What should be done about the state of the news media?

Over the past six or seven years, I’ve spent more nights than I care to count sitting in bars with fellow journalists bemoaning the relentless decline in the industry’s fortunes, while spitballing about alternative revenue models, content models, regulatory policies, or technologies that might save the business. In that time, I’ve held pretty much every position imaginable. Many of these positions I’ve argued for in private with colleagues, in public in columns, on panels, even as a paid speaker.

If there is one thing I’ve concluded, it is this: No one knows what the future of the news media looks like. I don’t, the people running the major news companies don’t, the people running the cool new digital shops don’t, and the consultants who continue to charge healthy fees giving advice certainly don’t. Yet the “legacy”, or traditional media, continue to decline, and the new media darlings, like Buzzfeed, Vice, and others, aren’t doing so well either. No one has figured things out.

What, if anything, should be done about this?

That’s the question the federal government has asked the Public Policy Forum to help advise them on. In particular, the government has charged the PPF with answering three questions:

Does the deteriorating state of traditional media put at risk the civic function of journalism and thus the health of democracy? If so, are new digitally based news media filling the gap? If not, is there a role for public policy to help maintain a healthy flow of news and information, and how could it be done least intrusively?

To that end, the PPF has organized a series of roundtables and commissioned some polling, with a report to come this fall.

I participated in the first roundtable yesterday in Ottawa. Chatham House rules prevent me from saying too much about who was there and how the discussion went but I’ll say this: The conversation was more interesting than I expected, there was a good mix of new voices and extremely familiar faces, and pretty clear lack of sentimentality about the direction the business has taken. A few policy ideas were batted around, but I can’t say there was anything really new or surprising on offer. Certainly no one there thought they had a magic bullet to give to the government.

At the end of this there is probably going to be some pressure on the government to do something. Partly because the decline of the news media does seem to be a real problem, but also because you don’t launch these sorts of exercises without setting up the expectation that something will come of it. Nevertheless, my contribution to the debate yesterday (aside from calling Facebook “the devil”) was to recommend a great deal of wait and see.

More formally, here were the three points I made:

1. The past is not the future. That is, there is no “fixing” the business model of print journalism. There is no app or paywall or other device that is going to come along and convince people to start subscribing in great numbers to a product that mimics the structure of a magazine or a newspaper. This is a good thing. I’m old enough to remember a time when print journalism, and the news media in general, was seen as a pox on democracy, a gatekeeper of information that used its quasi-monopolistic powers to manipulate the public and manufacture consent.

2. The present is not the future. During the bulk of my time as ME and then Editor of the Ottawa Citizen, we were preoccupied with the development, launch, and execution of Postmedia’s “four platform strategy” or what was also called “Product 2.0”. It was a strategy that involved segmenting our product and our audience into four distinct groups on four distinct platforms, with four distinct voices and content strategies — web, mobile app, tablet app, and print, all produced within one newsroom. The strategy failed for a number of reasons, but probably the most significant reason was that it was about five years too late. The strategy was based on assumptions about how our audience consumed news that would have been visionary in, say, 2008, but which was obsolete before we even launched in May 2013.

That isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault — the evolution of consumption habits, technology, and platforms is just happening faster than strategies can be conceived and executed. But there is a lesson here: Where the audience and revenues are today is not where they will be in a year, or even probably six months from now.

3. The future is not the future. Even if we assume that the present is not the future, the future most of us assume is coming is not the one that will actually arrive. No one, literally no one, in the news media foresaw the rise of the Platform. No one is giving enough thought to the consequences of handing over the publishing function to Google or to Facebook or to Snapchat (short answer: it’s suicide). We prepare for one future, a different one arrives, and we try to force the round pegs of our anticipated future into the square holes of the one we get.

Given this, I’m increasingly of the view that we need to just let this process play itself out. The convulsion of news media is a decade old, and it probably has another decade or so to go. What the government should do, above all, is avoid doing anything that hinder the ferocious process of creative destruction that needs to take place. Worse than doing nothing would be a system that “bakes in” the status quo — which would leave us, I fear, with little more than the CBC providing content to the mega-platforms.

With its increased funding to the CBC, the government is probably doing about as much as it can and should, and even this comes at the cost of distorting the playing field in unhelpful ways. Otherwise, the government should do whatever it can to make sure there are as few obstacles as possible to the generation and testing of new business models or content strategies (including charities, non-profits, endowment models, and so on.) Beyond that, it is very, very hard for me to see what else can be done.



What should be done about the state of the news media? — 22 Comments

  1. Including multi-stakeholder co-operative models, I would hope. This model thrives where marginal returns no longer attract the investment required and have the added advantage of democratic accountability.

      • No, the Tyee is a hybrid that behaves like a co-op, and may eventually become one to remain sustainable. Have a look at the Bristol Cable (https://thebristolcable.org/) in England as one example I like personally and think will be successful as a local news outfit. They come in all shapes and sizes, too, see Deca Co-op as another investigative version on a global scale: decastories.com

        There is also NewScoop in Calgary (there are many) and more in the US, including this movement http://banyanproject.coop/ that evangelizes the notion.

        The premise is that having reporter owners and reader owners (rather than subscribers) will adapt the relationship and create local or ideological news ecosystems. I can share in detail what I mean here, but most importantly, regardless of slant these outlets would need to collaborate (or federate in co-op lingo) to have the scale to consolidate services and create a network that works from local to regional to national (and int’l?).

        I’m preparing a short paper on this in hopes that the public policy forum folks will look at it. Full disclosure, I work for Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada ;-)

  2. Andrew – you know where my mind goes to on all of this. The only details I need baked into any model – really, anything going forward – are that the rights of original creators are respected and protected within the infrastructure, and that there is a dependable income stream for creators. I just don’t see any way for any model to actually work long term without those elements. You know as well as anyone that there is a net reduction in professional creation over the last twenty years. That’s a huge feature of this current failure and, it seems to me, one that is often dismissed as just secondary fallout. We need to ask if it’s actually one of the driving forces.

    By the way, how does one get to attend one of these roundtables?

  3. How about not being so biased in not only what you report, but in how you report it.

    Secondly, how about actually getting the facts right.

  4. Maybe the media would be in a different position, if they didn’t take a self-righteous, all-knowing position on everything, and then ignore the results when they are patently WRONG! Which is often, by the way. Being the sounding board for the Liberal Party of Canada is not an advisable position, nor, is reading off “a report says”, ” a study says”, and read verbatim, without any critical thought or commentary to the content, as if they are an ultimate authority on anything, only to find out its the Suzuki Huckster or some other rentseeking Greenie organization, or the CCPA, which is just another NDP funded special interest group.
    Canadians are tired of the BS being pushed forth by the media, that’s why we quit watching it, and quit buying bird cage liners!

  5. Why is government funding of the CBC a good thing? The CBC is then indebted to the government, and particularly to the Liberal Party, and as they have shown cannot be independent or impartial in their delivery of the news. Why should the government get to control the news media while the private sector struggles to figure out the new realities of the platform internet?

    Creative destruction is a valuable feature of the economy, and while it is disruptive, it needs to happen. Government funding of the CBC distorts the market and prevents creative destruction from proceeding efficiently.

  6. I’ve always been surprised that Canadian media people not working for the CBC will reflexively defend it.

    If the government paid an organization to do my job exactly, with no expectation of results or professionalism it would certainly devalue both my work and my profession.

    Because of this I operate under the assumption that all Canadian broadcasters are desperate to get hired by the CBC unless they’ve vehemently expressed otherwise.

  7. I was recently talking with a co-worker about news coverage. He asked why I don’t trust CBC reporting on anything. I related to him the story of how my family was very close to a national news story when I was a child, and how during that coverage a remark was used out-of-context to totally change the optics of the resulting story. Because of first-hand experience I knew that the CBC lied by omission. In college I was close to another large story, and the CBC did it again. All mass media who covered the story covered it the same way, even though several reporters got snippets of the opposing views.

    I then asked my co-worker if he had been close to any major stories and whether the news broadcasts represented the truth as he knew it. He looked troubled and said no. I reminded him that if that is what they do with stories he knows about, he should expect it to be what they say about stories he doesn’t know about. Whoever covers the story he knows in the way that he knows it happens is the one he should trust on other stories.

    The take-away for you, as the media, is that there are now alternatives to the single voice you’ve been presenting. Because of a common viewpoint amongst editors (or possibly editors and reporters) you are missing out on portions of the story that viewers and readers might find vital. A free press is vital only when it is a diverse press. Having announcers of every skin colour, religion, sexual preference and left-or-right handedness who all say the same thing in the same way is not diverse. But you try to tell us that it is. Check your editorial and reporting staff: how many outright communists are there? How many Green party? How many NDP? How many Liberal? How many Progressive? How many Conservative? (I draw the distinction between the two components of the PC party for a reason, they are fundamentally incompatible in the long term.) How many separatists? If your newsroom is truly diverse then you will have representatives of all listed groups and are well set up to represent and speak to multiple audiences, and you are in good shape. If only 2 or 3 of the groups listed are over 90% of your newsroom then you can only effectively speak to 2 or 3 portions of the Canadian public and are limiting your potential audience.

    And thinking that you can effectively talk to others when you don’t actually know any of them or can run your thoughts by them is a form of egotism and vanity. It doesn’t come across well to those with whom you think you are talking, but to whom you are actually talking down.

  8. I stopped reading newspapers a few years ago. I got so sick of them. The stories were as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise or the next Supreme Court decision.

    As soon as you knew the subject matter of the story, you knew the tone in which the story would’ve written. You knew basically who would be interviewed (and who WOULDN’T be). You knew which facts would not make the cut.
    After a while why bother reading them? The TV news is just as bad. I got sick of some airhead fashion model/drama student calling me a “racist/sexist/homophobe/islamophobe ect ect ect ect”
    Because as we all know journalists are all perfect geniuses and are perfectly compassionate as compared to the knuckle dragging peasants of the public.
    The more journalists on the unemployment line the better.

  9. I was taking the C-train in Calgary and got off up town to switch trains. There at the platform, like evey morning was the guy handing out the “Metro” newspaper. I can’t stand the metro. So every morning I would shake my head and wave may hand “no thanks”. Every day the guy would shove it at me anyway unless I took real pains to avoid him. This kind of got on my nerves.

    Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. One morning I heard a woman snarl “I don’t gawdam WANT it! OK? Get the idea!”.

    I thought, “How crappy does a newspaper have to be when, not only do you make it free, but you have to SHOVE IT AT PEOPLE to give it away”?

    Journalists! Figure it out! We don’t like you. Quit ramming your personal biases and social positions down out throats.

  10. Somehow journalists never look at themselves. A number of the replies in this thread mention questionable reporting. In my opinion it is epidemic. Controlling the dialogue is not really the point of being a journalist – unless you’re not interested in facts.

  11. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to get an online subscription to the Globe and Mail because of their excellent business and investment info (actual content with real value), and then read their incredibly biased columnists and editorial boards on political/social issue,and said to myself “I REFUSE to support this organization”.

    Maybe if the news media reported the news, not their opinion of what I should think, I would attach more value to their service. Right now, I don’t care if the entire world of journalism goes up in flames. Indeed, I welcome it.

  12. Personally I am delighted that newspapers are going down fast. I got truly sick of having some holier-than-thou snot preach to me.
    You say you were the editor of the Ottawa Citizen? Your “news” paper was one of the worst. You were basically a left wing PR machine.
    I also notice that despite how you journalist types love to imagine yourselves as so “tough” and “hard boiled” you don’t seem too eager to respond to any of the negative comments presented here.
    Conservatives and traditionalists are smartening up. They’ve realized that they will never get fair coverage from the the news media so why support it by buying news product?
    To hell with voting with a ballot. Vote with your wallet. It’s more effective.

  13. Lotsa hate on for the CBC. I’m not a particular fan of what the CBC has turned into but I
    support it in the (vain)hope that it can be turned into what it could be. Which would probably
    make the haters hate it even more.
    On the other hand, most of the current “thought leaders” throughout the media are Posties or
    ex-Posties in all their glorious misanthropy.

  14. I see John Degen is waging his war against fair dealing and 20 years’ copyright jurisprudence in yet another ill-chosen forum.

    The only details I need baked into any model

    We didn’t ask John what he needed.

    the rights of original creators are respected and protected within the infrastructure

    Yet John has apparently never investigated newspapers’ and news sites’ freelance contracts, the subject of a 16-year court battle and class-action lawsuit that hacks of my generation suffered through, none more than me.

    and that there is a dependable income stream for creators

    He means no copying whatsoever without someone affiliated with his institution getting paid. And, ideally, no copying whatsoever.

  15. I think news organizations will be disrupted in a more predictable way. Banks and telecoms are being unbundled into more specialized components that focus on delivering an excellent experience for a particular use case. It just doesn’t make sense for one massive organization to be able to deliver the best experience for foreign policy, “entertainment” news, long form journalism, live updates on world events, etc. Media companies need to be investing in design and experimentation to understand what these experiences people will adopt.

    Although the CBC is getting bashed pretty well in these comments, I think there will always be a role for government in helping new media outlets achieve balanced reporting (whether through regulation or public funding or something else). There is public interest in de-sensationalized media, but it is also very hard to resist at an individual level.

  16. “Lot’s of hate on for the CBC”
    —Like there is anything to like about a taxpayer funded organization that supports one political viewpoint in all their news and entertainment programs.
    “Make the haters hate even more”
    —Because anyone who doesn’t grovel is a “hater”.

    • CBC is a liberal propaganda machine. Even CNN realized that they had better balance their reporting before they go broke. CBC cannot go broke as we are forced to pay for it regardless of bias, performance or lack of anything interesting other than Hockey oh wait…..

  17. It is simply impossible for a publicly funded broadcaster to not advance a socialist driven agenda within their broadcastings.