What Happens if Newspapers Disappear?
One story last week sent chills down my spine.
The federal government admitted it’s studying the possibility of the country’s two largest newspaper chains going out of business. The Heritage department tried to make it sound like routine business, but I’m sure our national government wasn’t considering this question a decade ago. To think that Postmedia and the Toronto Star could go out of business is deeply concerning for anyone who reads newspapers, follows the news, or thinks that freedom of the press is important. So I guess that covers pretty well everyone.
It got me thinking what life would be like without newspapers and what news coverage would be like if they didn’t exist. I’m pretty sure that day will come, but what would it be like if that day came in the next few years?
Printing Red Ink
First some background. Postmedia owns a number of broadsheet daily newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen and many others, along with dozens of weekly papers. It also owns the old Sun newspaper chain because of the federal government’s unbelievable decision to allow Postmedia to buy the 173-newspaper chain in the spring of 2015. The Toronto Star is Canada’s biggest newspaper and it publishes daily papers in Hamilton and Waterloo, along with around 100 weekly papers. Both chains are reporting major drops in readership, advertising and in the case of Postmedia – a crippling debt load.
When I wrote my most popular blog post ever My Divorce From the Edmonton Journal earlier this fall, the reaction was stunning. It was read over ten times as much as my average blog. Obviously I struck a nerve when it came to people, their newspapers and their reading habits.
The blog was about my decision to leave the printed Journal behind after reading it for over 50 years, and move to a digital subscription. Imagine what the reaction would be like if Canada’s biggest newspapers shut down? It might happen. The federal government’s actions seem to make it more probable than ever before.
The big papers are already fishing for more advertising money from the federal government and tax breaks for companies that advertise in newspapers. I’m sure TV, radio stations and other forms of media, including digital offerings, would be thrilled to see the government subsidize newspaper advertising (he wrote sarcastically).
Newspapers Create Content For All
Let’s pray the day never comes when daily newspapers disappear and take many successful weeklies across Canada with them. The obvious loss to the public will be a tremendous drop in information available. I remember in January when the Postmedia Purge resulted in dozens of journalists across the country being let go. As I joined many others lamenting what had happened, a person wrote something on Twitter that has stuck with me to this day. That Tweet read “Sad about all those newspaper reporters losing their jobs, but I get my news online.”
Where do you think your digital news comes from? Much of it can be traced back to newspaper reporters in any city in Canada. A reporter for a major daily newspaper will first send a Tweet with a few details about the story, write a short story for the paper’s website and then a longer version for the next edition of the paper and website. I wrote a blog about that process earlier this year. It's much the same with weekly papers that are doing an excellent job covering news in their communities and are well read. It's too bad that so many are owned by Postmedia or the Star.
That story done by a print reporter then goes to the digital version of a wire service, so it’s shared with other news outlets. They pick up the story and either run it as it is, or get their own reaction and story angles to it. If it wasn’t for the original story from the newspaper they would have nowhere to begin. Although newspapers aren’t coming up with as many scoops as they used to, due to massive cutbacks in reporting staffs, newspapers still likely generate more local stories than TV, radio and other digital media combined. I’ll repeat that – combined.
If newspapers were to disappear, so would many of the local stories that appear, not just in the paper, but in other forms of media like TV and radio and yes, online as well.
Fewer Reporters = Less Truth
We saw some alarming examples during the US election of “fake news” and how quickly inaccurate stories can be spread in social media. These are stories created by websites that’s sole aim is to get people sharing and clicking on their stories. More shares and clicks, the more money they make. Facts, who cares? Actually facts to these websites are somewhat important because the more a story can look like the real thing, the more people will share and click on it.
Fake news is here, it’s real and it won’t be going away. I expect fake news will be a significant part of the next federal election in Canada. It becomes more difficult to figure out what’s bogus and what’s accurate when there’s less accurate news content being created and this is what really concerns the Trudeau government. As we saw in the US election, fake news plays into the hands of those who want change. There’s no government in the world that wants anyone to create news stories that look real, but are filled with inaccuracies, especially if they’re making the government look bad and crying for a need to elect somebody else. The prospect of fake news organizations outnumbering real ones is extremely sobering.
Fewer newspapers with fewer reporters mean less real journalism, and as a result it will become more difficult to battle the fake news outlets, especially as more people get their news from social media sites like Facebook.
A Newspaper Armageddon
If newspapers ceased to exist, there’s little question in my mind that a few things would happen.
An information gap would be created and I would expect a number of new, digital news providers would be created. A few are already around in niche markets. Just a few weeks ago Taproot Edmonton was announced. I would see these news channels signing up subscribers and providing news content in a daily online edition with text updates on major stories, not unlike what newspapers are doing now. They would be much smaller of course, but also be nimble and responsive to what their subscribers want.
I think people would search for news information more and make a larger effort to watch the TV news and maybe radio would even get back into the news game in a bigger way. News has almost disappeared on FM. Maybe it would make a comeback on FM and become a bigger part of AM stations as well?
I would also expect social media would be a larger platform for news services. Many people already list Facebook as their major source for news. While former journalists like me aren’t happy when they hear that, it is reality.
The biggest question remains whether people, in large enough numbers, will pay to make these upstart news organizations work?
What if they don't? If major daily papers do disappear, perhaps life would go on as it is, without newspapers, or the news their reporters create? Maybe there will be little change in the coverage on TV or radio and perhaps those new digital news sources won’t be successful because people won’t pay for digital products?
I don’t know the answer. I do know a Canada without newspapers won’t be the same.