The most important individual in the last millennium is Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, according to CNN. The printing press led to the widespread publication of the Bible and massively increased the availability of literature; everything from Twilight to The Great Gatsby are made possible by Gutenberg’s genius. But more than anything, the technology of the printing press led to the creation of a news cycle. In the last 50 years, the news cycle has become constant, expanding from an hour on one station to 24 hours and universal availability. Behind every one of those papers, stories and columns — is a journalist.
Well-pressed suits, perfectly sculpted hair and the reverberant, confident voices seemed to emanate from many journalists, but there also seemed to be an ever-present suppressed fear and anxiety about the future of the profession. This is the impression I got this week at NASH ’77, the Canadian University Press’ (CUP) annual conference that brought together members of student media across the country, as well as established journalists, photographers and reporters.
The entire art of journalism seems to be on a precipice of transition, which even industry monoliths like CBC, The National Post and metropolitan daily papers can’t escape.
The national conference hosted esteemed journalists Peter Mansbridge (CBC), Lisa LaFlamme (CTV), Scott Gilmore (Maclean’s) and Diana Swain (CBC), all of whom gave keynote speeches or hosted seminars. Even industry veteran Mansbridge, when presented with the question of “what will The National look like in five years?”, stumbled and gave a loose response that it will be different.
The National is a prime time news program that airs weeknights on CBC and has the highest viewership ratings in Canada. If the future of a show as solid and well-known as that is uncertain, then what greater pressures and fears surround less financially secure news companies and publications that are becoming increasingly neglected and irrelevant?
Closer to the truth:
A journalist’s job is to bring the audience closer to the truth. Beyond all the politics, the readership and the advertising — the truth is the whole point. What happens, though, if the intricate relationship between journalist and audience is severed through a breach of trust?
In current news, headlines swirl around the virtual news marketplace following scandals involving two well-known names in broadcasting — Leslie Roberts (Global) and Amanda Lang (CBC), one of which, Roberts, resigned as a result of the controversy.
Both cases represent conflicts of interest for the anchors. Roberts is a part owner of the Toronto-based public relations company, Buzz PR, an organization that represents clients such as Checkout 51, Snap Saves, Jacquie Somerville and ironically, Royal Bank Canada (RBC). After the Toronto Star reported on Roberts scheduling interviews, providing air time and plugging Buzz PR clients, an internal Global probe also found that Roberts had breached his contract through this conflict of interest.
Lang’s conflict of interest was also monetary in nature, as the CBC Senior Business Correspondent appeared to be trading positive reviews and press coverage for high profile and lucrative speaking positions. Similarly, Canadaland discovered that Lang was romantically involved with Gordon Nixon, President & CEO of RBC, whose conflict of interest involved suppressing a fellow CBC journalist’s story dedicated to the RBC scandal.
Evidently, these two journalists have not only disrupted their careers, but destabilized the entire industry. If there is no trust between the reporter and the audience, then the news becomes irrelevant and the opinions become lies.
In terms of studies and research polls, the numbers do not look good for those in the media, specifically according to the raw data presented by The Montreal Gazette, which states that in popular public opinion, the most trusted professions seem to be doctors, whom 75 per cent of the public say that they “trust the most”, whereas journalists rate among the lowest. Another study, by Gfk-verein states that journalists across the globe are trusted by 64 per cent of the population in popular opinion. To put this into perspective, politicians rank at 31 per cent, whereas firemen rank 90 per cent.
Changing the venue:
Typing in blogger.com, creating a username, password and thinking of a site name that uses a rhyme or hook to set yourself apart – that’s all it takes to have a voice in the greater rhetorical conversation of the press. Let’s say I go online and create a blog-site called “Sir Isaac Squid”, which would be a very evident knockoff of our very own beloved “Brocktopus”. Within an hour, I can create a piece that’s out there for anyone to read. It can say anything, it can be on any topic and it can be anywhere on the spectrum between fact and fiction.
In this increasingly digitalized age, newspapers, radio shows and broadcast networks have become multi- faceted, relying on social media traction and engagement to pay their bills.
This is not reserved for the mega-circulation papers and news outlets, however, as student newspapers across the country are also beginning to rely on the web as their primary content platform. The problem with this online battle being waged against bloggers and the toothless, 10,000 pound gorilla known as “Buzzfeed”, is that journalists are entering into the blogger’s realm.
A realm without fact-checking, and oftentimes no facts at all, is the reality across many blogs. There is no responsibility to ethics or proper practice, but rather, emotional outbursts. That’s not to say that blogs and the democratic web is not an interesting frontier for content, as it most certainly voices so many varied opinions and viewpoints that otherwise would not be heard. Ultimately however, there’s a blogger culture to accept what is said based on the fact that it is being said.
The issue is not the element of competition, but rather the degradation of that which many would call, “esteemed journalism”. In fact, a little competition might be good for the industry, as it increases timeliness, adds a sense of urgency and prevents publications from pumping out the same issue week after week, in which the only change is the date on the masthead.
That being said, this competition is not necessarily constructive, especially when it is a fight for interest rather than quality or content. It seems as if Buzzfeed specifically, has entered into a contest with the rest of the media into seeing who can write the most abbreviated pieces and include the most pictures. When publications compete in a context like this, both the publishers and readers lose.
Cuts across the board:
Charlie Hebdo has certainly brought the importance of journalism into the spotlight within the past few weeks, and even after the terror and sensationalization ends, the freedom of press, speech and public knowledge will remain equally important. Ultimately, in a week when raving collectors and readers waited outside of almost every newsstand and bookstore that sold the Jan. 16 issue of Charlie Hebdo to secure their copy, this is “wartime”. Last week I received a confused look when purchasing a copy of The Niagara Falls Review and The National Post from a convenience store in my neighbourhood. In peacetime, when the news articles and viral advocacy of journalistic freedom ends, much of the general public will go back to raiding newspapers simply to extract Swiss Chalet coupons.
This was the context in which myself, and three of my colleagues attended this conference for young journalists. It’s a time of transition, a time of terror and a war for the values to which a free, independent press desperately clings.
Even in the global wake of these violent acts against writers for voicing their opinions and acting within their protected rights of free speech, backlash and appropriated threats are not, in my opinion, the biggest threat to the ability of a free press to operate, rather funding.
Many of the keynote speakers at NASH were well-respected journalists, from The National Post, The Ottawa Citizen and especially from the CBC, and a common thread throughout their presentation was budget cuts. I heard at least two or three speakers in my short few days discuss the fact that departments that once boasted ten to twenty individual writers and editors were cut to a single editor who became responsible for every intricacy in running a daily section. That’s not an investment in quality, but it seems to be an inevitable reality in the modern journalistic landscape.
There seems to be no refuge from financial stress and its imposed restrictions. Papers are getting smaller, funding is being limited, the articles are getting shorter and the research is becoming less important than the amount of time in which you can produce something publishable and upload it to WordPress.
I agree with the fears of the present journalists: things truly seem grim for the industry, despite the fact there will always be a need for media representation, reporting and insightful, correct news.
Ultimately, what the journalism business will be in five years is whatever you want it to be. Every day you pick up a daily newspaper or your student newspaper, you are making a vote for a specific form of media — a specific product. Every time you turn on The National, you are making an argument for broadcasting and every time you click a viral news site’s link on Facebook, you are choosing social media as the voice you want to hear. Alternately, every time you ignore those posts, that broadcast and walk past that paper, you also cast a vote.
In my short time at the conference and my similarly short time working for this paper, I’ve learned a lot about the industry, but more than anything, I’ve come to realize that it’s not as much about the authors, the articles, the editorials, or the illustrations, in so much as it’s about the reader. If your reader agrees, if the reader learns, then the publication is justified.
“A job on a newspaper is a special thing. Every day you take something that you found out about, and you put it down and in a matter of hours it becomes a product” — Jimmy Brestin.
A paper, more specifically this paper, provides a more official forum for discussion, opinion, factual news and constant discourse. Just as every newspaper is responsible to its readers, The Brock Press is responsible to you, the Brock University students and this paper’s funders.
While some would argue that student newspapers don’t have a function in our society, attending the CUP’s annual conference resolutely enforced what I already knew — that there’s an important institutional purpose to independent student newspapers.
As an institution, Brock is a major force in the Niagara Region. It represents the single greatest employer in the region and collects an enormous amount of money through tuition fees — thus, it is important that as an enterprise, they are held accountable. The Brock Press represents the only consistent, independent student-run news source on campus — a calling that is not taken lightly.