The latest issue of Concordia’s alumni magazine carries a hand-wringing piece about the future of journalism as the university’s J school prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Department chair Brian Gabrial gives us the usual hand jive about the loss of jobs (90 at PostMedia and as the CRTC warned last week, potentially hundreds more in TV newsrooms across the country) and the subsequent “damage to what a democratic society is supposed to be in terms of keeping the public informed.”
Nah. I don’t see a connection between layoffs in mainstream media and “damage to what a democratic society is supposed to be.” The thread of the piece — that there will always be a need for university-trained journalists in the newsrooms of the nation — strikes me as less than honest, albeit understandable in an upbeat vehicle designed to elicit donations.
PostMedia is going down because their apps and websites are obsolete, their content is generic and their weeklies can’t compete. The mountain of debt incurred during the Black, Asper and Godfrey iterations have have stripped value from local franchises; time will tell us whether the shotgun marriage of PostMedia’s broadsheets with the Sun’s lowbrow tabs is the kiss of death. Whether it’s 10 words or three, a boring headline is a boring headline.
What killed Canadian journalism?
– the CRTC, Canadian Association of Broadcasters and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. This cozy conclave of colluders has silenced Canada’s talk radio community and turned electronic journalists into whipped curs who dare not leave the pack for fear of breaking a story that might piss someone off. So we get news conferences, talking heads and millisecond bites.
– Industry Canada and the federal Competition Bureau. It began in the late ‘70s with the approval of a Southam/Thomson deal giving each a monopoly in Ottawa and Winnipeg. Ownership concentration and the convergence myth fell prey to waves of disruptive technologies — internet, cable, live streaming, tablets smartphones. Every daily in the country suffered the same agonies at approximately the same time — circulation churn, skyrocketing production and distribution costs and a shrinking wedge of the advertising budget. Newsroom cuts meant the end of zoned editions and hungry young reporters eager to accept the drudgery of municipal council meetings. Less local coverage meant fewer readers.
– Incompetent management. Franchises like La Presse and the Toronto Star will survive on their app platforms because they saw the writing on the wall before everyone else. Others are adjusting.The Globe and Mail has dropped its paywall on access to all but a restricted core of business stories and the New York Times (10 free stories/month) now appears to be offering its twice-daily digests free. Meanwhile, PostMedia squandered millions on apps that don’t offer substantially more than CBC, TVA, CTV and Global. Who failed to understand free access pays in eyeballs? Or have PostMedia web hits/visits dropped that far that nobody dares access the analytics?
We thought the weeklies were immune. That changed in November 2014, when Transcontinental and Quebecor reached agreement on a deal transferring 74 Quebecor weeklies to TC for $75 million. The Competition Bureau approved the deal on the condition that TC put roughly half those papers on the market before closing them and laying off their staff. By my own estimate, maybe a dozen survive, leaving communities throughout Quebec with a single weekly newspaper or none at all.
We were an independent, independently printed but distributed by Quebecor. TC refused to distribute us unless they printed us, something that would be prosecuted in the U.S. under federal racketeering laws. The Competition Bureau didn’t see it that way.
The consequences of Quebec’s weekly implosion? Municipal councils, never known for their democratic ideals, have become emboldened. Transparency, what there was of it, is a thing of the past. Weekly journalists know better than to report on anything that might anger the local power structure and cost their papers advertising or the threat of a boycott. Quebec’s freedom of information laws, the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec and the Quebec Press Council are the only weapons we have. They have no teeth but censure and those they censure usually have no shame.
– Lazy, derivative, unproductive newsrooms. How many times when I was Montreal assignment editor did I hear a CBC reporter tell me ‘there’s no story there’ because it wasn’t a news conference? How many times did I see a reporter checking out a file from the Radio-Canada library and putting together the context for a story before heading out? How many radio/TV/online outlets credited the Globe and Mail’s Cathy Tomlinson for the B.C. shadow-flipping investigation? How many times did I read our stuff in other newspapers and see it on television and be told ‘Jim, it’s diffuse provenance’”?
I’ve worked in daily print as a reporter, editor and manager (Gazette, Star, Montreal Daily News), in television (CBC) and as a talk show barker (CBC, CFCF, Corus) before returning to weekly journalism from whence I sprang. To be be honest, I hired people even if they were J-school grads. As the editor of a small-town weekly, I was looking for the same qualities in my editorial staff that one finds in advertising salespeople — curiosity, inventiveness, perseverance and a refusal to take no for an answer.
Concordia’s journalism school vaunts a handful of successful grads. Here’s a better test of its relevance: how has Concordia’s journalism school evolved in its 40 years? Is it struggling to remain relevant surrounded by dying dinosaurs? Where it should be going from here? How can it redefine itself in terms that don’t include fat jobs in mainstream newsrooms?
Ethnic and cultural community newspapers, radio and television outlets are thriving. Online media — websites, online streaming and social media pages — are evolving as quickly as a Twitter feed. How are they dealing with AI-vs privacy issues? Libel and defamation? Balance and fairness? Sourcing? Political and societal pressure to remain silent or to spin a story? Are we courageous and dispassionate in our exploration of journalistic integrity, bearing witness, point of view, context?
This is how Concordia’s journalism program should be reinventing itself. Either that or accept a slow death by irrelevance.