Me­dia woes vs. pub­lic pol­icy

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Chan­tal Hébert Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional affairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

Un­der the guise of a mi­gra­tion to the dig­i­tal world, Canada’s news me­dia is un­der­go­ing the big­gest jour­nal­is­tic fire sale of its his­tory.

It is tak­ing place on such a scale that it might be more ap­pro­pri­ate to call it a liq­ui­da­tion of in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing re­sources and it is hap­pen­ing un­der the nose of a political class that is, for the most part, con­tent to look the other way.

Just last week, some colum­nists were de­bat­ing whether Ottawa lacked the gravitas one would nor­mally as­so­ciate with the cap­i­tal of a G7 coun­try. De­trac­tors of the city that is home to Par­lia­ment will soon be able to add soul­less news­pa­pers to the list of its al­leged short­com­ings.

Tues­day, Post­media an­nounced that the main print out­lets of four of the coun­try’s ma­jor cities — in­clud­ing the na­tion’s cap­i­tal — will merge their jour­nal­is­tic prod­ucts.

In Cal­gary, Ed­mon­ton, Van­cou­ver and Ottawa, the same jour­nal­ists will re­port to both the Post­media and the Sun pa­pers, with their work to be rewrit­ten by edi­tors to suit the style of each out­let.

For more than 100 years, Mon­treal’s La Presse was known as the largest French-lan­guage daily in Amer­ica. Since Jan. 1, it is no longer avail­able in print ex­cept on Satur­day.

The pa­per’s own­ers are gam­bling that, as read­er­ship moves over to its tablet edi­tion, their bot­tom line will im­prove. But the jury is out as to what toll, if any, the shift will take on the qual­ity and breadth of the prov­ince’s pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion.

The par­lia­men­tary press gallery is cel­e­brat­ing its 150th an­niver­sary this year. Its makeup is a lot more di­verse than when I first joined a few decades ago.

But when it comes to re­flect­ing Canada’s re­gional di­ver­sity the trend has gone the other way, with many re­gional news or­ga­ni­za­tions leav­ing the Hill, and with other out­lets com­ing to rely on skeleton crews. In the Star’s Par­lia­ment Hill bureau there are more empty desks than ac­tual bod­ies th­ese days.

The print me­dia is not the only ca­su­alty of this on­go­ing melt­down.

Main­stream com­mer­cial net­works are strug­gling to adapt to dig­i­tal view­ing habits of their au­di­ence — leav­ing less money to de­vote to their news cov­er­age. Af­ter decades of bud­get cuts, Ra­dio-Canada and the CBC are shad­ows of their for­mer selves.

So far, the re­ac­tion of Canada’s political class has mostly ranged from in­dif­fer­ence to pub­lic hand-wring­ing. On Twit­ter on Tues­day, the may­ors of the cities in­volved in the Post­media an­nounce­ment ex­pressed re­grets at the news.

So did Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau.

But there must be a point when the steady dis­in­te­gra­tion of the coun­try’s fifth es­tate’s news-gath­er­ing and news-get­ting func­tions be­comes a pub­lic pol­icy is­sue.

There will be some to ac­tu­ally re­joice in the no­tion that a shrunk news me­dia will have less po­ten­tial for dig­ging out em­bar­rass­ing sto­ries. The cor­rup­tion in­quiry in Que­bec and the spon­sor­ship scan­dal on Par­lia­ment Hill both had their source in per­sis­tent jour­nal­ism.

Less short-sighted politi­cians may con­sider that they are ig­nor­ing this cri­sis at their own peril. A less in­formed elec­torate is more eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated and less en­gaged.

And at a time when par­ties are toy­ing with no­tions such as com­pul­sory vot­ing and more par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy, is the de­cline in political lit­er­acy that stands to re­sult from an im­pov­er­ished in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment a de­sir­able out­come?

On the heels of a three-year study of the Cana­dian me­dia land­scape in 2006, a Se­nate com­mit­tee warned that Canada was tol­er­at­ing a con­cen­tra­tion of me­dia own­er­ship most other coun­tries would find wor­ri­some. And it noted that the con­sis­tent de­ple­tion of th­ese re­sources of the coun­try’s pub­lic broad­caster com­pounded the prob­lem.

Some take so­lace in the no­tion that Trudeau’s govern­ment is com­mit­ted to rein­vest­ing in the CBC. But a news en­vi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by one me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion — even the pub­lic broad­caster — does not amount to a healthy one.

In any event, what fol­lowed the Se­nate re­port was a decade of lais­sez-faire that of­ten saw own­ers sym­pa­thetic to the govern­ment of the day given free rein over larger me­dia em­pires, com­bined with ever-closer-tothe-bone cuts to the CBC.

What we have to­day is a weaker pub­lic broad­caster in a field of jour­nal­is­tic ru­ins and Canada’s na­tional fab­ric is the poorer for it.

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