So what happens when our newspapers start to die? Will the nation die, too?
Full disclosure: I love newspapers. I have been a reporter at two (Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen) and a columnist at three (National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media). I have a degree in journalism. I have taught journalism to innocent youngsters. Before I succumbed to the siren song of politics, and went to work for some guy named Jean Chretien, all I ever wanted to be was a journalist.
Newspapers, however, are in big trouble. Everyone knows this. There are all kinds of reasons why: ad revenue has virtually disappeared. Newspaper managers have done a pretty lousy job. The culture has changed.
The big reason, of course, is that newspapers responded to the Internet in precisely the wrong way. Instead of making content easier to access – like Facebook or Twitter or blogs do – newspapers initially placed some or all of their content behind subscription walls and registration forms and whatnot.
That wouldn’t have been a problem if (a) Internet-age people were in any way patient and (b) Internet-age people believed in paying and/or registering for things on-line. Neither is true. In the new media environment, everyone is cheap and everyone is in a rush: they’re used to getting stuff for free, and all in a matter of seconds, too.
If you can get news and commentary for free, why pay for it? For too long, it was a question too many newspapers couldn’t answer. And so, for debt-drowning outfits like Postmedia, it’s too late. Last week, Canada’s biggest newspaper chain jettisoned dozens of award-winning journalists and shuttered newsrooms across the country. Thereafter, an RBC Dominion Securities analysis assigned Postmedia shares a value of zero. As in, nothing.
Depending upon your point of view, Postmedia is now either dead or dying. But some folks still shrug about that. Facebook, Twitter and blogs will fill the resulting void, they say. They don’t think it’s a big deal.
Our democracy – the nation itself, as Arthur Miller noted – will be diminished with the loss of newspapers. Would Canadians know as much as they do about the thalidomide scandal had the Globe and Mail not investigated it? Would they have known about the secret life of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, were it not for the Toronto Star’s efforts?
Would they have learned about the “robocalls” mess, but for the efforts of the Ottawa Citizen and (yes) Postmedia? The treatment of prisoners by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan (Globe and La Presse)? The sponsorship scandal (Globe)? And on and on.
Trust me: we wouldn’t. Were it not for the exemplary work of those newspapers – those journalists and editors, now being pink-slipped by Paul Godfrey and his Postmedia guild of vampires – we simply wouldn’t. And, in some real way, our lives would be demonstrably different: less safe, less informed, less free.
Years ago, I was the Special Assistant to the aforementioned Jean Chretien, back when he was the Leader of the Opposition. Part of job was to help organize for Question Period. Our job, then and later, was to hold the government to account. We’d put together a list of topics and MPs, and we’d go after the government in Question Period.
We measured success, mostly, with one key indicator: media coverage. If newspapers covered what we did in QP, we were doing well. If they didn’t, we weren’t.
Any Opposition MP or MPP or MLA will tell you: if the media aren’t there to shine a light on a government’s misdeeds or misspending, very few people are going to end up knowing about it. Without newspapers, in particular, an Opposition member’s question isn’t going to get noticed. TV and radio can try and fill the void, but they simply don’t have the ability to document complex stories – scandals and triumphs alike – in the way that newspapers do.
Justin Trudeau, to his great credit, has already publicly expressed his concern about what Postmedia is doing. So, too, Brian Jean, leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party. They were smart, and right, to do so.
Other political leaders need to do likewise, fast. They need to demand that the Competition Bureau make good on its pledge to reopen the file on Postmedia’s acquisition of the Sun Media newspapers a few months ago. Among other things, Postmedia has not lived up to its solemn promise to “maintain distinct editorial departments.” Postmedia lied about that, and everyone now knows it.
And everyone will also know, soon enough, what our democracy will be like without fine newspapers like the Calgary Herald, or the Ottawa Citizen, or the Chronicle-Herald, or National Post, or the Vancouver Sun, or La Presse.
It will be less of a democracy, and less of a nation, too.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.