The bad news about the news

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The CBC is laying off 70 news employees, and has announced $7 million in cutbacks for newsgathering. Canadian based AbitibiBowater, the world's largest supplier of newsprint has sought, and received bankruptcy protection in Delaware, and Quebec. Canwest Global, owner of the once proud Southam chain of newspapers that dominate major English language markets in Canada outside Toronto (except, ironically, Winnipeg home of the current ownership group, the Asper family) lost $1.4 billion in the three months between Dec. 2008 and Feb. 2009.


The bad news coming from the newsrooms across Canada is also about the news business.


To find out more about what bad news about the news means for Canada, rabble.ca organized an evening forum at the University of Toronto sponsored by OPIRG (Ontario Public Interest Research Group). Scheduled as part of rabble.ca's eighth birthday celebrations, What's Wrong With Our Newspapers? featured as keynote speakers best selling authors Peter C. Newman, and (rabble.ca contributor) Linda McQuaig, along with social media guru, and rabble.ca board member Wayne MacPhail.


Newman has just published Izzy, a biography of the founder of the Canwest media empire, the late Izzy Asper. Now a contributing editor at Maclean's, the magazine he formerly edited and remade into today's weekly newsmagazine, Newman confided to the audience that each week he scrutinizes Canwest closely. Is this the week it will go under?


Also a former Toronto Star editor-in-chief, Newman described Canadian newspapers as boring. You turn the pages, and do not find enough interesting stories to read.


What should newspaper be? "Carriers of hope," said Newman. This long-time Canadian nationalist, co-founder in 1970 of the very influential Committee for an Independent Canada, precursor of groups such as the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, believes the media are the "arteries of community."


As McQuaig explained in her remarks, right now those very communications arteries are under the control of the same corporations that dominate the country. In her inimitable style, McQuaig asked the audience to imagine a feminist controlled newspaper. When it talked about feminism, would anybody be surprised? So should we expect a corporate controlled newspaper not to promote corporate values, and not to lay out a corporate vision for and about Canada?


The public has an appetite for news not satisfied by commercial television or radio outlets. Commercial newspapers -- famously delivering a market to advertisers -- have lost touch with their audiences. Focus groups tell publishers where their readers shop; it takes real editors and journalists to find out, and deliver what they prefer to read.

It is the capitalist business model of newspapers that is broken. The need for media outlets that practice critical journalism, investigative reporting and join in the celebration of life on this earth in all its wonders -- without turning away from its horrors -- is more necessary than ever.


The country needs to look at other models for public support of newsgathering as rabble.ca contributor Rick Salutin argued this week. "If banks are kept afloat to maintain a flow of credit, what about the flow of information?" asked Rick, demonstrating his special ability to pass through the thicket of prevailing opinion.


Those of us who believe "the truth shall set you free" have already decided to look elsewhere than our daily Canadian newspapers.


In his presentation MacPhail, who started Southam's Infolab in early 1991, talked about how newspapers had derided the World Wide Web, almost to the day they realized their readership had migrated to it from newsprint.


The Internet exists as the electronic archive of humanity. It is interactive, and supports multi-media platforms. It remains that the best news on the Web cannot be gathered without journalists someone has to pay. By cutting back on journalists, and deeming news reporting expendable, our newspapers got themselves in trouble, but Canada loses also.


If major city newspapers are too important to disappear, then when they fail, we need a community owned model to start them up again.


Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

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