I’m hearing the same message from many friends: it’s awful out there. With the economy going from bad to worse, we’re all focused on keeping our heads down and doing our jobs. Some of us have taken on more than one title at the same company in the hopes that it will make us less disposable. For the first time members of my generation know what it’s like to have their job security threatened en masse. We know that if we don’t do our jobs, someone else gladly will.
My current business, newspapers, is no exception. In the United States, Tribune Co. (owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and other daily newspapers) has filed for bankruptcy and the New York Times looked to mortgage their building to generate funds. Here in Canada, Sun Media cut 600 jobs in December, and in back-to-back announcements this month the Globe and Mail eliminated 90 positions and The Chronicle Herald cut 24 reporters, or almost a full quarter of their newsroom. Meanwhile Canwest, which owns daily local papers across the country as well as the National Post, has seen their stock plummet to less than a dollar a share and is desperately attempting to sell assets while having their borrowing ability curtailed. In other words, the newspaper business is in serious trouble.
John Honderich, former publisher of The Toronto Star, recently argued in said publication that the decline of newspapers “should concern us all:”
For me, it relates directly to the very quality of our democracy. In order for all of us to live meaningfully and participate in our community, we must be appropriately informed.
In this regard, the quality of public debate, if not the very quality of life in any community, is a direct function of the quality of media that serve it. Indeed, the functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed populace.
By that measure we must deem the news media in recent years to be a complete failure.
The “quality of public debate” has not been lower in living memory. Politicians fuel their campaigns entirety on spin, void of substance, never fearing that anyone will call them on it. Once elected, even Parliamentarians in the highest offices can be counted on to sink to the lowest levels of discourse. Members of the government recently went so far as to describe actions of the opposition as “treason” and a “coup d’Ã©tat” when they were, in fact, operating well within the rules of our Parliamentary democracy.
Enter the “well-informed populace,” which, not knowing any better, believed the government’s blatant lies. A survey conducted by Ipsos Reid for the Dominion Institute shortly after the coalition debacle revealed that the majority of Canadians lack an understanding of some of the most basic elements of how their democracy functions.
And what of that “healthy, functioning” democracy? Far better than the countries that have none to be sure, but a far cry from where it should be too. We remain one of the last parliamentary democracies on Earth to use an antiquated voting system that delivers results we did not ask for. This, despite the fact that when citizens have studied the issue, they have chosen change. Of those entrenched institutions standing in the way of democratically-driven voting reform, few have been as staunch as newspapers (including Honderich’s).
By these measures, the news media is not doing its job, and that should indeed concern us all. It should also concern the media, because if you don’t do your job, someone else gladly will. And right now, even a comedian from Newfoundland with a standard definition TV and a one dollar pointer is giving you a run for your money.