Pitfalls of a Postmedia world

by Leslie Campbell, September 2010

How corporate media killed quality journalism.

It’s not every month that Focus gets threatening letters from a big corporation. But this month the Times Colonist took issue with one of our web commentaries by Sam Williams. We were confronted with the possibility of being sued by an outfit with deep pockets—or making a small change. We chose the latter.

Writer Williams had suggested there might be a link between the City of Victoria’s advertising expenditure with the TC—it was $163,407 in 2009—and the “supportive” reporting he felt they were doing on the Johnson Street Bridge issue. I’ve been in this business for 23 years and it would be dishonest of me to say we’re not influenced by what we imagine advertisers might think about what we put in this magazine. In the case of the TC, they have the Vivian Smith incident as proof that they are, too (google it or see www.publiceyeonline.com). “A deep chill has descended on freelancers and regular staff alike,” wrote another TC writer at the time.

So I can’t fault Sam for wondering about a potential bias, as it seems there must be some explanation for the local daily’s refusal to do any real digging on the issue of the bridge project, which, is, after all, the largest infrastructure project in this city’s history. The more I learn, the more I realize how sideways things have gone. Sam and I would certainly be happy to see the TC and other media, those with full-time journalists, pick up on some of our findings and carry them further. A lot of the work can be done simply by reading the reports carefully, along with materials available through FOIs.

But instead the TC mostly dishes out a rehash of what’s said at council meetings and in press releases. Why haven’t the numbers been crunched? Why haven’t the engineering or seismic assumptions been more deeply examined? Why haven’t independent sources been consulted? 

True, this all takes time, and time is money. In the past few years advertising revenues for all newspapers have been so diminished that staff cuts and tighter budgets, along with growing online responsibilities, mean journalists have heavy workloads indeed. The Pulitzer-winning investigative team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele write that in these tough economic times, media owners and editors have found “the perfect excuse for abandoning investigative reporting. Instead they concentrate on the ‘he said-she said’ school of journalism, requiring much less investment in staff and time but rendering a huge disservice to readers by often concealing the truth.” Which means the powerful are not held to account. As one media observer wryly noted on CBC Radio: “It’s a great time to be a municipal politician.”

Moreover, journalists have to contend with the über-growth of the public relations industry, whose main goal is to earn favourable media coverage for their clients or employers. As if that weren’t enough, a recent study done by that industry—the 2010 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media Survey—found: “While the majority of media respondents believe there is a clear line [between advertising and editorial], 54 percent of PR practitioners believe that editorial has become ‘much more influenced by advertising,’ with 40 percent having received editorial coverage as a result of a pay-for-play relationship.”

I love good newspapers so have watched in dismay their devolution. In 1980 I helped prepare a brief to the Royal Commission on Newspapers which was set up shortly after the Victoria Times and Colonist papers merged, while other papers in Ottawa and Winnipeg closed in an act of collusion between the Southam and Thomson chains. Most cities went from having two competing dailies to one. 

The conclusions of the Royal Commission, chaired by Tom Kent, focused largely on how the concentration of media ownership squeezed the quality out of newspapers. “[I]industrial conglomerates produce poor newspapers,” said Kent in his report. And he predicted things would only get worse if the government didn’t set down some strict rules and introduce novel ways of rewarding quality content.

His recommendations were fiercely resisted by industry (citing “freedom of the press”). The government shelved them, and the mergers and acquisitions continued—right up through the recent sale of Canwest to Postmedia.

Looking through recent editions of the TC, it’s easy to guess Postmedia is not about to turn things around. Almost all stories are from the Postmedia and other wire services. There’s still an “arts” section full of news about celebrities and TV programs, enough crime reports to give us the impression crime is on the rise when it’s not, and stories about luxurious homes in Montreal or Ottawa. Interviews with Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey suggest a move towards on-the-spot video reports for social media and websites rather than quality reporting.

So I don’t think we can count on Postmedia to help citizens gain the deep understanding of issues that’s required for a healthy democracy.

But most of us don’t complain. Even in this digital era, if you are the only daily in town, you occupy a position of immense power. I’ve known writers who would never say anything derogatory about the TC because they hope to land a full-time job there someday. Others are fearful of commenting publicly because they may not receive coverage of their event, business, book or cause—or they might get sued. But the most important form of its power is how it shapes our world view, our understanding of the issues, by what it covers and how—and what it chooses not to cover. Even with a diminishing readership, even with the rise of the internet, the daily newspaper is for many their window on their community.

Tom Kent warned, “In a country that has allowed so many newspapers to be owned by a few conglomerates, freedom of the press means, in itself, only that enormous influence without responsibility is conferred on a handful of people.”

Leslie Campbell recommends such independent media as http://bchannelnews.tv (Victoria) and http://thetyee.ca and www.publiceyeonline.com (BC) as sources of information and analysis you won’t see in your daily paper. And check out Media Watch at www.focusonline.ca.