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Paul Willcocks on Legacy Media: ‘If Everyone Thinks We Are in Crisis, I Will Be Happy’

The veteran publisher and now Tyee editor shares insights gained over a long career.

Pratyush Dayal 13 Aug 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Pratyush Dayal is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. Follow him on Twitter @Pratyush_Dayal_.

Paul Willcocks had run four daily papers, an experience he captured in a blog series “How I Killed Newspapers,” before joining The Tyee as a senior editor in 2016. From reporter at the Red Deer Advocate to publisher of the Times Colonist, he’s had a front-row seat to the changing media landscape over the years.

Willcocks was the latest guest on Three Things, a livestream chat show hosted by Tyee outreach manager Emma Cooper where readers get a chance to meet the folks who work at the site.

Willcocks watched the collapse of legacy news media but has yet to see alternatives emerge. “The biggest concern for me is that the traditional media used to play a really important role in the way our democracy and society works, but we haven’t thought or talked much about how to come up with models to replace them.”

He lamented the loss of the role media used to play for communities as a provider of information and a host of dialogue and debate around the topics that mattered most.

“It used to be that people could at least agree on the problems. They might come up with really different solutions, but you could at least have that kind of a dialogue, which we have now really lost as those media have disappeared,” he said.

In addition to seeing an increased fracturing around what issues even matter, Willcocks has observed a decline in the number of journalists covering and gathering news. “Newsrooms are half the size they were 15 or 20 years ago,” he noted.

He worries about people’s access to information, remembering the days when newspapers were cheap, and radio and television were free. But today is an age of information inequality, with news organizations implementing paywalls, he said.

“Increasingly through paywalls and subscriptions, you get information if you can pay for it. And the more you can pay, the more specialized and valuable information you get. We are creating yet another form of information inequality.”

Willcocks feels paywalls and advertisements torque coverage and cited The Tyee’s voluntary subscription model as an example of a way forward.

Part of the problem is media ownership, he said. Working with corporate owners, Willcocks saw an inability to look beyond the next financial quarter. He observes this in Postmedia ownership, for example, noting there has been no significant investment in those papers or its journalists over the past decade.

The loss of legacy media has created a social and democratic crisis, Willcocks said, though he reckons media’s role is more important than ever. But “the media has done a really bad job for a long time in explaining their role and consistently demonstrating that they understand their role,” he said.

This trend continues as larger media corporations, especially newspapers, continue to wring profits out of what’s left of their business model. All of this has meant less quality news and less investigative journalism, he said.

In these times, Willcocks finds government support for media to be a “necessary evil.” But he wants it done in a fair manner that doesn’t harm the independence of journalism or compromise transparency. “These are really tough times and to preserve what we have unless new models emerge, government support for some media is useful,” he said.

In spite of the industry’s many financial difficulties, Willcocks is heartened by some of the great journalism coming out of independent organizations and journalists. He wants us to understand that the decreasing number of journalists holding government and companies to account is a crisis.

If the media’s watchdog function diminishes, powerful people can create their own myths, he said. “Wealth and inequality are inevitable in Canada, and if journalists aren’t challenging those myths, things are going to get worse and worse for more and more of us. If everyone thinks we are in crisis, I will be happy.”  [Tyee]

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