Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind

It was a week of good news and bad news.

First came the good, and surprising, news that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Dylan’s songs changed popular culture. His lyrics became hymns for the civil rights and anti-war movements.

The bad, and also surprising, news was that yet another fine journalist is out of a job. Lee-Anne Goodman, a reporter who epitomizes bartender Dooley’s famous quote -  “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” -       is out at The Canadian Press, the country’s venerable news service.

Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years. The reason I mention Ms. Goodman is that I worked with her for a number of years and respect her work. She reports stories that we all need to know in these complicated times, eschewing the easy bubbles and fluff crap that we see too much of these days.

When excellent journalists are pushed aside, society as a whole suffers. Excellent journalism truly is a pillar of democracy and when journalism  is eroded, so is democracy.

What’s happening in journalism is more than erosion. It is disintegration.

In the United States 25,000 journalists have been laid off since 2005 while digital publishers have created only 7,000 jobs. Those figures come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Canadian Media Guild reports 10,000 jobs cut from the print and broadcast industries between 2008 and 2013. The Guelph Mercury and Nanaimo Free Press dailies were shuttered earlier this year.

Postmedia, which owns two daily newspapers in several cities has combined staffs in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver for a loss of 90 jobs.

The Toronto Star cut 52 journalism positions in August. Rogers Media has said it will print Maclean’s magazine only once a month, and an online version once a week. It is closing some other titles.

Fewer journalists means less poking and probing, uncovering and reporting information that citizens need to know. Like when Chad Ingram of this newspaper fought for and won access to the multi-million dollar contract between the province and Carillion Canada Inc., which county residents believe has provided  sub-standard winter highway maintenance.

As news outlets and journalists disappear, journalism retracts into the tight, homogenous thinking of big cities, like Toronto, Canada’s centre of journalism elitism. Toronto journalism knows little and cares little about anything beyond the metro area borders.

People in Guelph and Nanaimo and many other places like them are being deprived of information and viewpoints they must have to tell them what is happening and to form ideas on how to fix problems.

News media black holes are widening across the country. We hear and read less from other parts of our country and what problems they face, what successes they enjoy.

News executives, panicked by the ascent of digital news and the advertising it is drawing away from them, are dumping journalists to save money. The more they cut, the further the dumbing down of their news reports.  

They are focused on ways to regain lost revenues. What they need to focus on is providing stories so important, so compelling, so well reported and written that people are willing to pay for them. That type of thinking is beginning in other parts of the world, but regrettably not in Canada.

The collapse of journalism and its weakening of democracy has caught the attention of government. The House of Commons heritage committee is studying the news media crisis and is expected to make some recommendations this fall. Other government studies – the Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers and the Davey Special Committee on Mass Media – have done nothing but collect dust.

Meanwhile, astute observers of the news industry expect that most printed daily newspapers will be gone within the next 10 years.

While politicians ponder their belly buttons and news executives panic, questions go unanswered.

Like, how many injustices exist out there with too few journalists to see? The answer is same one Bob Dylan wrote four decades ago.

“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”


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