Is the future of news a town crier? I’m not kidding

Is the future of news a town crier?
A town crier with a baseball cap rather than the traditional three-cornered hat?
I’m not kidding. Here’s why.


On the afternoon of Nov. 18, 2009, the Toronto Transit Commission shut down the main north bound subway from the city’s downtown due to safety concerns after a contractor (not connected to the transit system) damaged a bridge over the subway line.

That stranded thousands at the main downtown crossroads of Toronto, Yonge and Bloor Streets.Many of those thousands of commuters had to line up for more than an hour to catch a bus.  The system was actually restored ahead of schedule by the middle of the evening.

CBC News story
Subway back to normal but riders still fuming

I arrived at Yonge and Bloor (according to the EXIF time code on my camera) at 6:33 p.m. The crowd of waiting commuters snaked around the office building at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. One bit of good news was that this mid-November evening was unseasonablly warm.

I had my camera with me and began shooting. I was also wearing my CBC News baseball cap, which is a lot more visible to the public than a media ID card around one’s neck.

People kept coming up to me and asking me what was wrong with the subway system.

It happens quite often when a media person is at an event.  But usually it’s at a demonstration and the question is “What are they demonstrating about?”   If it’s a crime or accident scene, it’s “What happened?”  In both of those cases, it’s pretty obvious what is going on.

Last night, I had more questions from more members of the public than I have had in my memory, “What is happening?  “Why is the subway shut down?” People were also asking the police,  uniformed TTC employees and other members of the media. In most cases it was the live or camera crews with media baseball caps or media jackets, not the TV reporters waiting to do their live hits into the supper hour news shows. ( What good were those live hits to the people waiting in line, wondering what was going to happen? Great for the folks at home though, another “live from the scene” report.  )

That got me thinking about the ongoing debate about the future of  the news business. Are we missing something?

Toronto is a media saturated city. There are four daily newspapers (all a bit  shaky but none at death’s door, so far) (The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Toronto Sun and The National Post)  five broadcast and cable networks (CBC, CTV, Global, CITY/Rogers and SunTV) three  Canadian 24 hour cable networks (CBC News Network, CTV News Channel, CP24),  radio stations too many to count–and they all have websites.

Then there’s social media, lots of blogs in Toronto, including BlogTo  which has become a web-based news service for the city.

 In fact, I first found out about the subway disruption from a @TTCalert on Twitter.

Yet a significant number of people at Yonge and Bloor did not have any idea at all that their homebound commute was going to last a lot longer than expected.  Are we missing the real “news you can use” in favour of some artificial variety created by a consultant?

Gee, why weren’t these people checking news websites from their offices? After all the numbers show that the highest web news audience is during office hours.

We say we live in a wired, web world. Are we really?  Is all this talk by the academics and other experts of  “link economy” all that important, if the basic news can’t be delivered to the people who need it? Maybe that’s why people are losing faith in the media. We don’t tell them what they really want to know (even if it appears to be boring. Standing out on the weather waiting for a bus because you can’t get a subway is even more boring.)

When I was a journalism student back in 74-75, the late Phyllis Wilson, a great prof,  who taught at Carleton from 1966 to 1982, a former city hall reporter for the long -gone Ottawa Journal pounded into our  (Watergate dreaming) heads that people want to know and need to know the basics, water and sewerage (always sewerage not sewer, Phyillis would say), garbage collection, street cleaning and why isn’t the bus running?

Why isn’t the bus running?

You know, fifty or sixty years ago, when there were still evening newspapers, there would be newsboys (yes newsboys in those days) hawking The Toronto Star five star final or an extra from the late Toronto Telegram that would have told the people in line exactly what was going on (at least up to the print deadline).

Yet, last night, despite cell phones and smart phones and text messages and Twitter messaging to those phones, a good many people didn’t know what was happening and needed to know.

The Good News.  They saw someone with a media baseball cap and asked me and the crews from the other stations. So despite all our numerous failings and mounting problems, folks still go to the media for the news.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.  Maybe we do need to be a town crier some time and shout out the news from a street corner.

We certainly have to take a hard look at what we do and what kind of news we chose to deliver.

You can see my CBC photo gallery Transit chaos at this link