Canadian media is a lot like a game of musical chairs. We dance around in circles trying to do an increasingly thankless job, and then every other month the music stops and a lot of good players find themselves out of the game without any rhyme or reason. You hardly get time to mourn for your colleagues or lament that the industry has come to this before the music returns and the madness begins again.
This is the game that everyone plays no matter if you’re working in TV or in tech, but there is an especially hellish quality to it for anyone still invested in print. “Every newspaper reader that dies leaves no heir,” it is said, which makes “deliver[ing] cost synergies” a quixotic quest at best.
But some media conglomerates still dare to dream that impossible dream and that’s where we find ourselves today. After months of negotiations, Postmedia and Torstar have swapped ownership of a bunch of community newspapers, seemingly for the express purpose of closing most of them. Of the 41 papers changing hands in this cashless transaction [think: hockey trade with no draft picks ‘cause there’s no future], only six will remain in operation when all is said and done. Almost 300 people will lose their job. The closures overwhelmingly impact smaller community newspapers.
As per CEO Paul Godfrey in the Postmedia press release: “the continuing costs of producing dozens of small community newspapers in these regions in the face of significantly declining advertising revenues means that most of these operations no longer have viable business models.” Expect to see this obituary re-run in every Canadian small-town paper before the industry’s autophagia is satisfied. Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee, and all that.
There is not much else to say, really, that hasn’t already been said. Print is in crisis because subscribers keep dying—or, at least, there are not enough readers in smaller markets to draw what little advertising money there is left that is not going to Facebook or Google. Digital devices continue to proliferate and a generation of people becomes accustomed to getting their news instantly and effectively for free. The cost of running a print operation quickly becomes prohibitive outside of a major urban centre [and with a few exceptions, inside a major urban centre, too.]
You can see where this vicious cycle goes. Fewer papers in fewer places staffing fewer people producing as much content as possible, with each new cut or pivot putting more journalists out of work. Small and local beats disappear. Everything is subsumed into more centralized, digital models of content production and distribution. (There a few local success stories that have bucked this trend, but they operate on a much smaller scale than the dying town papers.) Advertising revenue dries up as marketers hit more consumers by placing cheaper ads on news aggregators or social media feeds or search engines. Feeling the pinch, print conglomerates shave off another few jobs in another regional paper, using fewer resources to chase a dwindling revenue stream, ad infinitum.
It’s a bleak picture, not least because of the job losses, or the way local affairs get smothered under regional or national or international content, or the fact that the major players involved in the industry seem to have little ability or even desire to alter this course of events. A local newspaper is the link between an individual and their community; historically, it is the nucleus of democracy and the store of historical memory. How effective can you be as a citizen if you only know what’s happening at the national or global level but not in your own backyard?
(This is an unpopular opinion for a politics columnist in 2017 to hold, but: on the whole, people are better served by getting the scoop on their town council’s relationship with real estate developers than the garbage that goes on in Question Period, or whatever Donald Trump is getting mad about on Twitter.)
This is an especially dire situation in Canada, which has more than a little trouble with both. To quote Canadian media scholar David Taras in Digital Mosaic, “[local] papers are pipelines for national news in a country where the connecting links cannot be taken for granted. The great irony is that there may be no market solution for an institution that is vital to the survival of the market itself.”
This would all be less troubling if there was a healthy digital media system ready to fill the gap opened by the decline of print journalism, but we know that’s not the case. The traditional model of thoughtful, considered analysis in a paper where journalists are held accountable by local readers has been replaced with an arms race of instant takes, each more scorching than the last, delivered directly into the waiting maw of a faceless internet mob by companies like Google and Facebook that show people not the “news” they need but rather what the content their browsing history suggests they want.
It might be true that the web is the only media game left in town, but I’m not sure any of the players know how to win anymore [except for Paul Godfrey, that guy knows how to make money while sacking people]. And considering the relative ease with which you can build an algorithm that compiles short news hits and/or re-types press releases, I am starting to think it’s a game everyone is going to lose.
Anyway, chalk all this up to another dark day in Canadian journalism; another reminder that most of our jobs are underpaid, underappreciated, and dramatically precarious; another jolt on the bumpy road towards an uncertain but distinctly dystopian future. We don’t even have time to pour out a proper 40 ouncer before this danse macabre begins anew. Round and round and round she goes: where she stops, nobody knows.
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