13 February 2017

Captain Sweatpants and the future of news media #nlpoli

The numbers are so large they take your breath away.

In a poll conducted for The Public Policy Forum for its recent report on Canadian news media, eight "out of 10 respondents said they actively follow the news (with education, not age, being the main determinant)."  As pollster Allan Gregg noted in an article for Policy Options, 93% of respondents to that poll said people get "more news today, more quickly and frequently than we ever have in the past."

And yet half of them had no idea that conventional media was facing a financial crisis so severe that many current media outlets are likely to vanish in the months and years ahead.

Doesn't fit together.  Doesn't make sense.  You just can't have all those people wired in and miss a story that was quite literally in all the newspapers,  on radio, and on television.

Doesn't make sense unless people aren't paying as much attention as they say.
You get a sense of that by looking at a few of the other numbers Gregg included in Policy Options. Only 16% of adults subscribe to a newspaper.  Forty percent used to subscribe to newspapers but they ditched print because of cost and the fact they can get what they need to know elsewhere. Only nine percent of the people polled paid for online news content from any source.

The thing about these numbers is that they are based solely on what consumers report.  We don't have any independent confirmation in public in Canada of circulation and audience numbers for conventional media.  And given the prevalence of online media,  we can't be sure of what else people are doing online besides reading material produced by conventional media.

That's the thing about the transformation of the information world in the past 20 years.  Before 1996,  people had a very limited number of sources of information.  They could only get news from a commercial news source.  They could get local news from gossip and rumour but there was a means to spread information to a mass audience other than through means that were either very expensive,  tightly regulated by government,  or both.

Now people can get information from conventional, commercial media. They can also read lots of other news, information, and opinion from sources that have varying levels of accuracy in what they are producing.  These sources existed in the supposedly good old days of news as well. In the North American experience, they were the supermarket tabloids.  There were also a few conventional newspapers that specialised in appealing to people who liked their news with a sensational or unconventional twist.

Social conventions made it unpopular to admit that you read those tabloid publications. Indeed, if you listened to the way people talked about the tabloids, no one ever bought them. But their circulation was high and plenty of houses did have them along with the local daily broadsheet. People were reading the tabloids and people bought them.  They just didn't like to admit it and the role they played in shaping opinions  was something few people in the serious news world would admit.

What changed with the advent of the Internet was not just increased access to news from sources far outside the local community. It was also a change in the way people lived their lives. They didn't need supper-hour news or, in Canada, the evening news, to get their dose of information and fodder for the next day's office chat. Ask people in the television news business about that and you will hear the stories about changes in the audience over time.  Not so very long ago,  people would actually talk about the wisdom of moving the CBC major newscast air time ahead by one hour. These days people are wondering who that old bald guy is on their screens,  if they even care enough to watch any part of the CBC's anachronistic flagship news program.

You can see the same transformation in the fate of investigative news shows.  In the 1970s and 1980s,  any serious network had a program devoted to ferreting out stories that were often tragic or sensational,  that pitted the intrepid reporters on a hunt for truth against the corporate and political powers that wanted to hide the truth.   The programs reflected the culture that grew up in the aftermath of Watergate and after 60 Minutes in the United States,  Canada got W5 on the private English-language broadcaster CTV and the fifth estate on CBC.

They carried on a style of news programming that went back to the early days of television but what helped these news magazine shows occupy prime slots in the schedule was the popularity of anti-Establishment programming and the popularity of their sensational style of news reporting.  it was the marriage of the tabloid techniques with the self-righteousness of Truth Hunters on a mission.

These days, the shows are still around but take a look at when they hit the air in English Canada. They broadcast at times when the audience for broadcast television is the smallest. They are space fillers. And in news terms, they reflect more inertia than they do anything else. They are like Peter Mansbridge, the dinosaur of broadcasters who still pontificates a decade or more after people stopped caring what he thought about anything.

More things changed than just the availability of news and information. Social conventions changed as well.  The hallmark of a well-informed, proper household wasn't one that had the local daily on the front doorstep each morning or evening.  Whether the folks in the house read it or not had always been another matter but even the notion of having to mark status that way vanished. For broadcast media,  their status vanished as well. Audiences dropped as people could shape their lives for themselves within their immediate social groups.

People in newsrooms struggled to explain the transformation.  One of the earliest stories they started to tell was of the lone guy, sitting in his sweatpants, making things up and posting them on a cheap website. That's the way people in the conventional news sites that were often nothing more than black text in Times Roman on a white background, all of it under an equally plain header. These sites linked to conventional media stories but they also broke stories well in advance of their conventional competitors.

Notice three things.  First, Captain Sweatpants doesn't exist.  He never did.  Captain Sweatpants isn't even metaphorical.  But that doesn't stop him from turning up regularly whenever conventional news people talk about the crisis in their business.  Second,  the story presumes that the audience is at best irrelevant or at worst is so utterly stupid that they will believe anything. Third, and coming out of that,  the entire Captain Sweatpants argument is not about journalism and the craft of finding out truth. It's about status and power.  Journalists are complaining about their loss of influence and the culprit they invent is a caricature of a lazy,  geeky, schlub.

 Andrew Potter used to be editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen.  Now he runs the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.  He's also the author "De-institutionalization, fake news, and the future of journalism," for Policy Options.  Potter laments the loss of journalism's status in society.  He focuses on the recent phenomenon of "fake news" as proof of the continued problem that journalists have lost their status.  His solution to the problem of a loss of power is , not surprisingly, the use of legal and political power to reimpose journalism's status and power. Pass a law that controls who can write news and what can be called news and give people like Potter exclusive control over that.

What's fascinating, though is the ease with which Potter makes his case based on fake news. Potter writes that fakes news is, in some instances, "literally guys in sweatpants sitting on a couch making stuff up, writing their fabrications as a news story, complete with dateline, byline and quotes, and putting it on the Internet, where it bobs along with all other newsy-looking items out there, competing in the same ecosystem for the same scarce resources."

But Captain Sweatpants doesn't exist.  He's just a bogeyman invented by people like Potter to explain a phenomenon that frightens them and which they are unable to comprehend.  To figure out what is going on you have to look at how people think about facts and truth. That's what folks like Potter don't seem to grasp and it is why they have been baffled not only by the decline of their own industry but by the rise of a politician like Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, we'll turn our attention to how the audience thinks.