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Mediacheck

Who Wants to Save Newspapers?

The U.S. news industry buzzes with effort to win back readers. Here, most editors slumber while bad numbers pile up.

By John Miller 8 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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 Most journalists are not confident about the future of journalism.

They fear that the economic behaviour of their companies is eroding the quality of what they write or broadcast, making it thinner and shallower.

More than 80 percent of people in the news business believe they pay “too little attention ... to complex issues.”

All this is bad enough, but it gets worse: When readers are asked what they think of the state of the news media, they say that journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased and generally more harmful to democracy than they were 20 years ago.

Here are some numbers that should make all journalists quake: The number of readers who think news organizations try to cover up their mistakes rose from 13 percent in 1985 to 67 percent today; and those who feel that news organizations care about the people they report on declined from 41 percent to 30 percent.

What this means is that there is an unprecedented disconnect: Journalists believe they are working in the public interest, and trying to be fair and independent despite the pressure from their owners to make more money; the public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves – they’re working for vested interests.

Bad news is in

These are some of the findings of The State of the News Media 2004, a massive survey carried out for the U.S.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated with Columbia University. Its authors, Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell conclude: “Faced with declining audiences, many major news institutions have changed their product in a way that costs less to produce while still attracting an audience. The public senses this and says it doesn’t like it.”

Although the project surveyed only U.S. media, you’d think its findings would be debated by journalists everywhere, especially in Canada where the same patterns – declining readers, declining viewers, cost-cutting in the newsroom, convergence – have been evident for years.

But nothing like this is happening in the insular world of Canadian journalism. Most editors and producers have never heard of the report, let alone read it or debated it with their colleagues.

Nor has there been any debate about a Canadian version of the same study, showing that Canadians are slightly more optimistic than Americans about the role of the media in solving problems in society -- 48 percent felt that here versus 31 percent in the U.S. But the study of news media credibility, conducted by the Canadian Media Research Consortium, showed that Canadians were less sure than Americans that the news media were truly independent. Seventy-six percent of us felt that media were influenced by powerful people or organizations, and only 19 percent felt that the media were truly independent.

This lack of professional concern is part of a tired old story. Canadian journalism can be like a stagnant pool. It lacks both a forum and the desire for professional debate and improvement. As newspapers, in particular, come under increased pressure to change by the faster delivery of news on the Internet, and at a time when convergence, corporatization and declining circulation are taking their toll on newsroom budgets, the lack of professional concern for journalism is insane.

Concentrated mediocrity One of Canada’s brightest young editors, Dana Robbins of the Hamilton Spectator, blames what he calls a “leadership deficit” at most Canadian dailies, and their reliance on tired old formulas to try to arrest a 20-year decline in readership. “We tend to look for solutions within our own buildings, rather than looking outside.” The concentration of ownership of newspapers, he says, has resulted in insular, corporate thinking and a reluctance to share ideas. “Virtually everyone is viewed as the competition.”

Ironically, Robbins believes Canadian newspapers can be more innovative than their counterparts in the United States – it’s just that no one ever finds out about it. In the U.S., fresh ideas are debated and developed in professional forums. In Canada, that never happens. “In Canada,” he says, “you could have the most innovative newsroom in the country and other editors would consider it beneath them to ask you about it.” Consider the evidence:  The website of the American Society of Newspaper Editors bursts with energy. It contains reports on newspaper credibility, civic journalism, developing the “learning newsroom” and “best practices” for covering local news. There are more than 100 tips for better journalism, and the latest issue of the ASNE’s magazine, The American Editor. Its counterpart organization in Canada, the Canadian Association of Newspaper Editors, has a website that contains long-uncaught typos in its statement of purpose, has information on only one upcoming training session, and says this when you click on Best Practices: “To come.”

No diversity mandate

ASNE reports complete paper-by-paper results of its annual newsroom diversity census from 927 newspapers, part of the organization’s goal to have newsrooms reflect the percentage of minorities in society. It’s been doing this for 28 years, documenting the slow progress towards  representative newsrooms. In Canada, CANE professes no diversity mandate. The only information on diversity on the Canadian Newspaper Association website is a decade old. Minorities remain five times under-represented in Canada’s newsrooms, way out of touch with their changing communities, and no one seems to care.

The Canadian Association of Journalists boasts 1,400 members, but many aren’t journalists. A “who’s who” list of top Canadian journalists is a “who’s who” list of people who do not belong to the CAJ. It runs mostly on volunteer help, and contributes little to the debate about how to make journalism better. Any serious discussion on the association’s on-line discussion list is usually cut short by someone using the tired argument that journalism isn’t a profession, and never should be.

This lack of dialogue runs deep. Canada’s university-based journalism schools have developed in isolation as well, and there is no mechanism for sharing ideas and knowledge among them. Research tends to be conducted within English and French “silos,” despite a national research consortium set up between Laval, UBC and York-Ryerson with a multi-million donation from Bell Globemedia. There is no industry-academic accrediting body for journalism education, as there is in the U.S. Journalists are being trained without a standard core curriculum, and frequently without any meaningful input from potential employers.

Curse of the stay-at-home editor

A lively professional discourse among journalists can contribute to higher standards of journalism. American editors talk a lot about things like credibility at industry gatherings. In the past year U.S. news organizations have taken a tougher line than their Canadian counterparts on issues like plagiarism and fabrication. Case in point: When Jack Kelley was suspected of fabricating sources, the publisher of USA Today called in three respected outside editors to investigate. After a thorough inquiry documented his transgressions, Kelley was fired and the paper’s editor resigned. When I told one of the investigators, Bill Kovach, that such a thing would never happen in Canada, he was incredulous. But when Brad Evenson of the National Post was discovered to be fabricating sources, the paper called in no outsiders and eventually ran a slipshod and unspecific 4-inch clarification  on page two. No editor felt any need to resign. Evenson is no longer at the Post, but other Canadian plagiarists have kept their jobs.

Ideas are carried from paper to paper in the U.S. by top editors and reporters who are actively recruited and scouted at regional and national job fairs. That does not happen in Canada, and it is not unusual for journalists to stay at the same paper all their careers. Lack of turnover can be a particular problem at small papers, where tight newsroom budgets restrict training and development. If you hire problems there, they may never go away.

Speaking of that, Canada has no counterpart to the American Press Institute or Poynter Institute for Media Studies, well-funded professional development centres where new ideas are propagated. Nor do we have any Pew Center to explore new ways that journalism can fulfill its mandate to serve democracy, or a Committee of Concerned Journalists to refresh journalistic standards.

In danger of irrelevance

It would be tempting to see this solely as an American problem, but as we all know, there are many things wrong with Canadian journalism. Mass-market media are losing their audience, yet much of the new investment in journalism today goes toward disseminating the news, not toward collecting it. There are fewer reporters and editors in our newsrooms today than there were 10 years ago. News organizations are falling further away from their communities. They cover news of institutions more than they cover news that concerns ordinary people. Our watchdog role is being neglected. Those who try to manipulate the press appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them.

But I would say there is one, overriding issue that has gone even more seriously wrong: In Canada today, nobody who has any influence over journalism seems to care enough to draw us together to discuss what to do.

Harold Evans, editor of Britain’s Sunday Times during its heyday, has famously said, “The challenge for the newspaper business is not to stay in business; it’s to stay in journalism.”

Someone better step up to that challenge – and soon. Or else we may see journalism itself slope away into irrelevance, diversion and oblivion.


 

SIDEBAR 

What’s Revolutionary about the Hamilton Spectator?

“We trying to build a culture that has a greater capacity for failure,” says editor-in-chief Dana Robbins. “We believe in taking risks. I’d rather talk on the phone with a reader who’s upset rather than sit here not knowing if the paper has touched anyone today.”

John Miller is professor of journalism at Ryerson University. His book, Yesterday’s News (Fernwood, 1998), offered suggestions for how Canadian newspapers could win back trust and readers. A version of this will appear in the next issue of Media magazine.  [Tyee]

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