By Romayne Smith Fullerton, Ethics Editor
When Postmedia slashed 90 jobs this week and announced plans to merge competing newsrooms in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the word everywhere was “business.”
Implicitly or explicitly, we heard: It’s a business decision. Postmedia must think of its bottom line.
But broadly speaking, the newspaper business is in trouble.
The cuts at Postmedia are the most recent sad happenings in a story that is no longer new. Since 2008, more than 10,000 media jobs in Canada have been lost.
We need to stop having this discussion as if all that were at stake was company profits.
Yes, journalism is a business, and for most of our history, it’s been a part of a capitalist enterprise. But a true democracy needs tough, independent, outspoken media to hold publicly elected officials, and publicly funded institutions, to account.
Journalism is more than big business—it’s a sacred trust.
If consumers or advertisers aren’t paying to maintain high-calibre media products, we need to find another way, because without this type of journalism, our democratic system will fail.
The problem is not specifically that print newspapers are dying off at an alarming rate—although that clearly is upsetting; it’s that no other medium has stepped up to fill the role that newspapers have traditionally held.
In North America, as in many parts of western and northern Europe, traditional newspapers have funded serious investigative work that asks well-researched and challenging questions of those in power. Then, those newspapers reported the answers to their citizens so they could debate accurate information in the public sphere and, should they choose, effect appropriate change.
As media theorist Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols pointed out in a Washington Post story, with the journalism industry losing more than 1,000 jobs a month, the United States has reached a point where it no longer has more than the barest resources dedicated to news reporting:
“The prospect that this ‘information age’ could be characterized by unchecked spin and propaganda, where the best-financed voice almost always wins, and cynicism, ignorance and demoralization reach pandemic levels, is real.”
Sadly, the economic, political, social and technological conditions that gave rise to our current journalistic business models have changed. People no longer read print-based newspapers, although they do read some online versions, but those stories don’t generate the same kind of income. And when the audiences left the printed versions of the papers, the advertisers followed.
Some suggest that consumers ought to pay for news now, that the “real” problem is that no one has figured out a way to make digital media profitable. This implies that at one time, people paid.
This isn’t really the case. In fact, a quick perusal of most journalism history texts will demonstrate that news and information has been subsidized in one way or another since time immemorial.
The most recent form of funding for newspapers involved advertisers paying about 85 per cent of their cost, and citizens—ideally, not to be confused with consumers—paying a nominal price.
As Robert Picard at the Reuters Institute, Oxford University, has pointed out, “news has never been financially viable as a market-based good. It’s always been financed by arrangements based on income derived from sources other than selling news to consumers.”
Many Nordic countries have subsidized newspapers for most of the 20th century because they recognize that papers play a unique political and social role that’s invaluable to their democracies. Instead of throwing up their hands and expecting the market to solve the printed press’ waning readership, countries like Sweden are actively searching for effective ways to maintain support of news media and the social benefits they provide.
Over the last year, the Swedish government held an inquiry into the conditions of its daily press and introduced a new bill to its Riksdag. Its website outlines proposals aimed at creating greater incentives for daily newspapers with operational subsidies to increase readership revenue, while promoting technological development and the innovative business models so the functions vital to democracy are sustained over the long term.
These attitudes and financial policies do not undermine press freedom or accountability: Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden continue to be ranked at the top of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
We need to stop blaming the Internet and harking back to a golden age of consumer support—an age that frankly never existed.
Given media’s singularly indispensable role, we must acknowledge that other factors besides public demand can influence their profitability and stop pretending that they’re just another business. We need a policy whose purpose is not to shore up existing wholly capitalist enterprises, but one that ensures our democratic needs are met.
While newspapers are on the decline, journalism doesn’t have to be.
Romayne Smith Fullerton is associate professor at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University in London, Ont.