National Column: When do media woes become public policy?

Under the guise of a migration to the digital world, Canada’s news media is undergoing the biggest journalistic fire sale of its history.

It is taking place on such a scale that it might be more appropriate to call it a liquidation of information-gathering resources and it is happening under the nose of a political class that is, for the most part,
content to look the other way.

Just last week, some columnists were debating whether Ottawa lacked the gravitas one would normally associate with the capital of a G7 country. Detractors of the city that is home to Parliament will soon be able to add soulless newspapers to the list of its alleged shortcomings.

Tuesday, Postmedia announced that the main print outlets of four of the country’s major cities – including the nation’s capital – will merge their journalistic products.

In Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa, the same journalists will report to both the Postmedia and the Sun papers, with their work to be rewritten by editors to suit the style of each outlet.

For more than 100 years, Montreal’s La Presse was known as the largest French-language daily in America. Since Jan. 1, it is no longer available in print except on Saturday.

The paper’s owners are gambling that, as readership moves over to its tablet edition, their bottom line will improve. But the jury is out as to what toll, if any, the shift will take on the quality and breadth of the province’s public conversation.

The parliamentary press gallery is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Its makeup is a lot more diverse than when I first joined a few decades ago.

But when it comes to reflecting Canada’s regional diversity the trend has gone the other way, with many regional news organizations leaving the Hill, and with other outlets coming to rely on skeleton crews. In the Star’s Parliament Hill bureau there are more empty desks than actual bodies these days.

The print media is not the only casualty of this ongoing meltdown.

Mainstream commercial networks are struggling to adapt to digital viewing habits of their audience – leaving less money to devote to their news coverage. After decades of budget cuts, Radio-Canada and the CBC are shadows of their former selves.

So far, the reaction of Canada’s political class has mostly ranged from indifference to public hand-wringing. On Twitter on Tuesday, the mayors of the cities involved in the Postmedia announcement expressed regrets at the news.

So did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But there must be a point when the steady disintegration of the country’s fifth estate’s news-gathering and news-getting functions becomes a public policy issue.

There will be some to actually rejoice in the notion that a shrunk news media will have less potential for digging out embarrassing stories. The corruption inquiry in Quebec and the sponsorship scandal on Parliament Hill both had their source in persistent journalism.

Less short-sighted politicians may consider that they are ignoring this crisis at their own peril. A less informed electorate is more easily manipulated and less engaged.

And at a time when parties are toying with notions such as compulsory voting and more participatory democracy, is the decline in political literacy that stands to result from an impoverished information environment a desirable outcome?

On the heels of a three-year study of the Canadian media landscape in 2006, a Senate committee warned that Canada was tolerating a concentration of media ownership most other countries would find
worrisome. And it noted that the consistent depletion of these resources of the country’s public broadcaster compounded the problem.

Some take solace in the notion that Trudeau’s government is committed to reinvesting in the CBC. But a news environment dominated by one media organization – even the public broadcaster – does not amount to a healthy one.

In any event, what followed the Senate report was a decade of laissez-faire that often saw owners sympathetic to the government of the day given free rein over larger media empires, combined with ever-closer-to-the-bone cuts to the CBC.

What we have today is a weaker public broadcaster in a field of journalistic ruins and Canada’s national fabric is the poorer for it.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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