While there is no doubt that the current woes facing the newspaper industry in Canada have been exacerbated by the financial crisis, print media were already in deep trouble before the world banking system unraveled. While the reading habits of young people were part of the problem in the beginning, the rise of the Internet could ultimately be responsible for the demise of the conventional news industry in Canada and the U.S.
While it's important to move with the times, the news industry has been forced into an impossible position by the Internet. According to a survey in December, more than half of all people now get their news online instead of paying for daily newspapers or watching the news, and most papers put their content online to be competitive in their markets.
The problem is that it's harder to put advertisers on the web, and people don't go through a website section by section. A handful of banner and sideboard ads on a website are never going to replace the revenue lost from print newspaper ads, which fill roughly half of all newsprint, or the nominal $1.25 an issue that some newspapers charge.
Newspapers also have the whole Craigslist phenomena to deal with, a mostly free online service that is cutting into classified advertising revenues that many papers rely on.
Naturally I have concerns about the viability of my industry as a reporter, but I think society should be concerned as a whole. Newspapers, imperfect as they are, perform a necessary function in society that simply can't be replaced by blogs, wire services or citizen journalists - or even the 24 hour news networks, which don't do "depth". Without print, we would be at the mercy of PR flacks and spinmeisters, with nobody to challenge the validity of claims. News would cease to be local. Investigative journalism would die.
How serious is the issue? Put it this way: without journalism, our kids would still be playing with toys infused with lead paint, and drinking out of plastic bottles with Bisphenol-A. We wouldn't know the causes or players in the financial crisis, or what government is doing to prop up our banks. We wouldn't know much about Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. We wouldn't know what cribs were recalled, or to check our fridges for tainted foods. We wouldn't know what politicians are up to, whether parties are keeping their promises, or how our tax dollars are spent.
It is said that the job of the reporter is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, to balance differing points of view with the facts on the ground. Sometimes we inform, sometimes we challenge, sometimes we entertain. Sometimes we are merely a conduit of information, middle men and women serving the public interest.
Newspapers across Canada are laying off staff - the Globe and Mail and Halifax Chronicle Herald both announced cutbacks last week - which impacts on their ability to properly cover local stories.
What to do... How do you preserve newspapers, and journalism as a whole?
The obvious answer is for all newspapers to get together and agree collectively to shut off the pipe, forcing people to go back to the newspaper box to get their news. The online advertising model will not keep many papers afloat and attempts at online subscription services are a failure. If you can't win the game, why play?
Newspapers can always put their archives online one week later, or have separate blog sites that discuss items in the print edition, but putting daily news stories online for free guarantees they'll never get paid for their efforts.
Another important priority is to shut down Craigslist. As unpopular as that suggestion may be, I believe that giving most of their services away for free and charging for others actually constitutes an anti-competitive practice. As long as the company exists to make a profit, and it does, its business dealings are subject to all the laws and regulations that apply to industry. I believe it's only a matter of time before a media conglomerate sues this company, or buys it with the goal of shutting it down.
People will grumble, but would they rather have free classified ads or a healthy media? Present day shows that you can't have both.
Usually I'm a big defender of the web, and I do believe that the most significant innovations over the past decade have been online. However, there are certain real-world amenities that we can't live without. Music stores may one day be supplanted by online music stores, but it will kill the independent music industry as well as the music store experience. Bookstores may one day be supplanted by Amazon.ca, but it will kill local retailers, and the careers of many budding authors as everybody buys the same titles from the same writers.
When newspapers fold, we will lose local coverage, forums for news and dialogue, and an important conduit of information. There are so many good reasons that newspapers are considered to be pillars of democracy, and why freedom of the press is guaranteed in most constitutions. Without a free press, it's doubtful that democracy could even exist.