On Wednesday, March 9, 2016, UBC Dialogues scheduled an event to discuss the question “Is there still a place for objective journalism?”
News travels fast online. However, so do rumours, shocking photos, veiled advertisements and outright lies. With the rise of social media and citizen journalism, we’ve never had so many messages, from so many sources, available at our fingertips. However, it has become clear in recent years that news shared online comes with serious risks due to its lack of objectivity and its emphasis on speed and volume over fact. Public shaming is one expression of this modern reality, as well as increasing sponsored and promotional content blurring the lines of news and advertisement.
Given the absence of context and abundance of competing voices online, how do we know who and what to trust? Can we see past the click-bait headlines and advertorials, and continue to be informed about the world around us? Is there a place for objective journalism anymore?
CBC is the Official Broadcast and Online Media Partner of UBC Dialogues.
The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is the Webcast Partner
UBC Dialogues is hosted by UBC Alumni and presented by Scotiabank
Exploring the case for community journalism
From my point of view, although objective journalism is a subjective idea, journalism and a diversity of voices is essential to our ability to make informed decisions about our future. This is not a question of whether there is a place for journalism. The more important question for exploration is
“What is the future for journalism and what new models can we create to become better informed in our rapidly changing world and improve our ability to create a better future for our communities and a better future for our world?”
This exploration could begin with observations from Canadian journalists over the last two weeks about the changing world of media in Canada and around the world
- Postmedia merges newsrooms, cuts 90 jobs in response to financial woes
- The true meaning of Postmedia’s job cuts can’t be captured in numbers
- We all have a stake in the future of the mainstream media
- Stopping the Presses, – The future of Canadian newspapers
- Losing local papers diminishes our sense of community
- When a newspaper dies, a community is lesser for it
- Media hurting but still producing memorable journalism
- Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry
Postmedia merges newsrooms, cuts 90 jobs in response to financial woes
The country’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia Network Canada Corp., is merging once-competing newsrooms and cutting about 90 staff as it tries to cope with declining revenue and a heavy debt load.
In Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa – cities where Postmedia owns two daily papers – editorial staff will be joined together to work under one senior editor, filing stories and images to both publications. But the company is not closing any newspapers, promising to continue publishing two in each city, albeit with less distinctive content and fewer rival reporters working local beats.
Last April, as Postmedia closed a deal to buy 175 newspapers and digital publications from Quebecor Inc., executives from the company were promising that the newly acquired Calgary Sun, Edmonton Sun and Ottawa Sun would remain competitors with the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen. The consolidation of written media that resulted was unprecedented for Canada, but Postmedia stressed that newsrooms would stay separate, pointing to its existing control of both the Vancouver Province and Vancouver Sun.
“It’s another step in a continuation in having fewer and fewer journalists covering stories in this country that’s been going on for the last 10 years,” said Christopher Waddell, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University. “It means less coverage.”
It also means two newspapers will answer to a single editor, with stories adapted by a rewrite desk to give them the right voice and length for each newspaper.
The true meaning of Postmedia’s job cuts can’t be captured in numbers
What vital stories will go unreported at Edmonton City Hall when there’s only one full-time reporter on the beat? How many scandals will go unnoticed in Calgary, where 25 jobs have been lost in the merging of the Sun and Herald newsrooms? Ottawa is our country’s capital; what stories will we not hear about, with the loss of 12 jobs at the Sun and Citizen? After it acquired the Sun chain last year, Postmedia became the largest proprietor of metro dailies in this country. But it has shown remarkably little interest in the unique responsibility that comes with that position. City newspapers aren’t just pillars of their communities. Ideally, they are the connective tissue of the body politic, as well as its first response to nascent cancers.
You hear a lot about platforms from Postmedia. The boilerplate at the bottom of its corporate releases touts the company’s “200 brands across multiple print, online, and mobile platforms,” as well as its “innovative product development teams.” It boasts that Postmedia’s “exceptional content, reach and scope offers advertisers and marketers compelling solutions to effectively reach target audiences.” Oh, sure, there’s a mention in there of “award-winning journalists,” but so little else about the company’s raison d’être that the statement is almost a parody of itself.
We all have a stake in the future of the mainstream media
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.
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. 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?
Stopping the Presses -The future of Canadian newspapers
Anna Maria Tremonti, The Current, CBC Radio
Last week the country’s biggest newspaper chain, Postmedia, announced it was laying off 90 employees and consolidating newsrooms across the country. One of Canada’s oldest daily papers, the Guelph Mercury, announce it was ending its print publication and the country’s biggest paper, the Toronto Star announced the week before that it would cut costs by mothballing its printing press. The financial hardships hitting news media are nothing new but the cuts seem to be getting closer to the bone and some would say endangering the health of our democracy. We are asking today whether drastic times call for drastic measures. What kind of models should the media be looking at to keep itself afloat?
Lorne Gunter, Columnist, Edmonton Sun
Romayne Smith-Fullerton, Professor, Information and Media Studies, Western University
Mark Edge, Professor of Media and Communication at University Canada West,
Jonathan Kay, Editor in chief, Walrus Magazine
Anna Maria Tremonti, The Current, CBC Radio
Anna Maria Tremonti
What do these cuts across the news industry tell us about the future of journalism?
I think it is very worrisome. Journalism is not just about business. Journalism is so much more than business. If we don’t have a vital, tough, independent set of journalists asking really hard questions of our elected officials and our public institutions our democracy is in trouble. The information that journalism provides is important to all of us.
Postmedia is the largest newspaper company in Canada and it owned more than 90% by US hedge funds. It made a healthy 17% profit in its last quarter so the problem is not entirely financial. The problems are largely regulatory. The problem with newspapers is that their revenues are going down precipitously which puts a crimp in the business model. But costs are comfortably below revenues in the case of Postmedia, – about 17% below revenue.
Anna Maria Tremonti
Are there examples of things you see that indicate the quality of news we get is on the downslide because of the industry decline?
There are a lot of reports that talk about that serious journalism, not celebrity news or astrology today, but serious news that reports on public institutions and publicly elected officials. We are losing those jobs in Canada. We have lost more than 10,000 journalists jobs in the last seven or eight years. In the United States we are losing about 1000 journalism jobs a month. Public relations positions now far exceed positions of serious journalism and the problem with that is, – where are citizens supposed to get genuinely accurate fair information on which to base their decisions about how to live their lives and who to elect if all of that is coming from propaganda and spin?
Anna Maria Tremonti
How do we see the closing of local newspapers in small Canadian communities?
I think it is a real problem. Newspapers here have traditionally done the kind of serious journalism that is important to democracy, and no other medium has stepped up to take over that niche. In smaller communities this is an incredible problem. If we want to know what is going on at our local town council meeting, we are going to have to go ourselves because our local newspaper can no longer afford to send a reporter to listen to that three hour meeting and distill for me, and the other people in my community, the essence of what we need to know to go about our daily lives.
The same is true about school board reports. You have to go to a Facebook page if you are a parent and want to know what is going on at your school board and you will have to read through some ‘written off the top’ unprofessional take on this to find the bits of information that might be relevant to you. I think we have come to take journalism for granted in this country and I hope we realize what is at stake here. Journalism is a public good. It is not just a commercial product that should be subject to the waxing and waning of the commercial marketplace. Public dissemination of information is a public service to citizens. It is not just a capitalist enterprise.
We don’t want government involved in deciding how we get our information and who puts that information out. At some point when government is giving out a subsidy it is going to make a determination as to who deserves it and who doesn’t and that is more dangerous to the democratic role of journalism than the dying of newspapers. The information is out there to sort through. I think what we are looking for here is ‘What’s new model?’ If I knew what the new model was supposed going to be, – where we content providers were going to be able to make money from this, – then I would be the twenty first century’s first press baron.
The main thing for having a free press is that it be free from corporate control. It is what brings Canada and the United States down in the freedom rankings every year is the corporate control, not the government control so we have to talk about the elephant in the room which is digital media.
The free market can not sustain excellent educational media on its own. It needs some help either from government or from well meaning benefactors who support the marketplace of ideas. There will be enough people who say we need this resource to have an educated population and they will support it on that basis.
To be an independent tough minded journalist you need to have a long term budget and be able to have some sustainable funding so you can make plans. Relying on the marketplace is not going to solve this problem.
What is at stake here is that democracy will continue to be diminished. Canadians will become more and more disconnected from the communities in which they live. Digital media and blogs were supposed to take up the slack but that just hasn’t happened.
It is not as if the information is not out there. It may not be in the form we are accustomed to – it may not be by professional journalists and there may be a lot more chaff to winnow. At some point we will be able to find a market for the information that exists and that is the key, – trying to find the new model rather than clinging to the old. The problem is that readers have left the newspaper business. It is not because the product is less appealing in the way we are talking about democracy and news. This is just not the way Canadians and Americans in particular want to get their news anymore. We have to find a way to reach them in the form that they are looking for.
Losing local papers diminishes our sense of community
That daily experience of seeing your local places, names and events creates a kind of resonance and connection and investment with where you live. Canadians pay a lot of lip service to the importance of telling Canadian stories.
That’s the daily charge of a local paper, – investing you with news and culture of your place. Take that away and you genuinely diminish that feeling in a community.
When a newspaper dies, a community is lesser for it
The carnage in journalism seems to continue unabated. Postmedia has merged its newsrooms in four cities, cut 90 jobs and will soon offer buyout packages to those workers willing just to go away. Rogers Media has announced it is cutting 200 jobs across its various divisions. Earlier in the month, the Toronto Star shed more than 300 jobs in production and editorial. The month before that, it was 170 producers, camera operators, on-air personalities and reporters at Hamilton television station CHCH. And the month before that, pause for breath, 380 cuts in Bell Media.
As David Carr, the esteemed columnist for The New York Times once put it: “What I am worried about is who is going to tell you about the school system is the school system – and it will be all good news.”
Media hurting but still producing memorable journalism
With so many closings and layoffs, it is increasingly hard to find organizations willing to invest what it takes to give journalists the time required to specialize, research and think.
Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry
“Journalism plays a central role in a healthy democracy. We acknowledge that newspapers are facing industry-wide challenges …”
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly
Today, we have a crisis in the journalism industry unprecedented in scope. Since 2008, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. How many important stories, controversies, scandals have gone uncovered and will go uncovered as a result?
The plight of the media is a public-policy issue. It is about one of our primary democratic institutions.
If traditional print journalism cannot be sustained, what fills the void? The Trudeau government has been preoccupied with the far less pressing matter of bringing in a new voting system. What good is a new voting system if the voters don’t have the information on which to make an informed decision?
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