Media giants Postmedia and Torstar are set to shut down 40 local newspaper in southwestern Ontario — and students should care. Canadians, at large, need to care.
The move will cut close to 300 jobs and result in cost savings for Torstar of between $5 and $7 million. Paul Godfrey, Postmedia chair, said most of the papers closing no longer have viable business models.
And it's true.
Print advertising revenue will not rebound; the decisions, however grim, make business sense. But this is far from a run-of-the-mill transaction between two Canadian conglomerates — the disappearance of small, Canadian newspapers speaks to a growing rot in our society. Students, surely, will not miss pen-and-ink dailies — we don't read them, but whether we realize it or not, we will leave Western University and walk into a world where public relations specialists outnumber journalists four to one in Canada. And that was in 2014.
Small towns in Ontario, such as St. Marys and Stittsville, will have less news going forward. There will be fewer journalists reporting on city hall meetings, writing community stories or conducting investigations. People may argue that not much happens in small towns, but both Brampton, Ont. and London are examples of the contrary. For example, The Brampton Guardian revealed the mayor spent over $186,000 of public funds inappropriately by claiming flight upgrades and private language lessons. Similarly, London mayor Joe Fontana was charged with fraud in 2014. As a Globe and Mail article pointed out, Ontario's growing cities face a lack of accountability in local governments. As the number of journalists dwindles, this problem will likely only get worse.
Newspapers allow small communities to tell stories about themselves. Hyper-local reporting may seem trite and trivial to students from urban centres, but stories about dognapping and fair winners help build community. Journalists help people foster conversations and exchange ideas. In it's best form, journalism helps communities celebrate the good times and talk about the bad ones. Through pain-staking analysis, journalists can help people make sense of the world around them. Many hometown papers aren't perfect, but in a sea of information, it helps to have a guide from your own neck of the woods.
We won't pretend we know what the solution is. Nobody does, and that's the problem. Many suggest a massive migration to online-only is the answer. However, between 2004 and 2014, newspapers lost $30 billion in print revenue. At the same time, they only gained $2 billion in digital revenue. There's simply not enough money in digital advertising alone to sustain a robust newsroom.
Some are arguing it's time for government intervention. After all, far from a simple product, substantive, diverse information is key to a healthy democracy. In Canada, the federal government hired a think-tank called the Public Policy Forum to suggest policies in support of Canadian journalism during a period of digital disruption and layoffs.
The coming decades will reveal a lot about the Canadian media industry — whether it's going through a period of disruption, reduction or otherwise. Time will also reveal what we value as a society. As American scholar Robert Picard argued, perhaps we were fooling ourselves into thinking hearty news organizations were the norm rather than the historic exception. We hope not.