Between 2016 and 2021, B.C. had a net loss of 185 news reporters and columnists, according to the latest census.
The data on the Canadian workforce, released last month, paints a picture of the state of the media industry, which is tricky to measure in numbers.
Media unions collect some information on membership, buyouts and layoffs. For example, the country’s largest media union, the Canadian Media Guild, counted a gross loss of over 14,000 newsroom jobs between 2008 and 2016. But these counts are irregular and would often include newsroom employees who are not journalists and exclude non-unionized journalists.
What the census offers online is three decades worth of data on journalists, defined as reporters and columnists. While this excludes editors and photojournalists, the data offers a helpful glimpse at how the media industry is doing during a time of monopolization and digital upheaval.
(From here on, we will refer to census journalists as “reporters.”)
While there are alternatives to corporate media on the rise, journalists are also “fighting a rearguard against the forces of misinformation and disinformation,” says Sean Holman, a professor of environmental and climate journalism at the University of Victoria.
Here are four graphs on reporters working in B.C. and Canada — and how they stack up against communications professionals.
Fewer journalists in BC and Canada as a whole
It’s not quite a plummet: the total number of reporters has shrunk and swelled over the past three decades.
In B.C., there was a high of 1,520 reporters in 1996. The number then fell, then rose, then fell again in 2021.
According to Unifor Local 2000, which represents employees at B.C. newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun and the Province, their count of reporters saw a height of about 155 members in 2001, which dropped to 40 in 2021. As for editors, there was a height of about 318 in 2001, which dropped to 69 in 2021.
The growth of independent news outlets like The Tyee, the Narwhal and others likely helped buoy the total number of reporters amid layoffs and buyouts elsewhere, says Holman.
It’s also likely that people who work for lifestyle content outlets, which have multiplied over the years as well, might’ve identified as journalists on the census.
Community papers and their journalists in particular have taken a big hit, says Holman. According to the Local News Research project, 189 of them closed across Canada between 2008 and 2018.
And across the board, Holman laments the “hollowing out” of subsets of journalists like photojournalists and editorial cartoonists.
“At a time where the media has never been more visual than it is now, these are two categories of journalists who’ve suffered the most as a result of downsizing,” said Holman.
Meanwhile, the population booms
Since 1991, B.C.’s population grew from 3 to 5 million and Canada’s grew from 27 to 37 million.
As a result, the number of reporters per capita is the lowest it’s been in a generation. By this metric, there are fewer in B.C. than in Canada as a whole.
Communications is stronger than ever
Reporters are dwarfed by communications professionals working in advertising, marketing and public relations. While this is a large category, the near-doubling of B.C.’s communications professionals in the past five years gives a sense of how vastly they outnumber reporters.
Communications professionals share some skillsets with journalists, but they handle information on behalf of their employers rather than purely for public interest like journalists do. “What does it say about a society that is more willing to invest in people who protect the powerful?” said Holman. “Because that’s what public relations professionals do, by and large, versus those who hold the powerful to account.... It parallels the rise of misinformation and disinformation in society, the idea that truth is malleable.”
The currency of democracy
Holman looks at our current moment and sees parallels with the 1970s.
“There was this concern that society was becoming so complex that no individual person could understand it,” he said. “So at that particular point in time, information access was one of the ways that we saw as actually resolving those feelings.”
Back then, there were threats like nuclear war, pesticides, serial killers and stagflation in the headlines. Now, we have climate change, “forever chemicals,” school shootings and, once again, stagflation.
But while “the complexity of society is increasing,” said Holman, “we have fewer journalists to cover that complexity.”
“When our environment becomes uncertain and uncontrollable, we look to information to help us understand and make better decisions… to better understand the past and present and better anticipate the future. [With] fewer journalists who are able to provide vital information, misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories can seep in where the gaps occur.”
Holman’s hope? That journalists provide information that empowers communities to tackle today’s crises.
“Sadly, I think that the value of information as the currency of democracy has plummeted. We can recognize that and try to do something different.”