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Harrison Lowman: The old news is dead. Long live the new news

Commentary

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

Legend has it that back in the seventies and eighties when Carleton University journalism students ascended the stage to receive their diplomas on graduation day, the editors of Canada’s top newspapers, magazines, and TV news shows were there sitting in the crowd, silently waiting to tap the shoulders of the young and talented and offer them full-time employment. As a result, some students had media jobs even before they left the auditorium. 

Carleton journalism’s class of 2024 will be lucky to get jobs in journalism at all.

Even when I attended Carleton in 2009, the future of Canadian journalism was in question. It felt like professors were giving us hoses to put out an industry in flames. But there was still some promise. Remarks like, “It’s your generation that will have to save the industry”, “People will still read their newspapers, but on iPads”, or “We can just do what the Vice News guys are doing,” echoed through lecture halls. Years later, the Toronto Star’s $40-million dollar Star Touch tablet app experiment would fail catastrophically. Vice Media would file for bankruptcy. Most of my fellow graduates would leave journalism.

Today, much of the Canadian journalism industry has burned to the ground. Last week, even the CBC, which received $1.3 billion from the federal government in 2022, announced it would be eliminating 800 positions. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 there were 13,280 journalists working in this country. Today there could be as few as 8,000, most of whom have watched in horror as almost $5 billion in revenue has disappeared in about a dozen years.

Journalists today face a public that is far less interested in what we have to say. Reuters and the University of Oxford now report that the number of Canadians who say they are “very or extremely interested in the news” has dropped by more than 20 percent in just six years, now sitting at 43 percent. Shockingly, that’s lower than in the U.S, the U.K., Germany, and Australia. Eight percent fewer Canadians are using the internet to follow the news compared to last year. Nine percent less are turning on their TVs to watch us. 

When they do tune in, fewer and fewer trust what they are hearing. In 2018, 58 percent of Canadians said they “trust the news most of the time”. Today, that number is 40 percent. An 18-point drop in five years.

When it comes to confidence, the numbers are even lower. According to Statistics Canada, only 31 percent of Canadians, have “a good or great deal of confidence in Canadian media”. This falls to 14 percent for off-reserve Indigenous people and 23 percent among 25 to 34-year-olds. I say this as an astonished 32-year-old.

An attitude problem

Many journalists will have you believe the blame should be placed at the feet of our readers, viewers, and listeners. You will hear things like, “They need to care about what we do.” 

In fact, we may be the only industry that consistently blames the consumer for its ills. As Canadaland publisher and media critic Jesse Brown says, “Most people don’t trust us journalists. In any other business, this would be treated as a problem for the industry to solve…In news, we blame the customer.” 

We continue to act like we are holier than thou, that we know best. We tell members of the public we don’t have a job like they do, but “a calling”. We often write with a paternalistic and preachy tone. We nudge people towards thinking a certain way about an issue or have them believe a debate is settled when it is not. We refuse to let audiences draw their own conclusions. We turn news into stories and then into morality tales. We refuse to check our biases before picking up our notepads. We claim the very idea of objectivity is “flawed”. Personal threats from readers are of course unacceptable, but we often adopt a “woe is us” mentality, whining publicly about those who criticize our work. “Accountability…We’re not very good when questioned ourselves”, admitted CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon at a recent panel on trust in media. Beyond our cash flow problem, we have an attitude problem that is contributing to our demise.

Out of touch

Part of the problem is that we—the Canadian mainstream media—have lost touch with a great many Canadians who do not see their lives reflected in our work. Many of us journalists had affluent upbringings, are white, university-educated, aren’t religious, and live in large cities (myself included). Many of us work in television newsrooms where the only people who probably voted Conservative in the last decade are those behind the cameras, and perhaps the janitorial staff who clean up after us. We use academic language that is a barrier to entry before readers have even reached a paywall. Our editors bury pitches about controversial debates—but debates that Canadians are already eagerly having around the dinner table. How can we say we have an open dialogue with the Canadian public when major mainstream outlets are disabling comment sections on their content? Even after three decades of the internet, journalism has become a one-way street.

How have some viewers responded? They’ve switched us off. 

When Canadians disconnect from the stories we used to collectively engage with national unity suffers. Canadians increasingly feel like they have less of a stake in this country. There are fewer ties that bind this tiny population spread out across the second-largest nation in the world. As The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer noted in a recent column, “In an absence of common stories and shared understandings of ourselves and the country, the danger is that we devolve into a loose collection of individuals merely living in the same geography.”

Hope on the horizon?

All is not lost. Amidst an industry aflame, there are a few phoenixes rising from the ashes. Podcasts, Substack, subscriber fees, and donations from benevolent benefactors have spawned entrepreneurial outlets like The Hub, The Line, Canadaland, Blacklock’s Reporter, The Logic, and The Narwhal. These pioneering media outlets are forming the first faint ruts in the road for others to (hopefully) follow toward more trustworthy and self-sustaining Canadian journalism. Meanwhile, many newspapers stagger forward, propped up by government and Big Tech subsidies.

Newcomer niche outlets come with their own risks. They are confronted by the fact that only 11 percent of Canadians are currently willing to pay for online news. There is also the possibility that as mainstream outlets draw their final breaths, Canadians who still want to be informed will gravitate towards outlets that merely confirm their biases. We could be left with a nation of people trapped in new news bubbles, living in separate realities. 

The Hub

I sought the role of managing editor of The Hub because it provides reporting, commentary, and in-depth interviews on politics, business, culture, and foreign affairs not often seen in the Canadian media landscape. Because it wears its patriotism on its sleeve and encourages Canadians to be engaged in their democracy, institutions, and communities. Because The Hub believes this country’s history matters. It deals in big ideas and is open to debate. It is not afraid to wade slowly through policy weeds and wonky waters. It is hiring journalists to produce original content and quickly becoming one of the top most visited independent news sites in Canada. It relies on the insight of genuine experts but also believes in hearing the wisdom of the public. It seeks to understand identity politics, not practice it. It is civil and realistic. It does not purposely feed the anger of Canadians, leaving more division in its wake. As its mission statement reads, The Hub “is a conscious effort to push back against this post-modern malaise.” We want to help shape the conversations that will help make Canada a better country.

Journalism students graduating in 2024 who are gutsy enough to pursue jobs in this industry will face a difficult choice. They can seek work at a legacy media outlet that will provide them with the backing of an institution, long-established journalistic practices, and a familiar name on a business card. And the work can be very rewarding. I should know, I’ve worked for them. But sadly, many of these places are slow to adapt, risk-averse, stuck in bureaucratic mud, and are managing their decline. Their best years are behind them.

Or today’s journalism grads can choose to hitch their wagon to a plucky media start-up. While these outfits may offer less prestige and are still making a name for themselves, they are nimble, they take risks, and they experiment. They are the ones leading the charge into Canadian journalism’s uncertain future. They won’t be resistant to all the flames, but their best is yet to come.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

‘Step aside and behold the wonder that is the free market’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This week saw Hub readers engaging with a range of pressing issues, including how universities conduct themselves in the realm of politics, our country’s messy federalism, what the media needs to do to earn back public trust, the impact of the oil and gas emissions cap, and the importance of learning and appreciating our country’s history.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Reform is coming for entitled universities—one way or another

Monday, December 11, 2023

“Universities should be places where ideas can be explored, discussed, and debated freely. In our society today, sadly, civil discourse seems to have been lost.”

A. Chezzi

“Different systems, different outcomes. Depending on who cuts the cheques, money does talk. The pace of cultural change within government-funded Canadian post-secondary institutions will be glacial, if in fact there is any movement.”

RJKWells

“A key takeaway is that as universities face an increasingly difficult time defending their political neutrality on a range of issues and debates, it becomes more difficult for proponents higher education of to marshal a credible defense against political meddling by government. Administrators hopefully are waking up to this contradiction and fathoming that the ‘juice isn’t worth the squeeze.’ In sum, it is hard to see how universities don’t end up losing public support, public funding, and their intellectual independence if they continue to selectively take ideological stands on a range of issues from climate to indigeneity to anti-racism while downplaying antisemitism, their responsibly to fashioning genuine public, non-political goods, and providing neutral places and spaces for free and open debate and discussion.”

Rudyard Griffiths (Executive Director at The Hub)

Does everything feel broken? Canada’s messy federalism is a big part of the problem

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

“Municipalities seem to be a lot less infected by party politics, which is usually a good thing. I could envisage a constitution that has the federal government playing a smaller role in dealing with truly national concerns, the municipalities basically taking over the provincial responsibilities, with the provinces having a residual power where there are no real municipalities that are sufficiently populous in order to bring the services needed.”

Jon Snipper

The media must start listening to the public it serves

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

“Journalists used to be concerned with the ‘truth.’ As discussed in the article mentioning the three U.S. university presidents and their Congressional testimony, nowadays truth seems to require context. Rather than wordsmith around issues, I wish journalists had the moral backbone to ask elites hard questions. Where is the ‘science’ about managing COVID? Where was the risk analysis of closing schools or borders? Why were vaccine mandates seen as a good rather than as a punishment? Why do so many journalists seem to report politician’s statements rather than challenge them for evidence?

The best thing our media could do is to foreswear the federal funding as presently delivered and to be augmented by the social media tax soon to be collected. If they need paywalls, use them and explain why to readers. Sell the value of reporting Canadian stories to advertisers, rather than clicks.”

Ian MacRae

“To be relevant and to be trusted, the news media must be responsible. That means being very strict with themselves about what is news, how it is reported, and the technical accuracy of the words and terms they choose.”

Gregory Lang

“Respect your audience enough to listen to them and above all, ‘show, don’t tell.'”

Zoe C.

Careful—an oil and gas emissions cap won’t just hurt Alberta

Thursday, December 14, 2023

“The one interregional conversation that needs even more focus should be about energy conservation and it should be taught in schools across the country.”

Pierre Filisetti

“Canadians want action on climate change. Over 100 countries including Canada lobbied hard for strong language on the phase out of fossil fuels at COP28. This government is not an outlier on this issue.”

Michael F

“Oil and gas will continue to be a part of our economy. The path to the less carbon-intensive environment (we’ll never be carbon-free, never) that you desperately seek today can only be achieved through innovation, not taxation. Those who believe in taxing the prosperity of others to achieve their elusive goals are free to join the soon-to-be unemployed minister Guilbeault and Greta Thunberg to engage in glib protests and unfurl shallow banners. Step aside and behold the wonder that is the free market.”

— RJKWells

No past, no future—How Canada’s historical amnesia is dooming our democracy

Friday, December 15, 2023

“Our history, good and bad, is our history and we must embrace it, but we have to study and understand that history to make the distinction. I think it is ignorance that leads to cancelling when we should be correcting the narrative to move forward.”

Gregory Lang

“The threat of this has been hovering over Canadians for a couple of decades now. And now that it’s being treated seriously, it’s probably too late. Social capital (trust is another example) takes generations to build and once broken/lost is almost impossible to rebuild.”

Menzies