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Read All About It: Newspapers Dying Not So Slow Death

Ian Howarth

It pains me to write this. Writing for newspapers is how I’ve made my living (though, as a freelancer, the “living” part is always up for debate) for the past 12 years. But it seems the news of the impending death of the newspaper is not greatly exaggerated.

If Hollywood is any barometer of popular culture, then newspapers are cooked and done. There hasn’t been a major Hollywood film with a newspaper as the central character since Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (playing Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) lit up the screen with their Watergate investigative zeal in the 1976 film All the Presidents Men. (The film, incidentally, won 4 Oscars.) To be fair, the critically acclaimed TV show, The Wire, did feature characters that worked for the Baltimore Sun, but along with the decaying city of Baltimore, The Sun was going down with it.

Looking at scenes from the film and TV newsrooms, one can’t help but be struck by the sheer number of people and activity, particularly in All the Presidents Men. It’s a regular beehive (the noise of typewriters helps the overall ambience.) Even in The Wire (a show that ran from for five seasons ending in 2008 just as the US economy was driven into a ravine) there are a surprising number of people still involved in putting out a newspaper. Unfortunately, we only see all these employees when the publisher of The Sun brings them all together to deliver some bad news about their future.

The bad news has been delivered over and over again to major metropolitan newspapers in North America. Today if you happened into the newsroom of any large-sized city paper, you might be taken aback at how few people are minding the store. A recent Canadian Media Guild study reported the loss of almost 10,000 media-related jobs, 6,000 of them in the print sector. Those are top-to-bottom cuts, from the editor on down to the mailroom. Canada’s only national newspaper (if you don’t count the National Post) The Globe & Mail chose not to print a Labour Day edition for the first time in its history this year, going with an on-line version instead. The G&M no longer delivers to Newfoundland/Labrador and parts of British Columbia. “Just do the simple math,” publisher Phillip Crawley said. “It costs way too much to produce the paper.”
And what are the journalists who have managed to hang on to their jobs doing? According to Jan Wong, journalist/author and now professor of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB, they’re all multi-tasking. “Currently, the pressure is on fewer and fewer journalists to produce more and more copy, many times a day,” she said in a recent J-Source article. “They must Tweet, blog, and Facebook, all the while constantly updating their stories. The problem is, with zero barriers to entry, the frictionless Internet means anyone can put stuff out there. So many people are producing content that no one has time to consume it anymore. There’s so much noise that if you don’t have hard news, if you don’t write clearly and well and engagingly—in short, if you don’t produce quality—you won’t be able to break through for eyes and ears.”

 

What newspaper readers think is quality is somewhat subjective. Likewise with management. The Toronto Star broke the Rob Ford crack story (though Gawker.com would beg to differ) stuck by their story and the journalists on the case. The paper’s reward? The Star announced this week they would be cutting 72 jobs in their sales department. This on the heels of the elimination of 55 jobs – 22 in the newsroom – last March. The Star is being run by around 200-plus employees, half of what they employed 15 years ago.

 

Still, people are getting their hands dirty reading the paper. A Newspaper Audience Bank study of 62 Canadian weeklies and dailies found that 58 percent of readers only read print. Only 9 percent got their news from the Internet (3 percent from their smartphone.) More than three-quarters said they used both print and computers to get their news. Not surprisingly, the study showed that it is the 18-34 demographic that print media is not reaching.

 

After Rogers bought the broadcast rights to NHL games in Canada this week for an obscene $5.2 billion for 12 years (effectively neutralizing any production control over Hockey Night in Canada that the CBC has held for decades) it seems that money can be the beginning and the end of longtime taken-for-granted insitutions. One day, perhaps 10 years from now, a parent may be asked to explain to their child what a newspaper is. Gone the way of the 45-rpm record, the casette, VCRs and quality customer service.

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