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The Changing Business of News

Apr 5, 2019

Listen to Episode 49: The News

Jessica Vomiero

When I first started this podcast, I knew that the state of journalism would be a critical piece of the what on earth is going on puzzle. I don’t even mean the routine post-truth issue of us becoming incapable of a common understanding – but the very business of the news. It’s clear from my conversation this week with Jessica Vomiero that her vocation is not keeping up with the incredible pace of change. Paradigms are shifting too fast. It’s obvious that the way we receive the news would affect the way we produce it. But the sweeping power of the internet, portable digital technology and the medium itself (ten years ago we were marvelling at how we could share photos over phones, and today videos longer than five seconds are passé) could not have been foreseen.

The problem with journalism is that it has been the arena where we have categorized, interpreted, argued over and comprehended what it means to live in the world today. Newspapers, radio stations and television networks are supposed to ask what on earth is going on, and they invite us to some extent to be part of the dialogue. But the ease of scrolling through a social media news feed renders these old public forums quaint – maybe even obsolete.

News organizations have been feeling the pressure for decades. Media coglomerates have formed from countless smaller pieces, and newspapers have found their way out of the red by merging together into large entities. Think of Postmedia in Canada, which owns the National Post and thirteen other daily newspapers plus dozens of other community publications and tabloids. In Calgary, the same reporter writes about municipal affairs for the city’s only two major dailies: the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun. Sinclair Broadcasting in the US has vacuumed up as many television stations it can find, and proceeded to force them all to read from one central script. The cost-saving rationale for this is manifest and maybe even sound; it’s tough for TV stations to exist on their own when the pie is getting smaller. But the repurcussions to the ongoing discourse that makes democracy possible are just as obvious. John Oliver did a bit about Sinclair on Last Week Tonight, and The New Yorker also covered it in an article from October 2018.

In the midst of all of this consolidation, some news organizations have done extremely well. The New York Times and the Washington Post have seen skyrocketing subscriptions (most of them online) since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Many people are craving good, deep, incisive answers to the question, what on earth is going on, and they’re willing to pay for it. As a result, major news organizations can hire more investigative staff right when they thought they'd be cutting further. It’s good news for the news, but not all. 

While people demand more extensive national coverage about, say, Trump, Brexit, SNC-Lavalin and big elections, the rest of the news can get tossed aside. The record is rife with stories about city halls and county governments across the western world that are void of staff reporters. We have come to rely on a mayor’s Twitter feed or the Instagram pronouncements of a Minister to get our fix on what’s happening. Surely this leaves open a dangerous accountability gap? How can we hold our elected officials to account if we let them deliver their news to us in their own way and on their own time? A great bulk of daily life is lived far beyond the shadow of national governments. How do we cover this when there’s no money in it?

And I haven't even mentioned privacy. We now seem to routinely discredit that concept, assuming it just doesn’t exist anymore, or hold the same value. But maybe it's something we shouldn’t give up so easily. One of the most important concepts that Jess brought up is media literacy. We need to learn how to read the news, how and when and what to pay for it, what our personal data is worth, and the difference between opinion and fact, evidence and supposition. And we need to teach this from a very young age, perhaps alongside a course in Civics. I hope Jess continues to speak up from her vantage point. We need this conversation to keep going before we forget the importance of having it.