The best of times, worst of times

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At newspapers, it is the best of times -- journalistically. For instance: During the G20 economic summit in London, I noticed a piece on protests on The Guardian's website by senior correspondent Duncan Campbell. I knew he'd covered the police/crime beat, so I read his critique -- with due respect for police viewpoints -- of their "kettling" strategy, i.e. bottling up protesters, most of them peaceful. Then came word that a London news vendor, Ian Tomlinson, had died of a heart attack during a protest. Police said protesters hindered their efforts to help him. But news followed that he'd only been passing, and police assaulted him from behind, unprovoked. He fell and demonstrators came to his aid.

Duncan Campbell wrote another story, putting this in the context of others who'd died during protests over many decades. And that was supplemented by cellphone footage acquired by The Guardian of police attacking the vendor, while protesters helped him. It is the same technology that refuted RCMP accounts about the tasering of Robert Dziekanski in Vancouver airport. What a combination: a tested, critical journalist, immediately available to anyone via the Internet, backed up by visuals. Nothing like this existed in the past to inform citizens.

And it is the worst of times. People say the industry is teetering on extinction. Some U.S. papers have closed, others gone solely online, as ad revenue tanks. It's partly due to the economy but also to new media technologies. Many people read papers online, for free, making fewer eyeballs to sell to newspaper advertisers. Ads move online, but the return is far lower. Other ads migrate to sites such as Google and The Huffington Post that scavenge the real sources, and sell their own ads, cutting into earnings that pay people such as Duncan Campbell. These are the same technologies that make journalism so much better.

In the past, newspapers often did wretched work journalistically. They incited wars, truckled to wealth and power, suppressed news uncomfortable to advertisers, mythologized their own integrity -- and thrived economically. Now there is better journalism, with a wider range of resources, lots of other papers available, outsiders (such as bloggers) ready to keep insiders honest -- but it all may implode economically, due to ad losses.

Yet, ads are not at all essential to journalism. Papers were once like other products: Users paid full cost, as you do for a loaf of bread. They often seem antithetical to news. Did cigarette ads, for example, hold back stories on lung cancer? There must be other ways. It would be nice to save the baby and let the bathwater -- ad revenue -- drain away, as it's been doing.

Would that mean adding public support, instead? Perhaps. If banks are kept afloat to maintain a flow of credit, what about the flow of information? Isn't it crucial? Or bailouts? Maybe. If you pay for national defence, why not for national debate? Is it worse for papers to depend on public funds than on ads? Private broadcasters are already demanding public support and they are the papers: CanWest Global, CTVglobemedia. How would the model look? A mix of ads, subscriptions, public subsidy somehow distributed internationally in an imaginative way? It's a challenge.

But we already live in a mixed media reality. The CBC and BBC interact fruitfully with private journalism. As for new technologies: The Internet was a public project, handed over to the Googles of the world. Let them give something back. But newspapers, with or without the paper, are crucial to any benefits that accrue through new technologies. They can be supplemented by alternate sources but not replaced, and there's a great public benefit to be reaped. It isn't about state control of content. It's about policies that would allow newspapers to carry on, and evolve, on their own.


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