I was at a student journalism conference this past January entitled “Natural Selection” —not exactly cheery or inviting to someone aspiring to journalism as a career. Without poking too much fun at the organizers (please don’t not hire me someday), when I first heard it, I envisioned reporters decked in blazers and suspenders holding hand-to-hand combat tournaments hosted by CanWest or CTVglobemedia, but I’ll assure you, no Mortal Kombat–style fighting took place. Still, I don’t think anyone left that conference without being a little nervous. Being a reporter has never been a walk in the park (if you want that, go be a doctor or a lawyer), but it is undeniable that journalism is changing, and this means just as much to you as it does to those writing the articles you read.
This is, of course, a result of rapidly evolving technology that traditional forms of journalism, such as print media, just can’t keep up with. The Final Report on the Canadian News Media, published in June 2006 by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, described technology as “catalytic and disruptive.” The report raised the concerns that with innovations in technology, and recent changes in the ownership of certain media groups in Canada, the diversity of ownership and shared information may be restricted, viewpoints could be reduced, and smaller and more remote regions could lose out in the new world of much larger media corporations.
The concern lies here: traditionally, the public has consumed the news passively and in a fixed format, such as a newspaper, or at a fixed time, such as the 6:00 news. In this way, members of the media act as gatekeepers of information, with their most significant political role being to set the agenda for public discussion and debate. Yet the Senate report on news media believes that innovations in communication technologies — the widespread use of the Internet being the most significant of these — have “changed this picture beyond recognition.” These innovations make it possible for the public to participate in what has been called a “news on demand” culture. Now, most news outlets offer an online edition, and many major television stations cover news as it happens, 24-7. People can post comments on these online editions. They can label it as crap right where they found it, as opposed to just telling their boyfriend/girlfriend/neighbour/dog it was crap, after the fact. This is normal now, but our parents and grandparents weren’t able to do this. And they probably never predicted that information could be spread so rapidly, something that our generation now sees as commonplace.
This raises the question of whether or not this “news on demand” culture will render tradition forms of media obsolete. The website NewspaperDeathWatch.com, “chronicling the decline of newspapers and the rebirth of journalism,” including a column dedicated to U.S. metropolitan daily newspapers that have closed since 2007, demonstrates an international phenomenon that extends to Canada as well.
The challenges facing the traditional print industry is embodied by the bankruptcy of media giant Canwest, or in the struggles that local Canadian television is facing. The country’s leading broadcaster and newspaper publisher announced it was putting its newspaper division up for sale in January 2010 after filing for creditor protection in a Toronto courtroom. The media giant’s newspaper holdings include a host of daily newspapers across the country, such as The Vancouver Sun, The Montreal Gazette and The Ottawa Citizen. Two of the founder’s three children David and Gail Asper, have since resigned from the board of directors, while Canwest is restructuring under court protection from creditors after it was unable to meet debt repayment obligations of approximately $4 billion. While the aforementioned papers are under no official threat to date, this puts a considerable amount of stress upon the thousands of employees affected by the company’s financial woes.
Local broadcast news has struggled through financial hardship for over a decade. Advertising revenues for these stations have decreased over the years, and some feel that the “traditional model of free local television is unsustainable.” Part of the problem is that cable and satellite providers collect fees from viewers each month, yet pay nothing to local television stations for the programming they provide. Another concern is that Canadian cable companies pay U.S. cable channels in excess of $300 million a year for their programming when they are not required to produce any Canadian content. Now, local stations are asking cable and satellite companies to pay the local broadcasters for the service they provide. If this is not done, they are predicting drastic consequences.
These examples highlight the struggles that traditional Canadian media is currently facing. However, the “news on demand” model may not replace the traditional model quite yet. While new media sources may be able to generate articles around the clock, traditional media still generates the majority of news reporting. A large portion of news on the Internet is supplied by the online editions of newspapers and broadcasters. Many, like the media Senate Report, still agree that “few online services provide the quantity and quality of original reporting that is generated by the traditional news media.” The credibility of online news is sometimes uncertain, meaning the public is often more likely to rely on more reputable sources.
There are currently few successful business models for stand-alone Internet gathering organizations, with the exception of sites such as TheTyee.ca, based in British Columbia. However, if the price of online news and information goes up, consumption of these services may go down. While the Internet and other technologies may be able to produce and distribute information more quickly and efficiently than their print and broadcast counterparts, there is still a cost associated with covering news and producing news reporting. One of the most disruptive disadvantages to online news has been the diversion of advertising revenues. Free sites such as Craigslist.com and eBay have taken away the business from classified ads that have traditionally made up a large portion of journalism’s advertising revenue. If advertising revenue no longer covers the costs, online news providers may have to adapt.
This all seems very scary and foreboding, as if some supernatural force has a stranglehold on our media that no one seems to be able to shake. Sometimes it even feels as if we’re in some sort of journalism apocalypse. I try to keep a more positive mindset. I look to another one of my loves, film. Film survived the introduction of sound and television. Yes, it suffered a few casualties along the way, but it survived, and it will survive the Internet revolution as well. So will journalism. It may look different five, 10 or 20 years down the road, but its core mission will remain the same: to find compelling stories and to share them with the general public. These stories may be read on your computer screens rather than on printed paper over breakfast, but I have faith that readers will continue to be as pissed off, depressed or happy by whatever they consume, no matter what the medium.