The journalism gap has created a crisis in Canadian media

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We are reaching a crisis point in Canadian journalism. Historically print media have served a wide variety of roles. 

They have been the papers of record in hundreds of communities, small and large. Births, deaths, court cases, political maneuverings, votes and shenanigans have been captured, for decades on tabloid and broadsheet newsprint. 

Those stories, in turn, have been saved as yellowed clippings, microfiche, digital scans or electronic text in databases. 

In short, the hatching, matching, dispatching and life works of millions of Canadians have been caught in cellulose and bits. Sometimes with prejudice, blind spots and the bias of an often white, Anglo-Saxon press. But it remains the best consistent, dogged record we have. 

Newspapers have dug deep into the hidden corners of government, corporations, organized crime, police departments and health-care organizations. Those investigations have led to enormous political and social change and have uncovered corruption, discrimination, excess, waste and misappropriation.

Newspapers have, at their best, done what agents of change should do: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. They have questioned authority, championed the underdog and called bullshit on abuses of power.

Both of these latter roles, are, of course, platonic ideals. But, they are roles newspapers, at their most noble, have fulfilled. And, most reporters and editors will tell you that working on those kinds of investigations was the most rewarding parts of their careers. 

Historically, newsrooms have done all that while keeping the business side of newspapers at bay. The wall between ad sales and editorial was strong and taken seriously, by journalists and, maybe with more reluctance, by the ad sales folks as well. 

That was because newspapers, when they truly fulfilled their roles were not run solely businesses, not solely at the beck and call of shareholders, they were also a social institution and an agent of change, check and balance. They were a vital part of a functioning democracy in towns, cities, provinces and in Canada itself.

I offer up this nostalgic, Frank Capraesque view of newspapers not because they were not without faults, but because these are precisely the roles most at risk today. This risk has two sides.

Newspapers themselves are tragically giving up those roles while upstart, digitally native news organizations are -- at the scale, scope and persistence of newspapers of old -- incapable of taking on those roles themselves. It is into this gap that an informed democracy is at risk of tumbling.

Newspapers today are a sorry shadow of what they once were. Postmedia for example is a limping husk, servicing not its communities, but instead, U.S. debt. Its major creditor, Goldtree, is now trying to unload the Canadian media chain and its bonds are about as toxic as tar sands tailings. It shamelessly ordered 16 of its papers to endorse Stephen Harper in the last federal election.

The Globe and Mail seems to be institutionally incapable of viewing issues like climate change through any lens but the interests of business. The publication is also shilling its brand to companies that want custom content. Some publications, like the National Post, go one step further, farming out its newsroom journalists to write articles for advertisers, including oil companies. And, newspapers can even learn how to make better use of their reporters as "brand journalists."

The same papers are dramatically reducing their local and international coverage. In the case of Torstar and the Guelph Mercury it did that by shutting the paper down completely. Other papers just offer buyouts and plump up their pages with copy from chain columnists and critics.

And, right now all the upstarts in the country can't fill those gaps. Canadaland, Buzzfeed, iPolitics, Vice and other digital natives can beaver away at political commentary and investigations. But none have on-the-ground local depth. And none have a desire or ability to be a "paper" of record.

The Tyee, rabble.ca, briarpatch and others do great service at "afflicting the comfortable" but lack the resources to either reach out nationally or invest in ongoing investigations.

So, there lies the gap. It's like a relay race with the old runner slowing as the fresh runner is bursting with energy. In that kind of relay, a baton hits the ground with no one to pick it up.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: flickr/Neil Moralee

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