29 June 2020

All the news the mob will let us print #nlpoli

Saltwire laid off a hundred or so people last week, 25 of them in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The most recent cuts are the result of revenue drops due to COVID but Saltwire has been hacking and slashing at its operations across the region since buying up a raft of dailies and weeklies from TransCon a few years ago.   In Newfoundland and Labrador, The Telegram is the only daily left.  The rest - more than 15 dailies and weeklies – have been closed.  Their replacements are a couple of weekly freebie mailbox-stuffers.  Editorially, Saltwire is now well on the way to becoming the same thing: a generic content generator with a local label slapped on it. 

To appreciate what is going on here, you only have to look at The Telegram’s circulation.  The public only has ready access to data for about a decade  - 2008-2016  and  2015 – 2018 -  but that, coupled with a bit of recollection from a veteran observer of local news media, gives an idea of the dramatic decline of print media.

The Telegram’s paid circulation dropped about 60% to 65% between 2008 and 2018, the last year for which we have figures.  Monday to Friday, the paper has dropped from between 25,000 daily subscribers on average to about 10,000 in 2018.   The weekend edition is currently around 14,000 paid down from 41,000 in 2008. 

If memory serves, the Telly used to have almost 70,000 Saturday subscribers a couple of decades ago.  So realistically, we are talking about a newspaper that today has about somewhere around 20% of the subscribers it had only about 25 years ago for its most popular edition.  The weekday drop has been no less dramatic. Much of the drop in readership has come within the past decade alone, and that’s what is so striking.

This decline parallels a trend across North America, where large swaths of the rural United States are without a daily newspaper.  Even in major cities, once large and successful newspapers have foundered.  The decline is not just about a shift away from paper-and-ink to electronic.  There’s a bit more to it than that.

The drop in newspaper circulation is tied to a drop in consumer interest in conventional news media generally.  The Telegram is just an extreme example of an exodus of readers , listeners, and viewers from conventional media either in their original formats or online.  They’ve moved online and social media channels – including blogs and podcasts - are an important part of the mix of information sources people use these days.  The shift away from conventional media is especially pronounced among the generations after the Boomers.

Some people have been making a connection between the importance of local news media and democracy. A few people – especially journalists – tweeted that sentiment last week in reaction to the Saltwire news.

A praiseworthy sentiment but really, the idea just ignores the much deeper changes that have been taking place.

First, there is the general trend in society that your humble e-scribbler noted last year:  “changes in the news media,  changes in the audience, and changes in what information organizations provide to the pubic have created the Unformation Age.  Information - facts, figures, data - is less important than unsubstantiated opinion, assembled to serve a temporary purpose and often lacking coherence over time.”

Simply put, news is less informative.  News media have moved away from hard news in favour of lighter material that appears to attract an audience.  Government generally provides less information and reporters - for many reasons – simply do not ask even simple questions that might risk deflecting a government official from a prepared script.  In one memorable example during one of the daily pandemic media events, one reporter offered the Premier the chance to add any “messaging” he may have omitted.

And, in “the competition for audience and hence for the revenue audiences can generate, newsrooms frame entire stories to garner attention based on whatever biases and prejudices exist in the audience and, in many cases, within the newsroom itself.  The clearest example of this turned up toward the end of 2019 when CBC published a story about a speech delivered by Roger Grimes. 

The person who wrote the piece had not been at the speech nor did she bother to try and interview Grimes about it.  Instead, she ran with her own invented context.  Her editor saw no problem with it and published the piece.  Unfortunately for truth, the story was factually wrong. 

But for the clickbait-happy CBC managers, the story generated huge controversy and trashed Grimes’ reputation.  It is a great example though of “news writing” as an exercise in assembling words that divorce an event from its actual context, apply another, and generate “content” that meets the news outlet’s need for numbers, not the audience’s need for truthful information.

Second, people have to value democracy to also value conventional news media that dig into difficult news stories, expose wrongdoing, or simply provide a forum for differing opinions. Look around. There is the growing support in Newfoundland and Labrador for some form of  authoritarian rule.  

Generally, as the provincial government’s financial problems worsened, the more popular has been the idea of getting rid of democracy, debate, and any other trappings of a vibrant democratic society.  Cuts to the House of Assembly, the popularity of some form of coalition government,  calls for “doing away with politics”,  and the exaggerated attention on the turn-over in the Premier’s Office are all part of this fundamentally anti-democratic sentiment that has taken hold in an influential segment of the local community.

Third, there is the impact of centralization.  Saltwire is rapidly becoming a single regional content generator that is superficially localized through labels it acquired.  There is still good reporting but there is less and less of it as people retire or are laid off and less and less of what does appear in the Telegram is about the place where its readers live.  CBC is already in that place. Aside from tis editorial standards that frequently value appearance ahead of knowledge and expertise, we have the example of the pandemic when local television news disappeared because of staffing issues in Toronto.

The high degree of centralization at CBC is what makes the recent Wendy Mesley story relevant to news coverage in Newfoundland and Labrador.  It demonstrates the extent to which the news itself as well as how it is put together is divorced from factual and truthful reporting.

CBC reported that network managers disciplined Mesley for using “offensive language”.  That’s a vague euphemism in itself and could mean she was slammed for saying the word “fuck” on two occasions.  It’s already been widely reported that CBC bureaucrats disciplined Mesley for using a racial epithet.

The CBC description implies she intentionally used a racial slur - nigger - to refer to a person of colour.  But she didn’t.  In both incidents, as reported widely across social media, Mesley said out loud a particular word in the context of programming discussions about what other people had said.  In one case, she said the title of Quebec separatist Pierre Vallieres’ book about Quebec history.    The book’s French title Negres blanc d’Amerique is translated in English as White Niggers of America.

If CBC cannot truthfully report its own stories, then there is little chance it can truthfully report anything else.  And since the same corporate bureaucrats who decided Mesley’s fate based on principles that are antithetical to truth-telling, integrity, and fairness also determine what Canadians see, hear, and read on the CBC’s many platforms,  so much of what the Corporation broadcasts must now deemed suspect.  

The two recent decisions by the Telegram editors are equally troublesome.  There is the possibility that the decision to give into a small online mob in both cases came from the Halifax office and not the local editors.  Or if local editors took the decision, that it was done based on an understanding of what the Saltwire corporate culture would stand.

Who made the decision is irrelevant. What is relevant to a discussion of the current state of the media and its role on democracy is that the Telegram censored one of its columnists and a letter writer based on complaints from a small group of online critics.  In the one case they simply did not like what the columnist wrote.

In the second, they used three words to condemn the writer as a racist.  If one takes those three words out, the rest of the letter was simply a concern that a recent demonstration risked public health.  Given the hysteria over COVID, such a view is hardly surprising.  And in the absence of any other obviously racist comments in the letter from an otherwise anonymous person, there was no reason to assume there was anything wrong with the letter other than perhaps a lack of sensitivity to the importance of raising awareness of racism in Newfoundland and Labrador even during a pandemic.

Nonetheless, an online gang engaged in all the loathsome behaviour - preachiness, piety, self-righteousness, heresy-hunting, denunciation, shaming, assertion without evidence, accusation, inquisition, and censoring – that used to be the exclusive domain of the political right. And the Telegram editors caved to it.

The local news media is intimately connected to the society in which it operates.  The rise in authoritarian views is matched by the ease with which local media abandon fundamental democratic principles in favour of censorship.  

At the same time, the tendency for local news to be influenced by a context outside Newfoundland and Labrador corresponds to a tendency for local opinion leaders and others – such as those who attacked the Telegram about its column and letter – to base their local on an external context.

None of that bodes well for democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador.