“Right now, the industry exists in a limbo where many of the old models are dying before the new ones have become profitable. It’s not clear whose responsibility it should be to save these institutions. The government? The platforms that undermined them in the first place? Or the consumers who have never fully paid for content but who stand to lose the most if the media goes away?”
— Jessica Johnson, Editor, The Walrus
Have I told you this story before? The one about my “aha” moment when I glimpsed the shining north star of what seemed like the future of journalism, followed by my “oh-no” moment — a moment after that — when I realized my shining star had already turned into a gaping black hole?
It’s worth repeating.
It happened sometime in the early 1990s, soon after something called hypertext begat the World Wide Web, which begat a buggy browser called Mosaic, which begat the mind-freeing realization it was suddenly possible bring together text and images on a virtual page and then share that page with the world on new-fangled interconnected computer networks.
Et voilà. Your daily — perhaps hourly, maybe even someday always-publishing — newspaper right on your computer!
That could change everything, not least for the business of journalism.
The accepted rule of economic thumb in the traditional print-on-paper daily newspaper industry had been that editorial — supposedly a newspaper’s primary raison d’être — represented just 20 per cent of the cost of producing each actual ink-rubbed copy. The rest was gobbled up by the necessities of printing, production, distribution.
To pay for that, there was yet another rule of fickle finger: advertising sales typically covered 80 per cent of your costs, while readers — through subscriptions and one-off sales — carried the modest rest of the freight…
What if you could eliminate those massively expensive printing presses and the fleets of newspaper delivery trucks required to make your morning miracle of a newspaper arrive at your door?
For only the 20 per cent real cost of gathering and reporting the news — which subscribers were already paying anyway — you could create a newspaper exclusively for readers, one free from the malign influences and constraints of bills-paying advertisers who inevitably preferred their news their way for the rest of us.
I had seen the future, and it could work.
I imagine now that this moment of journalistic clarity happened late one night, probably in a bar among other ink-stained wretches even as the next day’s newspaper rumbled into life on printing presses nearby. It may have happened like that. There was almost certainly alcohol involved.
The moment did not last. Within what seemed like minutes but may have been hours or maybe months, publishers decided to do what had worked for them in the past. They made news their loss leader, sticking it on the internet for free and assuming someone, somewhere, somehow would soon step up and pay for it all.
Thirty years later, we know how that worked out for them. And for us.
I couldn’t help thinking again about that moment last week as I read Jessica Johnson’s “O’Hagan Essay on Public Affairs” in the latest edition of The Walrus.
Johnson’s 5,500-word essay on the state and future of journalism — the O’Hagan family’s latest commissioned “research-based examination of the current economic, social, and political realities of Canada” — is thoughtful, thought-provoking, complex and, ultimately, as confounding as its subject.
Which is as it should be because, well, because it is — and that makes Johnson’s own take on the future of journalism worth considering. Johnson is not only the executive director and creative director of The Walrus, the product of a nonprofit foundation but also herself a veteran newspaper reporter and editor and an award-winning magazine writer.
In her essay, Johnson ventures down many rabbit holes and gets productively lost in a Viet Cong labyrinth of rabbit warrens. When she ultimately emerges, it is still with more questions than answers.
Consider that the essay is billed on the cover as a question: “Will Canadian Journalism Survive?” Inside, the headline is a more hopeful “Tomorrow’s News,” while the web version headline seeks an answer to what she calls “Journalism’s Wicked Problem: Save What’s Lost or Invest in What’s New?”
That last is the question I think we need to address most urgently.
Thirty years ago, we tried to make the old new just by cobbling our old ways of doing things on the new realities of the internet.
That, among many other related and unrelated causes — can you say Facebook, Google, Amazon, Conrad Black, the Aspers, Postmedia, mega-merger mania, bottom-feeding hedge-fund asset peddlers, Donald Trump, COVID? — has helped create the mess we’re in.
Who, Johnson asks in the quote that began this column, will take responsibility for saving journalism now?
I doubt it will be governments, who’ve shown themselves to be under the sway of an industry whose key players are still busy trying to rearrange their own deck chairs on the Titanic for a better view of the apocalypse. It certainly won’t be platforms like Facebook and Google, who won’t do anything governments don’t force them to do. For what governments might do, see above.
Which brings it back to us, “the consumers who have never fully paid for content but who stand to lose the most if the media goes away.”
Without trying to turn this column into a post-November Halifax Examiner subscription drive — or worse, a Hallmark moment — it is worth making the point that those who are saving journalism today and making sure it has a future are, in fact, people like you, subscribers willing to pay for the news you get and — we hope — getting what you pay for.
So, thank you. And Happy Holidays.
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While it’s true that there may not be a “one-size-fits-all” way of saving journalism, we do have one model in Canada that is working now and could work so much better with reorganization and adequate funding. It’s called the CBC — the country’s largest news organization. It broadcasts in a variety of languages and also provides journalism on the web, regionally, provincially and locally. It’s funded mainly from two sources, the federal Parliament (OK read government here) and advertising. Much could be done to improve it, but I’d suggest two immediate ways. (1) Parliament could provide enough multi-year funding to allow the CBC to get out of the ad business and leave that to the private sector (2) The CBC could be given a mandate to strengthen local news coverage in partnership with now struggling local papers and broadcasters. The BBC has been experimenting with what it calls Local News Partnerships since 2017 https://www.bbc.com/lnp/ The advantage of this is that it builds on an already existing and successful journalistic organization and it’s a highly adaptable model.
People in power, and their institutions, would generally prefer not to be scrutinized. It is the same reason that they, including our governments of course, resist effective openness, transparency, and accountability.
Only citizens, and society writ large, have the direct motivation for these things. The big question is whether or not we realize it before it is gone, and possibly gone along with the means to reclaim them.
A stable democracy seems to always slide backward without deliberate and constant effort by a small but critical mass of citizens. Without the information provided by journalists, such effort will not be enough.
The (UK) Guardian seems to be thriving with its model of all content free, but please pay for it as it is truly great journalism and you don’t want it to die, do you?