20 years ago, cell phones were just a rumour, the Internet was a strange novelty, and social media wasn’t even a word. Local media was our exclusive portal to what was happening in our hometown, or in the world.
Local papers thrived because they were the best place to advertise, the only place to buy classifieds, and without a subscription to a paper, you had nothing to read that night.
Between subscriptions, ad sales, and classifieds, papers were rolling in money, and could afford to keep the public informed with staff so adequate it even included the frivolous cost of paying an investigative journalist to spend a month on a single story.
But then the Internet came and cracked the foundation media was built on. The web has stolen the 3 ways newspapers made money: Google & Facebook get all the ad sales, Kijiji killed the classifies, and everyone expects web content to be free.
Today, decimated papers, simplified blog posts, and easily spread lies on the internet are degrading the amount of legit information the voting public is forming its convictions on. It’s so bad, governments around the world are wondering what can be done to keep people informed in the age of misinformation.
NEWSPAPERS COULDN’T “JUST GO ONLINE”:
THE INTERNET ROBBED THEM OF HOW THEY MADE MONEY
The world went online. It made sense. For everyone … but media.
The foundation on which the news industry was built has been cracked by smart companies like Google, Facebook, and Kijiji who took away both the relevancy of newspapers, and the ways newspapers made their money. This left media with all the responsibility they’ve ever had, but a mere fraction of the operating budget to get news out there.
While it’s true the internet makes information more accessible than ever, where will that information come from in a world with fewer and fewer reporters actually on the ground getting real facts and figures for Facebook users to circulate?
The once brilliant idea of combining information, opinions, classifieds, and advertising side by side for everyone’s mutual benefit has been shattered. Journalism’s economic model has collapsed, profoundly and structurally. The ads have all gone online, away from newspapers, subscriptions are a thing of the past, because the internet is free, and people mostly read whatever social media feeds show them that day, instead of heading directly to a trustworthy news app or webpage
The Google-Facebook Conumdrum:
2 Companies own 70% of Ad Space Online
Google and Facebook were smart enough to get ahead of the online ad game, so now they own 70% of Canada’s online ad revenue. They have it on lock down. It’s too complex/lengthy to devote words to here, but most ads you see online are run through Google services like Adsense, AdWords, and AdMob.
In 2005, Canadians spent $562 million on web ads, but $2.7 billion on print newspaper ads. Jump ahead to last year, and the story is drastically different: Canadian advertisers spent $5.6 billion on digital ads, but only $1.4 billion in print newspaper ads.
Newspapers thought advertisers would simply start buying ads on their website instead of the print newspaper, but they were wrong. It didn’t work out that way because there were suddenly all these new, popular, non-media places and corporations where companies could buy ads, such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and the various Google services.
And, like Costco, because these places sell in bulk, they can sell cheap ads.
In 2015, the pool of potential digital ad revenue for newspapers in Canada was a whopping $4.6 billion, but daily and community papers saw less than a quarter of it. While the average polled Canadian believes strong, independent journalism is vital to society, when they advertise their companies and services, they do the cheap thing. And fair enough.
Kijiji Killed the Classifieds
To worsen matters, Kijiji – and its predecessors like Craigslist – killed the classifieds. In 2005, Canadian papers made a collective 875 million a year off classifieds. Kijiji launched in 2005, and today classifieds only earn Canadian papers 119 million.
Subscription Fees Are a Joke in the Age of the Internet
Another reason going online isn’t working for papers is because no one’s willing to pay for news there. So the third way papers made money is moot now.
Only 9% of people polled in The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age said they’d pay for news online. Why bother, when there’s so many places to get news for free now?
According to Stats Canada, in the 1950s, Canada sold more print newspapers every day than there were homes in Canada. The ratio was 102 papers sold daily per 100 households in Canada. Today, fewer than one in five households subscribe to a newspaper. Printing them almost doesn’t make sense, yet papers have to, for the print ad revenue, because web ads are not moneymakers for papers.
Less Money Means Less Staff, Less News, and Less Quality
In this new reality, cuts happen. Streamlining happens. A paper’s priorities shift from quality, in-depth articles to just pumping out content. 15 people simply can’t do the work that 50 people used to.
Papers are being forced to ask themselves tough questions, like why pay a writer $500 for one thorough article that took 5 days to write, when you could pay them $500 for 5 pieces that only took a day to write, and get more bang per buck per writer? Businesses have to operate according to their financial limitations, or they’ll run themselves out of business. As roughly 200 Canadian newspapers recently have.
With the exception of government-funded national media bodies like the CBC, the majority of media relies mostly, if not entirely, on advertising revenue. Without it, cuts get made, coverage gets skeletal, and poor quality news leaves people with half the story.
As a result, people end up with very simple opinions on very complicated things, from the war in Syria to the war on Muskrat Falls. The result is a voting public with fewer facts, fewer two-sided stories, and less wellrounded information. Which breeds the kind of scary world we’re living in now.
How Bad Is It for Media Right Now?
More than 170 Canadian newspapers have recently gone out of business. Virtually all the ones remaining are feeling a burn and have made qualitycrushing cuts, mergers, and streamlining. Here’s a bullet point dose of a brutal reality:
♦ Postmedia own papers like The National Post and Ottawa Citizen. Last year, they cut 90 jobs, and merged several newsrooms. As a result, Edmonton has 35 fewer people fetching their news now; Calgary 25, Ottawa 12. Despite their aggressive cost-cutting, Postmedia still reported a loss on the year of $352 million, because of a 21.3% drop in advertising.
♦ Sun News, a media giant, has shut down more than 10 papers, leaving Quebec without 3 newspapers it was used to.
♦ BC had 36 newspapers in 2000. Today only 12 — or one third of them — remain.
♦ Rogers Media own things like MacLean’s and MoneySense, and 50-something radio stations. In September, they announced they will be limiting the publication schedule of its magazines, including Maclean’s, and in November, they announced the loss of 87 jobs, including the editor-in-chief of Maclean’s.
♦ Star Media, which includes The Toronto Star and The Grid among others, has seen its newsroom go from 470 people a decade ago to 170 today.
Even the New York Times Co. has trimmed editorial positions, and Vice News co-founder Shane Smith is forecasting “a bloodbath” in digital news in 2017 that could wipe out 30% of digital sites.
According to Reuters Digital News Report, if we compare advertising revenues over the last decade, Canadian daily newspapers have lost 40 percent of their revenues. The pace has accelerated over the past three years. Yet the trolls drag media through the coals for not having the resources to live up to their standards.
Also, most big papers these days are owned by a mega corps; companies that own multiple newspapers. Their trend of merging their newsrooms waters down the diversity of voices delivering the news. For example, Calgary Sun and Calgary Herald now share one editor, ditto for The Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Sun, and the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun.
There’s an argument to be made that one person curating the content for 2 papers renders those two papers far too similar in mandate, content, and bias. And by virtue of 1 person doing 2 jobs, he or she is overworked, so, less productive. Spreading one person’s efforts across 2 papers waters down their vitality and abilities.
Not to mention that a handful of companies now own most media bodies, rendering them not exactly independent and free to operate as they wish. There are plenty of Canadian journalists being told what’s worthy of coverage by their owners, including people in Toronto telling Atlantic media what’s important, locally, from half a country away.
The Death of Media is Damaging the Flow of Info:
Governments Worldwide are Studying This
The consequence of traditional media dying off is so real and dire that the Canadian government recently contracted a comprehensive study on how the demise of modern journalism will affect how Canadians see the world.
In January, the report was released from the Public Policy Forum, entitled The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. It bleakly relayed the deteriorating state of Canada’s news media, and how major shifts in how people get their information and understanding of the world is affecting the health of Canadian democracy.
A Canadian can’t be an informed voter without healthy access to well-rounded information. That requires verifiable, two-sided, highquality, and unbiased news, but it has become clear unsubstantiated articles, fake news, “alternative fact,” and hasty one-sided stories are penetrating the people’s psyche to the point of making people believe in things that aren’t even true.
For example, countless Americans are more scared of “Muslim Terrorists” than they are of being shot by “one of their own,” even though, by psychology’s standards, feeling that way is the definition of “crazy” because that fear ignores facts and reality, and is therefore a textbook delusion.
Data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive proves there are multiple mass shootings every week by American-born Americans in America. Multiple shootings, every single week. If the USA had a healthy flow of information, people living there would know gun control is the truer and far more common danger.
Scary New Reality:
Google & Facebook Control What You See of the World
The Internet could have been amazing. It floods our homes with boundless information. That should be empowering, enlightening, good. It used to be. The trouble is a handful of companies basically run the internet now, and they control what you see.
If you haven’t heard of a “filter bubble” it refers to the fact that when you search something online now, you don’t necessarily get the truth, or a two-sided explanation of a topic. Instead, you get a “personalized search result” tailored to you, based on your web browsing history and location.
That’s not good. When you’re on the web now, you only see what confirms your convictions: Muslim terrorists are coming for you, or, Islamophobia is utter bullshit, depending on what camp the web determined you’re in. You’ll hear what you want to hear to reinforce your convictions. Your views on a topic will never be challenged by a counterpoint, nor by facts and figures to the contrary.
Your web searches isolate you in an ideological bubble that reinforces your own views on a topic, right or wrong, instead of challenging them, and this is bolstered by the fact that Facebook does the same sort of filter bubbling to your “news feed.” Social media like Facebook is full of like-minded friends who reinforce your opinions, instead of broadening and challenging them the way traditional media used to.
If social media is the new traditional media, then rumours can replace reality. Which they have been. During the U.S. presidential race, Trump knew if he repeated lies about Hilary, they’d stick.
They did. They do. I can attest. Last fall, someone on Facebook declared I was a racist because I didn’t respond to an email (one I still haven’t seen), and later that day I found myself having to reassure an advertiser The Overcast was not propagating racism in our community. It’s utterly terrifying what people will believe from hearsay now. A recent and comprehensive poll by skilled. co proved that 68% of millennials believe everything they hear online. Whether it’s true or not.
So Facebook and Google are being called on to control falsehoods and one-sided stories. It’s so bad, Germany is considering legislation to hold Facebook to account for fake news, or misleading articles that appear in its social feeds. But Facebook and Google are not media bodies, and are not obliged to relay fact. They focus on algorithms designed to make you like using them.
People’s Opinions Get Stronger as Discourse Dies Off
Filter bubbles and Facebook feedback loops might explain why no one likes to have their views debated anymore. We feel too confident there’s a right and wrong now. An Us and Them. Because we have overwhelming (but simplified) “proof” for “our” side, and our social media circles reaffirming them (because people only react to things they also feel strongly about; you don’t see the non-reactions and the real-life, non-emoji rolled eyes).
The old adage of their being two sides to every story is still true, but bring up the other side of a story on Facebook now, or even in an article, and people will scream bloody murder instead of quietly processing it and taking the facts and points into their understanding of a matter.
To not even listen to the other side of a story flirts with both arrogance and ignorance, and such fierce rigidity of opinion, paired with comfortably calling people out publicly online breeds a rigidity of opinion so inflexible it impedes productive discourse, facilitates hate, and corrodes human decency, objectivity, and conflict resolution.
When everyone’s shouting, no one’s listening. We don’t talk to each other anymore, we don’t listen, we just shout and choose sides. It’s disastrously unproductive, and even our government parties are following suit. No one’s meeting in the middle, which was the point of society and governance: working together, being kind, being open to listening, providing solutions and enacting them.
In this kind of environment, someone like Trump really can inject “alternative facts” (things that aren’t verifiably true) into public discourse. They can do it, because people don’t get their information exclusively from legit and fact-checked newspapers anymore.
Also, some papers are so understaffed now, they’re not bullshit-proofing, and just parroting hearsay for the sake of juicy content. Hell, people have offered The Overcast money to run “advertorials” (500 words that look and read like an article, where the payee can say whatever they want. We don’t publish advertorials, but they’re commonplace in modern media).
Social Media Has Remodelled Media’s Aim
According to that comprehensive, global-scale study by Skilled.co, 70% of people log into Facebook daily. Media are competing with A LOT to be seen, “liked,” and shared. And this has shaped the kinds of stories media gravitate to now. They can’t be blamed, an Instagram of a cute cat really, truly, and actually does get more “reaction” than an update on how kids in the streets of Syria are doing.
Chris Lane used to be a senior producer of news for CBC in Saskatchewan (as well as Calgary, Charlottetown, Fredericton, and Toronto). He got caught up in “making ourselves more relevant with more clickable content,” and got so grossed out by doing so he quit the job.
The result of focussing on “clickable content” was the hiring of more “social media co-ordinators” and a decrease in beat coverage, producers, and reporters of real live news. Lane famously said, “In the quest to make declining traditional media more relevant, I think we made it more disposable.”
Also, “shocking news” and one-sided stories, meant to incite public reaction online, feel like the new norm. It’s almost like media is trying to give people things to be pissed off about. And that kind of media only generates unproductive anger that offers no solution to real or imagined issues. That kind of media isn’t helping to solve a problem, it’s just throwing fuel on a fire to watch it burn.
Another issue would be modern media’s tendency to cater to its readership’s sensitivities, instead of running various perspectives, in the name of healthy public discourse. In an attempt to avoid public outcry, in an era where everyone with a Facebook account is a critic, all papers have policy now, around what is considered offensive or instigating, and how to deal with public scrutiny of an article.
You’ll note there’s no piece from Ed Riche in the March issue: what he had to say on the matter of Invented Tradition in our province was deemed potentially offensive as per The Overcast’s policy. Whether his stance was right or wrong, how is a society supposed to have a two-sided discourse on a topical issue when an editor muzzles a seasoned columnist for fear of ruffling feathers?
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
If these trends continue, the future of humanity will be accustomed to a world informed by half the facts, and by one-sided stories or limited coverage on important issues.
Newspapers that manage to survive will have to somehow penetrate filter bubbles and “sponsored content” on the web, which is a true challenge these days. (Facebook actually makes papers pay money to “boost” their posts in order for all their followers to see them).
Most days it feels like we know more about what people are paying to tell us now, than we know about real issues. So the struggle isn’t “how to save newspapers,” but how to fix the flow and validity of information in the modern world, and avoid optimized, misleading search results, and mind-numbingly repetitive, exaggerated, or misleading news.
A 2014 report commissioned by a concerned Dutch government found that media in The Netherlands seemed incapable of “providing broad layers of society with reliable and completely factual and relevant information” which the report acknowledges is the role of journalism.
Whether news media as we know it will survive, die, or change into something unpredictable in the coming years is a mystery. Luckily for Canada we will, presumably, always have our national, government-funded CBC. But we need more than the CBC. We need all of the stories, from all of the perspectives, from a variety of papers with different mandates and readerships.
If the Internet broke media’s business model, than media needs to remodel itself. It’s trying. Mainly by scrambling to crack into secondary (non-ad-income) revenue streams. Vice has gone the way of corporate partnership (for example, The Walt Disney Company invested $200 million in them in 2015).
That was adaptive, smart, and successful. But there’s reports of freelancers complaining it affects their liberty to speak poorly of certain organizations now. It’s certainly strange to see Vice tagging themselves with BMO, etc, but they’re doing important work however they can, so hey.
There have also been suggestions that the federal government change section 19 of the Income Tax Act so that Canadian advertisers would not be able to deduct their expenses if they place an ad on a foreign website. However, forcing people to advertise only in Canadian papers is hurtful to Canadian businesses in more ways than one. And, it’s simply not the answer.
In Quebec, a coalition of newspapers called for government intervention so its members could continue to “serve democracy.” They want the federal government to abolish the sales tax on newspapers, and provide a five-year financial assistance program that would ultimately cover 40% of production costs, including journalists’ salaries, and 50% of what the papers invest in their digital platforms.
To lodge one suggestion provincially, if Dwight and them gave places like The Overcast, The Telegram, and VOCM a tax break on our ad sales, it’d be a good start. As it stands, a tax of $150 for every $1000 spent on local ads is a big enough deal to dissuade some people from advertising.
If the idea of papers looking to government for exemptions seems like a handout, consider this: unhealthy papers mean less informed citizens. And a government ought to want informed citizens. They’re less likely to lob unfounded assumptions at politicians. And more likely to pitch in to solve local issues.
If a newspaper is meant to be a mirror held up to its community, most of these mirrors are only showing half the picture now, and the web is filling in the gaps with who knows what. Yet nothing concrete has been poured to fix the foundation so irrevocably cracked by what the internet has done to media.