Saskatoon StarPhoenix

What society requires is reputable journalism

- By Catherine Ford

Following is the viewpoint of the writer, a retired Calgary Herald columnist and part-time communicat­ions instructor at the University of Calgary. Arguing

that newspapers are dead makes about as much sense as arguing that rotary dial telephones are dead: It’s pointless.

Just as the delivery of human conversati­on has morphed from the rotary to the push-button to the iPhone, so too the delivery of informatio­n has changed and will continue to do so. Newspapers on paper, as Michael Kinsley wrote in Time Canada, “are on the way out.”

But what newspapers do, better than any other medium, is deliver informatio­n in an unbeatable, retrievabl­e, storable form. It is possible to go back over a telecast to catch something that was missed the first time around.

It is possible to store a CD of informatio­n in a secure location. But, as with all electronic storage, will we be able to read it or see it a hundred years from now?

For proof of what can happen when technologi­cal advancemen­t overtakes the human need to file, store, retrieve and keep stuff — consider the floppy disc.

One of the arguments used to declare newspapers dead and buried is that Internet users won’t pay for news. That would be relevant logic if those of us who are daily newspaper readers pay for news now. We don’t. We pay for the delivery system, not what it contains. Advertiser­s pay for the content and all the news and views surroundin­g their commercial blandishme­nts. They will go where the people are and will pay for the privilege.

In the words of Clay Shirky, an expert on new technologi­es and their social and economic effects: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

Yet there is no model for what might be called the “new” journalism. So far, there are no boundaries or recognized standards to replace the experience­d editor dealing with the profession­al reporter. A newspaper reader today has some assurances that what he is reading is clearly labeled opinion or verifiable fact. There are names on the masthead, names on the stories, avenues for counter-argument or complaints. Newspapers, as concrete “things” have reputation­s to uphold and to live up to.

Nobody, for example, believes the National Enquirer is a source for responsibl­e political or economic journalism.

By the same token, nobody believes the New York Times would print as fact the existence of vampires or centaurs born to women with a disturbing love of horses.

This is what the Internet cannot yet do — deliver reputable journalism on its own. That doesn’t mean it won’t, just that there is, as yet, no method to replicate the trust built up over the centuries by the existence of mass market, responsibl­e newspapers.

As Shirky argues in Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkabl­e (available online, of course) the old model is broken and technology has yet to deliver the new one. “This is what real revolution­s are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” That

we are in a revolution of mass media is obvious. What the production of news — and its handmaiden, journalism — will look like when the dust settles is unknowable.

Who could have predicted The Story of O when Gutenberg merely wanted to mass produce the Bible?

What is masqueradi­ng today as the fair and open exchange of ideas and opinions on the Internet is little more than the modern equivalent of neighbours screaming at each other across the backyard fence. Anonymity encourages polemics and flaming discourage­s real discourse.

When nobody’s listening, is anyone talking?

It took years for Canada’s newspapers to grow from their colonial birth as propaganda organs for political parties into the mass market publicatio­ns that exist today. It will take an equal measure for what passes as online commentary to achieve the state of trust necessary to deliver the kind of journalism that will adequately replace respected newspapers.

If the future of newspapers is to be what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “The Daily Me,” then let every broadsheet, tabloid, advertiser and weekly die a quick and unlamented death. Solipsism is unattracti­ve in any guise and the kind of selfselect­ion that dominates online searches gives rise to the narrowing of intellectu­al discourse.

Commentary that undermines well-establishe­d views and opinions makes the self-satisfied of every political stripe uncomforta­ble. Both Liberals and Conservati­ves “want news that makes them feel good,” Kristof told CBC Radio. Yet

if the future of newspapers is to continue to offer readers the unintended consequenc­es of encounteri­ng what Kristof says is “news we don’t want to hear,” then all of us need to support that kind of new reality.

One of the significan­t pleasures of flipping through the pages of a newspaper is the odd and quirky stories one encounters, along with the consequenc­es of one’s eye being caught by a story too compelling to ignore, even if it does challenge some long-held belief.

Nobody can predict what the newspaper of the future will be like, but everyone interested in the kind of conversati­on that rises above the banal, the obvious and the self-selected has a stake in the answer.

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