Shoptalk: While Newspapers are on the Decline, Journalism Doesn’t Have to Be

By: Romayne Smith Fullerton

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When Canada’s Postmedia slashed 90 jobs in January 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-caliber 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.

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 percent of their cost, and citizens—ideally, not to be confused with consumers—paying a nominal price.

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.

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, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario. She is also the ethics editor for J-Source.ca, where this article was originally published.

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Published: March 23, 2016

7 thoughts on “Shoptalk: While Newspapers are on the Decline, Journalism Doesn’t Have to Be

  • March 23, 2016 at 4:46 am
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    The Campbell Express recently accepted a paid front page ad for a marijuana PETITION being circulated in our community. I was more concerned about running a big color AD right on the front page than on the content-but they were willing to pay well for it. So far feedback has been minimal, and I don’t think we are in trouble with the USPS since it is not about selling pot, just about signing a petition to allow stores to set up shop within the city limits.

    Reply
  • March 23, 2016 at 7:18 am
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    I love and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment! The lack of any recommendation other than the Nordic subsidy programs (which carries its own set of issues as well as a serious question to its viability in a country as large and diverse as the US) is quite telling. I eagerly await Part 2!

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  • March 23, 2016 at 8:33 am
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    Business models, cultural shift, innovation etc., etc. The problem is much more basic and overlooked. The “sacred trust” does not exist, because objectivity does not exist. Readers are looked down upon for not buying in to the liberal agenda of most journalists. Hence the problem is content itself, not how it’s presented, packaged or sold. Readers crave useful and credible information, not agendas. Until you give readers credit for knowing the difference, the decline will continue.

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    • March 23, 2016 at 2:29 pm
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      I don’t understand this common reference to a “liberal agenda”. I’ve been to college and work in the newspaper industry although I’m not a journalist. There is no nefarious plot to indoctrinate people into a philosophy. If educated people who have looked at a problem and been tasked with researching come to a common conclusion perhaps you should examine your preconceived ideas. That is what journalism is seeks to promote.

      While all sorts of differently qualified people go into journalism, it has been my experience they all take the “sacred trust” thingy seriously.

      Reply
  • March 23, 2016 at 10:35 am
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    We taxpayers subsidize transit and schools and city streets – why not news (papers & digital)?

    One problem is, will you help all news equally? The KKK newspaper? Who will decide this? But, let’s start talking about it. Now.

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    • March 23, 2016 at 1:10 pm
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      We don’t need a taxpayer-funded jobs program for print journalists.

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  • March 24, 2016 at 10:04 am
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    Journalists are being laid off from print publications in droves. Folks who put 20, 25, 35 or more years into this profession are being dismissed as their positions are eliminated. The ones who haven’t been downsized/outsourced/bought out (whichever term you prefer) are now doing solo what two, three or four folks use to do. When newspapers claim “it’s just business” and slash whole departments, it’s not just the journalists and editors that suffer – it’s graphic and design teams, distribution hubs and more. Nobody’s expecting a hand-out, but, like this piece points out, if you lose print media, you lose the watchdogs that observe those local, regional and national government meetings then come back and tell John and Jane Q. Public what the heck happened in them. If we don’t start to realize that and figure out what to do about it, there won’t be anymore print publications to worry about.

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