouldn’t really see your own concerns reflected in it. The reason the Tyee is able to get so much of its readers’ support in financial hard cash contributions is [because] every day we wake up and we just figure out how to defend and hold accountable our local region.”
The trend towards closing down such sources of local coverage was illustrated in November last year, when the two mega-corporations, Postmedia and Torstar, traded 40 local community newspapers with each other, and shut down most of them. The move resulted in 291 job losses.
In an article in the journal “The Conversation”, Marc Edge, professor of media and communication at University Canada West, in Vancouver, and the author of “Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers”, noted that the merging of newspapers is a serious issue for all Canadians:
“The savings available from mergers of news media companies are considerable, but they invariably involve cuts to journalism. The cost to the public of a reduction in news coverage is arguably the impairment of democracy.”
Edward Greenspon, President of the Public Policy Forum, has also warned of the problems that arise from this consolidation of news reporting in corporations interested primarily with profit, not with informing the public about local issues. In a broadcast of the CBC current affairs show, “The Current”, he stressed that the problem of falling revenues affects all media, not just the corporations, although their much higher operating costs and expenses makes their position more perilous. The public has come to expect free access to news and local stories, and so newspapers have to find other ways of financing their operations in an era of stagnant, or even declining ad revenues:
“Therefore you need new sources of revenue … we need to have reporters on the ground who are digging up stories, who are patrolling the beat of other democratic institutions in the country. How do we finance that? It’s time to figure out solutions,” he said.
The role of the local newspaper is to inform residents about what is happening in their community. It is not to sell ads only, or to simply repeat the contents of press releases and barely-disguised advertising promotions. As more newspapers compromise their local coverage for fear of alienating potential advertisers, the need for a free press becomes more critical. This requires, however, some important considerations. The press must be credible: people have to believe that what they read is as complete a picture as possible. All sides of a story or situation need to be heard, and that requires the media to be willing to publish items that are critical or negative about themselves.
It is also, in my opinion, absolutely vital that readers understand the viewpoint of the media too. It is essential that the public know the ideological, political, and social point of view of those presenting the news. This used to be taken for granted in Canada. People knew that a paper was Liberal or Conservative, or what its philosophy was. Then, at least, readers can put what they may read (in Editorials, for example) in context. Pretending that any of us is objective, unbiased, or without a point of view is simply unrealistic. None of us are blank pages, automatons with no thoughts or ideas of our own. The very choice of which stories to report is a subjective one, a decision about what is important or relevant to readers. This can best be done by those living close to a story, not by a corporate staffer living elsewhere, or fearful of being in any way “controversial”.
That is what we try to do in the Times: let you know what we think, so you can judge what we say, and why we may say it. Freedom to speak your mind, even for newspaper people, is a fundamental part of our system, and, far from being a threat to our democratic rights, it is a bulwark to protect them.