Bad as it’s been, things have recently gotten much worse. Though new digital subscriptions at The Washington Post and The New York Times have soared since the 2016 election, digital subscription and advertising revenue has not made up for the collapse of print advertising industry-wide. And local newspapers across the country have not been nearly as successful at the digital subscription model as the Post and the Times. Once-promising digital-first news sites such as BuzzFeed and Vice have recently missed revenue targets, and Mashable, valued in March 2016 at around $250 million, recently sold for less than $50 million.
In response to a similar decline in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has pledged $50 million to support local news coverage and proposed legal changes that might help nonprofit news ventures to raise money. But at this point, these are little more than symbolic gestures.
Most of the country’s newspapers are owned by just two companies: Postmedia, which owns more than 70 newspapers, magazines and associated news sites; and Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, the country’s largest daily, plus scores of smaller local newspapers. Both companies have been hemorrhaging money trying to shrink themselves into survival by laying off hundreds of journalists and cutting content; Postmedia was recently frighteningly close to bankruptcy. Since 2010, 30 percent of all journalism jobs have been lost in Canada, and 27 dailies have ceased publishing. Over the same period, advertising revenue has fallen from around $2.9 billion to $1.75 billion.
It doesn’t take clairvoyance to imagine that this downward trajectory will put one or both companies out of business in the next two-to-five years, which would leave most of the country’s major cities without a hometown daily. Digital media are unlikely to pick up the slack. Though Canada has some notable digital news sites — the estimable Walrus and Vancouver’s Tyee among them — they are significantly smaller and less focused on the nuts and bolts of local coverage.
And then what? Social media platforms make the sharing of information ubiquitous and nonstop, but where will that information come from in the first place when all the reporters have been let go? What will happen when the newspaper model — what the government-commissioned report published by Public Policy Forum called “the model of journalistic ‘boots on the ground’ backed up by a second platoon in the office upholding such hallowed standards as verification and balance” — no longer generates that content at all?
Canadian newspapers have lost three-quarters of a billion dollars per year of reliable classified advertising revenue to eBay and Craigslist, according to that same report. And the list of advertising losses goes on from there, slice by slice: “Why would the car enthusiast turn to the local daily’s automotive section when there are countless specialty websites with richer content? What is the appeal of a paper’s entertainment section in a world of Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster and IMDb, and an online industry of celebrity gossip sites? How well can the food section compete with Epicurious, Yummly and myriad other digital culinary resources?” An American sports fan might add: Why take the newspaper for the sports section when you can get fuller news for free at a publication like The Athletic, whose goal is to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing”?
Some might think that if the online purveyors of these forms of service journalism are so efficient, appealing and profitable, then so might be the online purveyors of what the report calls the “wellspring of original news, especially the variety we call civic-function news: the coverage of elected officials and public institutions such as legislatures, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, city halls, school boards and supporting public services.”
Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. There is no real money in civic responsibility. The report quotes Vice News co-founder Shane Smith forecasting “a bloodbath” that “would wipe out 30 percent of digital sites.” The report describes “the bifurcation of [news] production and distribution, with financial returns heavily skewed to the latter. Moreover, the Internet … has quickly come to be dominated by a pair of global giants from Silicon Valley — Google and Facebook — that are not only lacking in passion for news, but actively avoiding the responsibilities of a publisher.”
The role of the press as the last defense of democracy has been brought to the fore in Canada as well as in the U.S. by President Donald Trump’s many snarling attempts to discredit newspapers, like labeling the “failing” Times and the Post as “fake news.” Comparable hostility to the traditional media “upholding such hallowed standards as verification and balance” is evident not just in the Trump administration but also throughout his large “Trumpublican” political base. Combine this widespread American antagonism to newspapers with the diagnosis of fatal advertising hemorrhage and you do indeed get a prognosis of imminent death.
And after that death? Late 20th-century journalism popularized the term “spin” for competing interpretations of reported fact, but once newspapers stop reporting any facts at all, nothing will stop autonomous spin — spin that generates its own facts, such as the “fact” that Barack Obama is a foreign-born closet Muslim — from taking over entirely. The loyal opposition will no longer be there to research, fact-check, report and oppose.
For generations, many newspapers have called themselves The Mirror, The Daily Mirror, The Hometown Mirror, or the like. The title of Canada’s Public Policy Forum report is “The Shattered Mirror.” Imagine your home without a mirror or any mirror surrogate, like a cellphone camera. Imagine that you could never see your own reflection. Now imagine that your country has lost its national mirror, and you can never see an honest reflection of what it looks like. Worse, substitute that lost mirror for a fun-house mirror of pervasive and overwhelming attempts to dissemble, lie and spread fake news.
The result could be much worse than we imagine. Thomas Jefferson saw newspapers as so fundamental a democratic institution that they were the only alternative to repeated violent revolutions: “This formidable censor of the public functionaries, by arraigning them at the tribunal of public opinion, produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise be done by revolution.”
Can far-sighted billionaires like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times halt the ominous slide, especially outside the great metropolitan areas? Time will tell, but not very much time: brace yourself.