If you don’t know what’s been happening to the news business these days, you haven’t been following the news. The story is by now familiar. Print is locked in a death spiral, starved for revenue because of the switch to a “free culture” online. Newspapers are either cutting back or shutting down entirely. Postmedia and Torstar, to take just two of Canada’s biggest players, publicly bicker over which of them will go out of business first.
In his new book, journalist Ian Gill isn’t sounding a fresh alarm. We’ve had warnings for decades, going back to the Davey Report and Kent Commission on the concentration of media ownership. Of course, things have been getting worse, faster, with disruptions fuelled by the digital revolution and the move to alternative advertising avenues, not to mention the fallout from the economic downturn in 2008.
But this, too, is a story that has been covered extensively elsewhere. Just last year, Brian Gorman’s excellent Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption provided an in-depth look at the situation, with insightful analysis and thoughts about the shape of things to come. No News Is Bad News doesn’t go into the same detail as Gorman’s book (which it oddly doesn’t reference), but is a breezier, more condensed broadside. While the problem the books address is the same, they differ in their attribution of blame and roadmaps for the future.
For Gill, most of the blame lies with the news media itself, in particular the “legacy” dinosaurs that have failed to adapt to the new media environment, while at the same time cutting off access to revenue for up-and-coming alternative news sources. To some extent, particularly with regard to the large chains, this criticism is deserved. The idea that newspapers can cut their way to profitability has clearly been a disaster, and thus far there have been few bold new ideas for monetizing the digital audience from the “wounded giants of yore.”
That said, the current crisis is largely the product of forces over which the news media has little to no control. At its best, you could argue that journalism in Canada today is better than it’s ever been. The problem is that the Internet economy is geared toward producing a handful of big winners at the cost of the destruction of everyone else, and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This same dynamic has led to hollowing out the middle class and laying waste to entire cultural ecosystems, as described by Scott Timberg in his book, Culture Crash.
Better journalism isn’t going to fix the problem of a vanishing audience, and the question that remains is how quality reporting, which is very much in the public interest, will be financed. A lot of Gill’s book is taken up by interviews with people who have enjoyed some success in alternative (usually non-profit) media start-ups, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear, long-term, scalable business model aside from snagging grants from charitable foundations or subsidies from the government.
Like many surveyors of the Canadian cultural landscape, what Gill really wants to do is disrupt the status quo. At one time, the Internet seemed to be a beacon of hope in this regard, but in reality it has only led to further consolidation and, generally, made matters worse. Gill is absolutely right that we need healthy, dynamic news media. The question is whether we want them badly enough.