A little over nine years ago, in the midst of the chaotic collapse of the Canwest media empire, CHCA-TV of Red Deer, Alta., died.
It was considered shocking at the time that a legacy TV station (it launched in 1957) could actually close.
Other stations – CHEK in Victoria and CHCH in Hamilton – were “rescued” when purchased for, literally, a couple of dollars. For a time, both proved to be interesting crucibles of innovative local news programming, although my understanding is that sustainability remains a concern.
But CHCA-TV died and – here’s what people within the industry found most alarming – there was little evidence anyone in the community cared.
Red Deer may very well provide proof of why, when legacy media can no longer serve their communities, it makes a lot more sense to let nature follow its course and create room for rebirth than it does to offer bailouts such as the one contemplated in the federal government’s most recent fiscal update.
I say this because local news appears to be doing just fine in Red Deer, where startup todayville.com is – along with other innovative products such as Pattison’s RDNewsNow.com – vying to win readers’ loyalty. Just as elsewhere, Golden West has been leveraging its local radio stations to create online products that are replacing fading legacy media products such as newspapers.
In Toronto, the online sports specialty publisher The Athletic is building a subscriber base and a reputation for reporting and writing excellence.
There are many other examples of innovation – not the least of which is Troy Media, distributor of this commentary. All are doing it without, to my knowledge, public subsidy and each appears to be executing its business plan in a fashion that builds the public trust that a government subsidy such as that being contemplated would surely undermine.
I don’t know if these and similar 21st century ventures have yet found the model that will provide a future stable economic foundation for journalism. If I could make such forecasts I would long ago have retired to Barbados.
But what I do know is that it’s through these efforts that a solution will eventually be found. I trust human ingenuity and its adaptive instincts enough to believe that and remain confident that propping up zombie products overwhelmed by change creates nothing other than ongoing demands for further zombie subsidy.
Those who argue strongly in favour of a bailout (Unifor, the union that represents most journalists who remain employed at legacy media, for instance) also make the error of describing journalism as foundational to a healthy democracy.
History shows that journalism is not in and of itself a foundation for public good. It exists and has existed in many societies that are not even remotely associated with democracy. From Pravda and Der Sturmer to today’s Pyongyang Times and Tehran Times, journalism’s history is as inelegant as that of the cultures within which it resides.
What is, on the other hand, fundamental to democracy is freedom of conscience and thought, and freedom of speech and expression. In a society that ensures media and others the freedom to express the thoughts and speech of its citizens, journalism is the vessel through which those liberties flow.
Its value, though, is only maintained by keeping the trust of as many people as possible that it’s delivering the news of the day to them in a fair, accurate and balanced fashion that clearly distinguishes between fact and opinion. The maintenance of that public confidence – which is regrettably undermined daily by too many journalists blathering away in the most undisciplined fashions on Twitter – is what’s fundamental to the health of journalism and, to some extent, the health of the democracies within which it resides.
The practitioners of the craft – particularly as they appeal to the political world that the public expects them to keep an eye upon – would do well to keep that in mind.
As well, the rest of us should remember that supporting the innovators seeking to solve problems is a far better path for a healthy democracy to trod than joining hands with those complicit in their creation.
Troy Media columnist Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC.
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