Jump to navigation
BC Liberal Email Adds Grease to Sliding Trust in News Media
But the way journalism gets made is too complex for simple conspiracy theories.
Former Global TV reporter Jas Johal, now a BC Liberal MLA: How cozy was he with BC Liberal communications team?
But the fact that most of us leap to the conclusion that there’s some orchestrated corruption afoot reflects something found in some recent international research about the declining trust in news media. Canada is one of the countries where the decline is sharpest.
News outlets aren’t just selling news; they’re selling trust. And in Canada, legacy media have spent a good three decades squandering that trust.
‘End of the world’
I could count all the ways news media have driven off their readers, viewers and listeners since the 1970s, and treated them in a shabby fashion, just because they could. In the case of newspapers, their virtual monopoly with advertisers kept their profits up to astonishing highs of 30 to 40 per cent, so they didn’t have to think much about hooking and holding readers. As for TV — which newspapers whined were stealing their audience while relying on their reporters — it was known as “the licence to print money.”
But I’d say the turning point for the public’s trust in news media came in 2001, shortly after Canwest, the broadcasting company owned by Winnipeg’s Asper family, added the Southam chain of newspapers to its media empire — including the Vancouver Sun, the Province, and the Victoria Times-Colonist. The company announced the head office would produce editorials for the chain, expressing the Aspers’ point of view on a variety of issues. Then they began limiting what journalists could say when it ran contrary to the official company line.
Articles at the time describe the newsroom reaction as “mutiny.” Reporters at the Montreal Gazette even pulled their bylines in protest.
“I can say to our critics and especially to the bleeding hearts in the journalist community that it’s the end of the world as they know it — and I feel fine,” David Asper bragged in a well-reported speech he gave in January 2002, to an audience of Oakville, Ontario business leaders.
Journalists all watched slack-jawed. Had Asper really just told the world that he was planning to turn his newspapers into something resembling a Canwest company newsletter? What possible appeal could that have for the average reader?
For much of the 20th century, the newspaper-of-record model was predicated on the notion that editorial independence had economic value and you served the business best by serving the readers well. If you can’t attract an audience, you have nothing to sell to advertisers.
I’ve dubbed that “The Myth of Woodstein,” because it’s a marketing strategy as often as it’s a fact. Journalism was a competitive business in the post-war era, and newspapers in particular sold themselves as the champions of the average citizen. They were “the watchdog of society” and claimed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Sometimes it was even true. But really, this is what the advertising world means when they say you sell the sizzle, not the steak.
Turning sizzle to fizzle
In the space of about 20 minutes, Asper had managed to undo decades of smart marketing and devalue his own product by announcing the sizzle was an illusion. Because Canwest owned so much of Canadian media at the time, he managed to rob everyone else of sizzle too.
In retrospect, it may be that Asper was so used to having a monopoly that he didn’t realize the arrival of broadband Internet meant that he was now operating in a competitive climate — his readers had somewhere else to go. And his advertisers followed them. Later, the company backtracked on the editorial plan, but it was too late. No one was surprised when it began bankruptcy proceedings in 2009.
But after that little speech, every conspiracy theorist could cite evidence that Canadian news media were run by powerful people who were furthering their own ideological agendas at the expense of their readers.
Scrambling for Profit, Media Slip 'Custom Content' into Mix
And you can see why someone might think that. Still, at the same time, I saw a lot of reporters who worked under their mastheads doing some exceptional news stories. Despite what the owner said, the institutions were predisposed to doing journalism and they carried on as well as they could, in spite of interference and cutbacks.
The Times it is a changin’