As a retired producer who worked at the national level at both CBC News and CTV News I was appalled at the superficial (to say the very least) coverage in English Canada of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque last night , January 29, 2017.
So were many people. The news was coming in on Twitter and Facebook, not television and along with the real news (and the fake news) there were complaints that neither CBC nor CTV had any coverage. The viewers were demanding television coverage from both the public CBC and the private CTV.
While Societie Radio Canada and its French language private competition TVA were live and in-depth, the CBC National broadcast on both the main network and News Network had nothing more than a minute of a phoner voice over. A disgrace for a national public news service.
At 11 pm, Pacific, that’s 2 am Eastern, CBC News Network went back to a canned documentary while BBC World devoted much of its newscast to the shooting.
This is the age of instant communications. Mobile phones. Text. E-mail. Twitter. Facebook.
It is obvious that in this age of 24/7/365 communications neither network news service has an emergency plan.
Probably in the view of bean counters and consultants news happens most often when there is a regular measurable audience and a newsroom is fully staffed (or as staffed as much as today’s budgets allow) and the new buzzwords like a “Hub” or a “Breaking News Desk” will always respond.
The Hub and Breaking News desks can only respond if there are warm bodies with their bums in chairs actually in the newsrooms.
Maybe the network news bosses should bring an old analog era procedure that actually got (real) breaking news on the air fast. It’s called a phone tree.
Back when I was starting in journalism 40 years ago, the days long before Breaking News became nothing more than a marketing gimmick, there were emergency plans and procedures and when the fertilizer hit the fan you learned quickly how those procedures worked. Even if you were a lowly editorial assistant (a job that no longer exists) almost all alone in the newsroom.
These long forgotten procedures were created (I was told at the time) when the Greatest Generation returned from service in the Second World War to begin or resume careers in journalism and they damn well knew what an emergency or breaking news really were.
So here’s how I learned my trade back then:
On September 28, 1978, it was just after one in the morning at the old National Radio Newsroom on Jarvis Street in Toronto. The evening staff had gone home. There was a writer for the hourlies for western Canada. The late Doug Payne producer of the World at Eight was preparing the show. His writing and producing staff would not be in for a couple of hours. I was the editorial assistant. It was still the days of clattering teletypes in a side room. Nothing had moved on any of the teletypes for an hour. Nothing. Then suddenly the Reuters machine literally went nuts. Normally five bells on an old teletype was a Bulletin. A Flash was seven. This time the machine rang 28 bells. (I saved the carbon copy and counted them later) The new Pope John Paul I was dead. (He had been in office just 33 days).
I was stunned for a few seconds, then ripped the paper and ran over to Doug.
Doug knew what to do. He knew the phone tree.
First I was to call the then senior assignment producer, Bob Dowling.
Second and only after I had called Dowling, who could start getting the foreign desk and reporters mobilized, I was to call the then managing editor Eric Moncur.
Doug and the writer under CBC procedure at the time (not these days) waited for the CP/AP confirmation. They then prepared the network bulletin and after that the last two hourlies to the west.
Doug told me that once I had called the boss, I was to call in all the morning staff for both World at Eight and Hourlies, starting with producers and senior technicians, then writers and junior technicians. Overtime was no problem. The early morning EA didn’t answer (I later learned he was spending the night at his girl friends’) so I was told to call in the mid-morning EA. Doug then told me to call Frans, the nearby all night restaurant and order breakfast to go for 30 people. As soon as the mid-morning EA got in, he was sent out again in a taxi, with an envelope full of cash to collect the breakfast. (Eggs, bacon and sausage).
I was also fielding calls from the public (including an assistant to the Archbishop) who had direct lines numbers to the newsroom in something called a Rolodex. (In the first round of many budget cuts the overnight switchboard operator had been let go a few weeks earlier)
In Toronto, noise bylaws forbade the Catholic Churches’ bells from ringing until 7 a.m. But as the World At Eight went to Atlantic Canada, the listeners could hear LIVE, those bells ringing.
A year later, on November 10, 1979, it was a deadly Saturday night. There were two people in the radio newsroom, myself and the hourly writer. Down the hall a producer for Sunday Morning was putting the last minute touches on a doc that was to air that morning.
It was five minutes to midnight. Five minutes until the switchboard closed. It was then the phones started to ring. There had been some kind of huge explosion in the west part of Toronto. At midnight those calls stopped.
Those calls were enough for me to follow the phone tree procedures and call Bob Dowling. It was soon after that that news staff began calling on direct lines, not just from the west end but even from high rises in downtown Toronto, telling me there were huge flames in the west.
A Canadian Pacific train had derailed in Mississauga at 11:53. So those warning phone calls from the public had come almost instantly. Dowling went through the phone tree, calling in staff and alerting reporters. Then he called back and ordered me, the most junior person and the available warm body to get out to the scene until a national reporter could relieve me. There was a problem, the weekend CBL (local Toronto radio) reporter had taken the staff car and he couldn’t be contacted. So Dowling authorized a technician who should have gone off shift to drive me on overtime to the scene in his personal vehicle.
As soon as we got on the Gardiner, we could see the flames reaching 1500 feet into the air; we eventually got to the scene, and (in those days) were waved through the police barricade to a parking lot designated for the media. Even for the TV people who were also arriving this was long before the days of easy live coverage. But there was a quick police briefing within a half hour or so. Soon after the briefing, a national reporter arrived, so the tech and I drove off to find a place to file. In those days that involved taking a phone apart and using alligator clips to send audio from a tape recorder back to the newsroom. Then, the tech and I went to a mall that was an evacuation centre that was already filling up, for interviews. We were back in the newsroom by 5 am, which by that time had all hands on deck.
On August 19 1991, I was a writer at CTV News in this case the Sunday news with Sandie Rinaldo. It was a dull, routine Sunday night with (as far as I remember) until about 11:25 when once again it was Reuters, this time on a green CRT screen tied via some badly written software to a mainframe, that sent the Bulletin that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had announced that Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer in office. It was the infamous August coup. I called the show producer Jennifer Harwood (now a CBC News manager) and read her the bulletin.
Normally on a Sunday night after the control room told us “tape is good” everyone would go home. The control room called, tape was good, but there was no call back from the producers saying they could go home. Everyone was reading the wires. Control room called back, “What is going on?” So I told them and told them to stand by. The coup meant that there had to be a whole new show with real breaking news put together in now less than half an hour.
At the same time, the CTV phone tree was activated. Calls were made to then CTV VP of News Tim Kotcheff and senior assignment editor Dennis McIntosh. The midnight show to Central Time Zone made it to air (of course) and then after that show was off the air; there was a full network special report aimed mostly at the eastern, Atlantic and Newfoundland stations that had already broadcast the original newscast.
That’s how the system was supposed to work. That’s how it worked at both public and private networks when the networks had executives and managers who knew what they were doing.
My sources tell me that at CBC there is minimal staff assigned to the Sunday National (unlike the old days when the Sunday National was a flagship that led the rest of the week.) and even the English Montreal local CBC newscast was a disaster.
This news disaster is the result of decades of budget cuts, staff reductions and misleading viewer analytics that say it isn’t worth money investing in weekend coverage. At CTV I suspect that the parent company Bell Media has no real interest in actual news coverage in a demographic low point. CBC lost its way as a public broadcaster years ago, with too many managers and too many managers who know nothing about broadcasting and don’t consider news apart from marketing it.
The CBC now has version 5.0 or higher of a so-called digital strategy. The news of the shooting was on Facebook and Twitter, not much even on CBC.ca (they can’t do much if there’s one writer and no reporters on scene to feed information) and everyone in English Canada was waiting for CBC to go live with real reporting. It never happened.
In these days when all the media is in deep trouble, there are some things you can’t fix.
But one thing can be fixed. Remember the Greatest Generation.
Remember the old Journalism School 101 adage. Never Assume.
Never assume that news is going to break when you’re expecting it.
Come up with a real 21st century emergency plan and bring back that old analog frigging phone tree system and when there is real breaking news get it on the air and out on digital and social media whether it’s on Wednesday afternoon or Sunday night. Accurate and fast. Accurate is crucial in the age of fake news on social media.
Here’s what John Doyle of the Globe and Mail says
(In the first upload, I mixed up east and west. Mississauga is west of Toronto. It has been corrected)
The news media, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom are crying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,” today over their failure to foresee Donald Trump’s victorious campaign for president of the United States.
In this case certainly, flogging yourself for your sins is somewhat justified.
Unfortunately, the pundits and analysts are already falling into a trap of their own making—the narrative already is that metropolitan media elites ignored the pain and rage of the mostly white voters in America’s heartland.
There already two widely circulated articles by Americans from small towns.
One is by Sarah Smarsh from Kansas in The Guardian: Dangerous idiots: How the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans
In many ways I agree with the media ignoring smaller towns (one unspoken reason is that that these days small town markets are considered too minor by the bean counters to even bother about.)
This is what I said when I posted a link to Smarsh’s article on Facebook:
This article about the failings of the American media also applies to Canada, with a media elite ignoring the realities of the lives of people living outside of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. On the issues in northwest British Columbia (and I suspect elsewhere) I have to say that since I retired from CBC News in 2010 and came back here to Kitimat, BC my respect for the Ottawa press gallery has gone down by 95%. By that I mean mostly the commentators and columnists?—?for the CBC, Globe, and definitely the National Post who have become experts on the issue of northwest BC, the coast, First Nations and pipelines, who sit in their cubicles and pontificate expertly about things they actually know almost nothing about. Even when reporters came into town and I acted as an unpaid fixer, they stayed for two days, three at most, talked to the usual suspects and then flew out.
Another small town example is Joshua Benton from Louisiana on NiemanLab with The forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse.
Jeff Jarvis, metropolitan elite at the City University of New York puts it this way in A Postmortem for Journalism also writes:
Journalism has failed to listen to, understand, empathize with, and serve many communities—it sees only the mass. I include in that indictment its failure to reflect, respect, and then inform the worldview of the angry, white men—and women—who became the breeding ground for Trumpism.
There’s a lot of truth to that, and to the role of click bait, the painful transition to the digital world and the economic collapse of journalism.
But it’s just one narrative.
That’s because every media post-mortem I’ve seen so far show’s YOU’RE STILL NOT LISTENING.
What was the main thing that Trump supporters said? What was the number one thing that wasn’t racism, misogyny, and rage at the collapse of local economies, Islamophobia or parochial America firstism?
The number one thing was “authenticity.”
More specifically the Trump supporters say “He tells it like it is,” (even if he was actually lying).
I heard Trump supporters say that again and again and again throughout the campaign, “He tells it like it is.”
The Trump supporters hate spin.
Everyone, except corporate executives and political operatives hate spin. But spin today is part of the information ecosystem. There’s corporate spin, government spin, political spin. We’re all sick of the spin.
It was Donald Trump, an ultimate spin master who recognized he could spin himself to the presidency by hating spin.
As journalists we too often have to go along with it because we have no other choice.
So let’s put a lot of the blame on what happened squarely where it belongs?—?the message track public relations industry which now employs more people worldwide than journalism does.
Spin. Spin. Spin and more spin. As journalists you’re so used to the immediate enemy that you no longer recognize that how dangerous that enemy is.
So let’s ask a question. The term “implicit bias” is used a lot today in race relations. What if there’s an implicit bias in journalism actually in favour of spin because we’ve become so used it that it’s become second nature?
False balance didn’t start with the Trump advocates on cable news. False balance started when journalists accepted (or had to accept because they were overworked) the phony statements that come out every day from the media relations of whatever company or department or politician you’re dealing with today. False balance began when news shows felt they had to book smooth talking phony spokespeople (some of them former journalists) to get that side of the story. False balance began when you didn’t have the airtime or space to challenge an outrageous statement.
False balance began when you shoot a 30 second clip with a young woman (yes 95% of the time it’s a young woman who looks good on camera) who says nothing really about the story you’re trying to do but you have include the clip anyway.
It gets worse when message track media relations simply issues an e-mail statement that means nothing that you have to include in your story. You know it’s crap, but you use it anyway. The media relations department congratulates themselves on putting out another fire.
The audience at home, whether a well paid elite in a big city or a plant worker in a small town both say the same thing. “That’s crap!”
It begins to add up.
In working in a region where there are multiple environmental problems and multiple proposed energy projects the words you hear again and again are “cumulative effect,” the cumulative effect of too many environmental stresses or too many industrial projects in one small area.
Just like cutting down one tree doesn’t affect the forest, the first example of modern message track spin didn’t have any affect. Cut down ten trees and you begin to see gaps. Cut down a thousand trees and the ecosystem is under stress. Clear cut an entire forest and there is nothing left of the ecosystem. A hundred thousand spins, a million spins undermine the system, destroy trust and in the end are a threat to democracy.
We all know it but it’s time that it was said. The public relations industry has responsibility not only for the election of Donald Trump but also for Brexit. (Remember how Tony Blair “sexed up” the reasons for the Iraq war?)
It wasn’t always that way. Yes there has been PR at least for a century.
When I started out as a journalist 40 years ago, there were PR people but they had a different job. They knew (at least in the days of large news staffs) that the reporters would find out the story anyway. Their job was to put the facts, yes facts, in a corporate context.
If you were dealing with the police or the military, it was often the same. They would go so far, up to a boundary you knew and they knew they couldn’t cross. So you sometimes found your way around that boundary. Today most journalists don’t have the contacts or the time to recognize there is a boundary.
An example, on my first job on The Sudbury Star, back in 1975, if there was an accident, with a fatality or serious injury at one of the mines or smelters, I would quickly get a call from the PR department giving me the details. In those days they were smart enough to know that everyone in town would know within a couple of hours anyway.
These days in industrial towns the PR people (when they talk at all which is seldom) give a carefully crafted message track email that says little or nothing. Everyone in town knows something happened, but with the facts withheld, the rumours (often wild rumours) accelerate on Facebook. In some places the local PR people don’t even have the authorization to issue releases on their own initiative, everything has to be approved by suits in head offices tens of thousands kilometers away.
That’s not very smart. But that’s the way it is these days.
Then’s there the case of no balance, when a company decides not to issue a statement and hope the story might go away.
The story might go away but the public idea that it is all corporate crap doesn’t go away. Cumulative effect. Cumulative effect of media relations spin creates a demand for “authenticity” even if it is the phony authenticity of a Donald Trump.
We have to ask how much has journalism’s regurgitating of corporate and government spin contributed to the loss of our credibility?
It’s likely that more people began to believe fake news, not just because their social media feed is a conformation bias silo but because they’ve been fed faked up news for years by media relations and carefully crafted message tracks.
If responsible journalists, once they get over the mea culpa of today begin to sit down and really reconsider their role and what can be done under today’s economically precarious conditions, getting back to really challenging the message track agenda has to be high on the agenda, no matter how difficult it is or how little money your organization has or how little time they give you.
Giving up false balance spin has to be a priority not just for the off the wall fringes but for every bit of corporate nonsense.
For media relations, especially those former journalists in the spin rooms, it is time that you look in the mirror and realize that you, the public relations people, have become among the greatest threats to democracy and freedom we are facing today.
I am going to make a radical suggestion that just might save the dying newspaper industry (for a while).
Fire all your columnists.
Newspapers should do the one thing they used to be good at–original reporting. Anybody can sit down and whip out an opinion piece and post it on the web (as I am doing now).
Fire all the columnists.
Use the money to hire a bunch of eager and smart young reporters from the tech generation. Given the bloated salaries of most ageing, out-of-touch columnists, the newspaper business could probably get three entry-level reporters for every fired columnist. Instead of a stupid “last hired, first fired” policy, the young reporters could keep the industry on life support for a while longer until one of those young people come up with a solution that saves the industry from itself before it collapses entirely.
(One proviso here. There are a few, too few, writers labelled as columnists who actually go out and do frequent original reporting. I’d keep them and make them get out in the field even more than they do now, because they’re actually reporters. There are also innovative reporters/live tweeters/live bloggers like Andrew Carvin @acarvin (personal website) in the US and Kady O’Malley (CBC Inside Politics blog) @kady in Canada. I’d keep them as well. I would not keep tweeters/columnists who just send out their opinions without any actual reporting).
Why fire the columnists?
One. The world wide web is full of opinionated bloggers and tweeters.
In terms of the opinion marketplace, opinion, especially ill-informed opinion, is at the market level of a t-shirt made in China and brought over to North America by the container load, dirt cheap and available in any colour you want. If opinionated columnists helped attract a newspaper audience in the 1980s, today a columnist is a penny a dozen (and we all know what’s happening to the penny).
On the other hand, a large segment of the population seems to be eager for real, on-the-scene, informed reporting. But since having columnists sit on their fat asses in offices, never going out, never even making a phone call or moving a mouse to check a fact, are, in budget terms, cheaper than actually sending reporters out in the field, newspapers are firing reporters and promoting columnists. It’s the same with political panels on television. The panels cost little, fill up air time and add almost nothing substantive to a news broadcast.
How many of today’s audience actually care about columnists? Last fall, I was teaching a continuing education class at a university on social media. There were about 30 students, ranging in age from 20 to 65. I mentioned the CBC and National Post’s Rex Murphy, (I know from my days producing The National’s website that Rex was quite popular then among the CBC audience). To my shock and surprise, blank stares. No one. No one in that class had ever heard of Rex Murphy, even though he hosts Cross Country Check Up, he once wrote a column for The Globe and Mail and now gives his opinion on CBC’s The National and in The National Post. An anomaly perhaps, an indication of the decline of the CBC, perhaps. But those students did talk about how they got news, yes news, from Twitter and Facebook and how links led them to the media that originated the story.
Two. The majority of columnists, left, right or middle, are completely out of touch with reality.
Most columnists today are ageing boomers, or members of Generation Gekko (the spoiled generation between the WWII Greatest Generation and the Boomers) and most haven’t had an original thought in at least a decade. Nothing proves that more, here in Canada, than the near unanimous condemnation of the student protests in Quebec by columnists in almost all the major media across this country. One has to wonder if these columnists talk to their kids (if they have kids). They rant about today’s generation of students as “spoiled brats.”
Compare that blanket condemnation with the intelligent discussions I have seen among several Facebook friends and their followers over the issues in Quebec. Even those who oppose the students stand on tuition fees and are disturbed by the marches disrupting their neighborhoods and businesses are more measured in the Facebook discussions I have seen than what you read in the columns or heard in the television news political panels.
Why read the pontification of a columnists, when you get a wider view of opinions and experiences from a thread on Facebook (where I should note, people use their real names and are known personally to at least some of the people taking part in the discussion)?
None of those columnists, when they were starting out, had to go through four or five unpaid internships to get their first paying job (and unpaid internships are not only standard practice in the media but in almost all industries that also pay their CEOs millions in salaries and bonuses). None of those columnists are burdened with life-long debt for getting a university or college education. The columnists seem to have forgotten the fear we all felt as kids at the prospect of nuclear annihilation over our heads when they dismiss as nonsense, the completely justified fears the current generation of young adults have about the future of a planet facing drastic climate change.
None of those columnists ever seem to bother to read the news wires available on their computers (or even their reporting colleagues on their own newspaper). If they did, they would know that the discontent among the current student and young adult generation is worldwide. There have been student protests in Chile over high tuition and debt for the past two years. There have been student protests across Europe, even before the debt crisis. Then there’s the Arab Spring (conditions may be different but it’s the same generation) and yes, the London riots, even the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the G20 disturbances in Toronto. I’ve seen tweets and Facebook postings that students in the UK are going to adopt the Quebec students’ red square symbol in their struggle with the government of David Cameron. If it happens that would show the power of social media and the networking power of the new generation.
To quote the old song from the 60s, which I am sure most of those columnists sang in their day, “something’s happening here” but unlike a few reporters, the columnists never bother find out, they just sit at their keyboards and create “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Even in terms of a business model, if you’re running a newspapers and you want to attract a younger audience ( the younger audience is a mantra in television, even though the executives don’t really mean it) why have your newspaper columns shit (and I meant that) almost every day on your potential next generation of customers? Yes, most newspaper readers are older (but even those are giving up on newspapers) but why ignore a potential market of millions that could save your business? Perhaps because the newspapers executive are cut from the same obsolete cloth as their columnists
To expand on this, since I returned to my old home town of Kitimat, centre of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, my once high respect for the Ottawa press gallery is in free fall and now near zero. Most of the reporting on this British Columbia pipeline and tanker issue from Ottawa and Toronto, is only 20 per cent accurate, if that. (That is why I founded my own news site, Northwest Coast Energy News). Almost all of the columns on the Northern Gateway issue written east of the Rockies are so inaccurate that they are worthless.
In the old days, when Canadian newspapers actually did reporting from across the country, there would be someone out west to tell the Ottawa or Toronto columnists and their senior editors, hey this column is completely wrong. (There are only three national level reporters in Canada whose reporting can be trusted on the Northern Gateway, Mike De Souza at Postmedia, Jeffrey Jones at Reuters and Nathan Vanderklippe at The Globe and Mail and even they tend to write too much from an energy sector point-of-view. As for the energy columnists, their opinions are worth about as much as molecule of shale fracked natural gas)
The press gallery, especially the columnists, exist in an inside-the-Queensway bubble, listening to politicians, war room strategists, spin doctors and pollsters and have come to believe that is reality. It seems that to the Ottawa press gallery, the only thing that counts is electoral politics. Everything else is, to use the term from economics, a political “externality” and not worth reporting. Discontent across Canada and political turmoil around the world mean nothing, unless it can be factored in to whomever wins the next parliamentary, congressional or presidential election.
Three. Let them blog.
It is interesting that most of the columnists, many of them conservative, many hired in the 1980s, when newspapers decided that they only wanted to chase the well-heeled, upper middle class and upper class market that advertisers craved, worship the free market but are completely insulated from it, especially on newspapers that are loosing money (unlike the young people they scorn who are subject to the marketplace every day.)
So if these columnists are so in favour of the marketplace and if they are fired, as I suggest, then let them put their ideas out in the marketplace as a blog, and see if they can actually earn a decent living at it. Most won’t of course, but there are a few who do, like Andrew Sullivan. More power to those who do succeed, and perhaps a lesson for those who fail and who are currently condemning today’s students and young journalists for their struggles.
Four. The paywall issue.
Newspapers are rushing to create paywalls. Some reporters say paywalls are needed to produce good journalism.
Wrong. We’re getting into a chicken and egg argument here. Paywalls aren’t going to work and not because the internet has worked on free information since 1993. Paywalls won’t work for the simple reason that 80 per cent of newspapers today are not producing anything worth paying for whether it’s online or mobile; they’re not producing anything even worth paying for and picking up the dead tree printed edition. Many newspapers have already fired most of their reporters and photographers or those reporters and photographers have got fed up and quit or taken early or full retirement. Now the newspapers are going to put up a paywall, with even fewer staff doing the reporting and expect that public to pay for that diminished product?
With wire service reports available for free on sites that don’t have paywalls, why then fill up your news site or newspaper with wire reports that people can get elsewhere for nothing and then expect them to pay for it? As well as the wire services there are now the citizen newspapers, from paper.li. I subscribe to a half dozen daily feeds as a sort of wire service for Northwest Coast Energy News and often those compilations give me three or four sources on a new story, so if a story is behind a paywall, there are always alternatives. As well as my own original content, I use Storify to keep my readers up-to-date with issues I can’t cover myself. (Example here)
One has to ask “what are they thinking” in the media’s ego-driven, consultant-plagued corporate board rooms? (Consultant-plagued because all the media companies are repeating the same failed strategies over and over instead of trying something innovative). Why would anyone under the age of 35, in these days of austerity, whip out their credit card and pay to be told by a columnist who hasn’t picked up a phone to check a fact since they were first appointed around 1990 that these readers/viewers are spoiled brats and that their worries about the future are of no consequence.
As I said above, with so much opinion available for free on the web, why pay for the rants of the 95 per cent of columnists whose writing isn’t worth it and only serves to raise your blood pressure (no matter where you are on the political spectrum).
Hire the kids, lots of them
On the other hand for the same current limited budgets, if newspapers got rid of the columnists and hired a whole generation of new, young reporters, with guidance from some open minded senior editors (and checked by good copy editors—you really need to bring copy editors back, firing copy editors is another media corporate stupidity), that would bring “new blood” to use the cliche to the news web sites and news pages. We would see original reporting on issues that everyone, not just the younger generation, care about. A century ago, reporters started in the business right out of high school around 16 to 18 and the newspapers, of the day used their energy to create audience and profits. Even with today’s demand for higher education, a 25-year-old reporter has the energy and eagerness to shake things up. It is possible, perhaps, that they then could produce stories that would be worth paying for, whether by attracting advertisers or even making a news site so good that people might actually penetrate the paywall with their credit cards.
To use a term from one of my generation’s favourite TV shows, Star Trek, The Original Series, in 2012, a columnist on a newspaper is a Dunsel. (Dunsel is a term used by midshipmen in the 23rd century to describe a part which serves no useful purpose. From Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. )
Getting rid of columnists is just an idea, one of many as the news media, an essential part of any free and democratic society, struggles to to survive and find a way to pay to produce its product. There are many blogs and reports out there on the issue of media survival, too many to link to. My idea of getting rid of columnists would just be one stopgap measure.
Unfortunately most media executives these days are also Dunsels, earning huge salaries, running around believing it’s still 1985 and rejecting any new ideas from no matter what source (except expensive reports from their consultants) and thus serving no useful purpose, so it is likely that the newspapers’ downward spiral will continue until nothing is left.
Related See Jeff Fraser’s piece If they build it, will they pay? on the Canadian Journalism Project site where he says the New York Times paywall is working, because the Times is emphasizing quality original reporting and most paywalled papers are not emphasizing quality reporting.
I intend to write a longer blog on the raging debate over Kai Nagata’s now famous blog about his resignation from CTV News, Why I Quit My Job putting it in a wider and historic perspective.
Throughout my career I’ve known people who have gotten fed up in the way Nagata did and quit. So quitting is nothing new and I will include that in a future blog.
As the backlash against Nagata grows, I think a crucial point has to be made now. As I said in some Facebook and other posts, Nagata’s blog wouldn’t have gone viral if it hadn’t touched a cord with a lot of people, including many of his generation. The blog has an audience around the world that is still growing.
A lot of people are now saying Nagata is a self-indulgent egotist in his mid-20s. Maybe. Elders have attacked restless, ego-driven 20-somethings since the first agricultural settlements in Anatolia seven thousand odd years ago.
Many influential voices in journalism are saying that Nagata should have stayed and fought. One of the latest comments comes from someone highly respected in the broadcast news industry, Howard Bernstein, Quitting Solves Nothing.
Nagata isn’t the only talented young journalist who has quit the business (although it looks like Nagata didn’t hold out as long some people). I know other people in their 20s in Canada, the US and the UK who have also quit but who haven’t voiced their dissatisfaction so eloquently as Nagata. So perhaps quitting does solve the problem of knocking your head against a brick wall. It feels so good when you stop.
The first question that has to be asked is: with jobs in journalism so scarce and competition
for those jobs so fierce that the managers who actually want talent have their pick, then why are so many of the best and the brightest who can quit (not married, no mortgages, not overburdened by student loans) actually quitting?
I have seen Facebook and other postings from very talented journalists and former journalists, I know, all in their late 20s, early 30s, (and whose work I respect) all saying Nagata is right. Most of the criticism appears to becoming from an older age set, from late 30s up until retirement.
The second and more important question is where’s that all important audience that the media managers keep telling us they are trying to serve?
The audience for news among the 20 to 30 demographic is dismal. Those dismal figures go beyond the supposed disinterest that age group has in news.
This is the demographic that the advertisers supposedly hunger for, supposedly would kill for: 18 to 34. Where are that audience? Not watching TV news, that’s for certain. Why are the news ads filled with safety bath tabs, reverse mortgages, non-medical life insurance and topical pain relievers? The advertisers aren’t that dumb, if the 20 to 30s were watching the news, you’d see a lot more ads than there are now for smart phones and tablets, computers, cars, adventure vacations and eco-tourism trips, starter condos and the furniture for those starter condos. Instead the ad dollars are going to attract poor, aging, arthritic, worried boomers. At the same time, in any TV newsroom, the managers go on and on and on and on about the “younger audience” while producing the kind of news piffle that led Nagata to quit and has driven that audience away.
The 20 to 30s are also not reading newspapers, at least on paper, they browse online at the free news buffet.
It’s not just that they are part of the download generation who expect free stuff. The news media hasn’t produced anything that they think is worth paying for. After all they will pay for music on iTunes and for non-pirated software or anything else they feel has real value. The news media doesn’t produce anything that would attract an 18-34 audience that would mean advertisers would throw money at the media to get their attention.
Among my non-journalist friends in their 20s, one thing is very clear. They don’t trust the media at all. Any media. While mostly aging conservatives attack the CBC for its supposed left-wing bias, many of 20 to 34s I talk to lump the CBC together with CTV, Global and Sunmedia as “corporate media.” I am surprised and disheartened that many young people believe that all the networks, including the CBC, and the major newspapers jump to Stephen Harper’s commands. (I am sure I can hear Harper saying, “I wish” especially when he is facing Terry Milewski.)
Like the rest of the audience, the 18 to 34 are titillated by Charlie Sheen’s self destruction and they did watch some of the royal tour by William and Catherine. But they are also concerned about the future of this poor planet and the crisis that climate change will bring and know that the media on whatever platform isn’t doing enough coverage of those stories.
The current News International scandal, the closing of The News of the World (as well as the likely cynical substitution by the Sun on Sunday) and the continuing revelations about the abuses of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch (as well as the fact that Conrad Black is going back to jail in the U.S.) will do nothing to improve the trust in the media among younger people.
So it’s not just Kai Nagata that’s quitting the media. It’s the whole damned demographic.
The real story is not Kai Nagata, it’s an entire generation, that all important audience, disillusioned by the metric driven nonsense that consultants tell managers this generation (that isn’t watching or reading) want.
The journalists in that generation who are quitting and posting on Twitter and in blogs that didn’t get as much notice as Nagata’s are voicing what the rest aren’t saying (and isn’t that the journalists job?)
For my friends and colleagues who are still in the business and are still fighting from the inside, good for them, they might (might) make a difference (maybe). However, we must remember the definition of insanity, if you keep doing the same thing over and over and get the same result, and you don’t change what you are doing and keep doing the same thing, you must be insane.
While there are small victories in those internal fights, the important strategic battles are being won by the beancounters and metric mad managers (who are picking up their huge bonuses on their way out of the office each weekend).
Some of those young people, some still journalism students, and many who quit their jobs without publishing their manifestos, who I follow on #futureofnews are working to create their own start-ups or exploring new forms of entrepreneurial journalism or are struggling as two-track freelancers (both working for the current media and working to innovate).
So it is likely that if anything saves journalism. it will come from one of those quitters who are free to create a new model and mode of news delivery. Maybe that’s why Kai Nagata touched such a raw nerve with the (the cliche) main stream media.
If only, if only, my colleagues say, if only the news media had started charging for content when they launched their first websites.
If only the media had charged, then none of the current problems of free content would have happened, the public would know that content costs money and the newspapers and TV stations would have a second, strong income stream and all would be well. There would be lots of good, high paying jobs and the money to do real journalism rather than celebrity silliness.
So now there is a search for scapegoats. Media managers who have shown that they are completely incompetent in running traditional print and broadcast are an easy and obvious target.
Others blame the tech community and a misunderstanding of the truncated quoting of Stewart Brand, “information wants to be free.”
Then came Wired editor Chris Anderson’s nasty tract, Free. The main flaw in “free” is the assumption that the concept can transfer outside the tech and science fiction communities. Unlike commodity (or atom) based corporations, for creative individuals and most of the media, “Free” usually doesn’t work outside those arenas, an inconvenience that the advocates of “free” constantly ignore. What is left is basically a schoolyard bully taunt: “So there, free is the future, so take your medicine and work for nothing.”
Most of the people who ask the question and provide answers were not around in the earliest days of online news media. So that is why there is a belief that if somehow the media had charged in the early days, today all would be well.
Yes, there was one day and just one day, when, if the media had got its act together, it could have started charging for online news, September 1, 1993. The trouble was that there were no major media on the Internet in a big way come that September.
I was present at the creation of online media
I was working in “online media” long before the launch of the World Wide Web, back in the days of videotex and teletext from 1981-1985.
The Internet played a role in my science fiction short story Wait Till Next Year, published in Analog in November, 1988 (although I got some of the tech details wrong).
I got my first Internet account in August 1993. Note I am a very early adopter and got in just before the Internet tsunami a month later in September 1993.
I co-wrote the first book on Researching on the Internet, published in the fall of 1995. So I was researching the state of the internet, the web, and the media at the first moments of news on the web.
I was the third employee assigned to CBC News Online, April 1, 1996.
The cold, hard fact is that web evolved with free content. It had little to do with Stewart Brand. So when the media first ventured onto the web, the media had to play by the rules at the time. Those rules appeared to say, “commerce on the Internet is a no- no.”
The Genesis of the media on the Internet
In the beginning, (in 1968-1969) US Department of Defence created ARPANET.
And DOD saw that it was good.
DOD said let the military and the scientists communicate.
And the military and the scientists communicated.
And DOD saw that it was good. The American was getting a good return for their money.
But then there was darkness on the face of ARPANET,
DOD saw that too many people had access to the ARPANET and most of the users didn’t have security clearances.
DOD said in 1983, we will create a separate MILNET and give the scholars ARPANET
In 1984, the National Science Foundation created NSFNET.
And DOD and NSF saw that it was good.
Thus TCP/IP spread to universities around the world.
And the scholars saw that it was good.
The techs improved a system called UUCP and created protocols for e-mail, ftp and newsgroups.
The campus deans said let us have more access to ARPANET, NSFNET,TCP/IP and UUCP NET via private sector telecoms who can do the wiring.
Verily the private sector telecoms wired the universities and the laboratories and created dial up for scholars in their homes.
The telecoms reaped great profits of gold and silver and precious things from those wires.
And DOD and NSF and the scholars and the techs and the telecoms saw that it was good.
NSF decreed that NSFNET and ARAPNET shall be free from commerce, for it was the will of the community that the networks are for education and the spread of human knowledge.
And so NSF said we shall cast out UUCP NET because it can be used for commerce (but we will still use the free software they developed).
And thus UUCP NET was cast out.
The telecoms and the nations of the world far from North America agreed that this networked system was good and created their own networks.
And they all saw that it was good.
Thus it came to pass that the universities which had journalism schools gave their students access to what was now known as the Internet.
And lo and behold it appeared to be free (although their accounts were paid for, in part, by tuition fees). The students were taught that the Internet was educational and thus should be free for all.
At the same time their elders in journalism who loved tech were using another system called CompuServe (which the elders had to pay for with their credit cards).
The journalism students and j-professors came on to CompuServe said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy. There is this wonderful thing called the Internet and it is free.”
It came to pass that Tim Berners-Lee at CERN created the World Wide Web.
And all saw that the World Wide Web was good.
So the professors, and the students and the reporters and the editors, all of whom loved tech, all rejoiced when they saw the World Wide Web. For they thought they had found the perfect way to deliver the news.
Out of a whirlwind came Netscape.
At first only the techies loved Netscape.
Then Netscape said we shalt have an IPO.
In the year of our Lord 1995, on the ninth day of August, the IPO came to pass, and it was wonderful and the Netscape stock set a record on Wall Street.
So Netscape became front page news and was high on the evening newscasts.
The media barons and all priests and scribes of the news temples saw that much gold and silver was going to Netscape and asked “What is going on?”
So the barons and the priests and the scribes summoned those of their followers who were techies and said “Tell us, what is this Internet? What is this World Wide Web? Why is Wall Street giving gold and silver and precious things to Netscape?”
The techie reporters and editors said to the barons, the priests and the scribes, this is the Internet, this is the Web.
The techie followers showed the barons, the priests and the scribes their personal websites. Thetechie editors showed the barons, priests and scribes the under the table news sites they had created. They told the exalted ones this World Wide Web is perfect for delivering news, you can have text, you can have pictures, you can have audio and you can even have video.
The barons and the priests and scribes decreed to their techie followers and editors. “Thou shalt build websites for our news operations.”
So the techie news people and the tech techies laboured mightily and created websites. They presented the websites to the barons, priests and scribes.
The barons, priests and scribes looked at the websites and saw that they were good. So they told the news people and techies that they had done a great service and would be rewarded from the gold and silver we get from this new World Wide Web (although the barons, scribes and priests, like all their kind, were lying and did not intend to really reward their followers).
The techie news people and the tech techies trembled and quaked but bravely told the barons, priests and scribes, “No, oh exalted ones, that is forbidden. It has been decreed from on high that there will be no commerce on the Internet.” And they were sore afraid.
The barons, priests and scribes said to themselves, “What the fuck is going on?”
So that’s the story.
From creation to evolution
There are two key points.
First, as is well known, the Internet did evolve from military, scientific and university communications systems which were, on the surface, free, although, of course, largely paid for by the American taxpayer and university endowments
The culture of free exchange of information is the basis of scholarship, but is, of course, paid for behind the scenes, by government, foundation and endowment funding. Thus the culture of freeinformation existed at the core of Internet use at the time the media first began to be interested in putting news on the web.
Second, in the early 1990s, before the rise of the independent Internet Service Providers and the expansion of services by the telecoms, large and small, the main communication network for the Internet in North America was the NSF Backbone, the high speed Internet communications network run by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which as part of its policy, forbade the use of the backbone for commercial purposes.
Thus in theory, and the conventional wisdom believed, no one using the Internet for commercial purposes, and that would have included charging for news, could use the main North American Internet information communications backbone.
But, in reality, the situation was a lot greyer and not so black and white.
I kept all my research material from the time in 1993-1994 (which I recently donated to the York University Computer Museum)when I was writing Researching on the Internet.
Here is what a couple of the leading books of the time said (books which most libraries, I suspect, discarded long ago and so are no longer available to those who lament the media if only)
Internet Companion A beginners guide to global networking Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C Ryer, Addison Wesley, May 1993, put it this way:
Probably the best known and most widely applied is NSFNETs Acceptable Use Policy , which basically states the transmission of “commercial” information or traffic is not allowed across the NSFNET backbone, whereas all information in support of academic and research activities is acceptable.
It sounds somewhat complicated, but you need to remember the original Internet began as US government‑funded experiment and no one expected it to become the widespread, heavily used production network it is today.
It’s going to take a while for commercialization and privatization of these networks to occur. The Internet as whole continues to move to support‑‑or at least allow access to‑‑more and more commercial activity. We may have to deal with some conflicting policies while the process evolves, but at some point in the Internet future, free enterprise will likely prevail and commercial activity will have a defined place, making the whole issue moot, In the meantime, if you’re planning to use the Internet for commercial reasons, make sure the networks you’re using support your kind of activity.
Another book, just a little later, Kevin M Savetz Your Internet Consultant The FAQs of Life Online. Sams, 1994
Commercial activity isn’t allowed on the Internet? It’s purely an academic and educational network, right?
People who advertise and sell stuff on the net should be flogged, right?
Yes and no. As mentioned earlier in this book the Internet is composed of a variety of different networks. Each network has its own set of rules, called acceptable use policies.
Certain networks [particularly the National Science Foundation network, the NSFnet, have strict acceptable use policies that ban most types of commercial use.
On the other hand, another backbone network within the Internet world has been finding considerable interest among commercial internet users‑‑the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). The acceptable use policies of CIX are much more broad and advertising and selling are both within its purview. So although commercial activity isn’t allowed on certain parts of the Internet, it is allowed on others.
People who advertise on the Internet should only be flogged for heinous violations of Internet culture, such as sending unsolicited junk e‑mail or posting commercial messages to Usenet groups that aren’t supposed to be used for commercial messages.
In the same book, another writer, Michael Strangelove, answered the question (key for the media in retrospect and somewhat prescient as well)
Is advertising allowed on the Internet?
…many people see internet as a noncommercial, academic, purely technical environment. Not so: today about fifty per cent of the Internet is populated by commercial users, The commercial Internet is the fastest growing part of cyberspace,
Businesses are discovering that they can advertise to the Internet community at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. With tens of millions of electronic mail users out there in cyberspace today . Internet advertising is an intriguing opportunity not be overlooked. When the turn of the century rolls around and there are one hundred million consumers on the Internet, we may see many ad agencies and advertising supported magazines go under as businesses learn to communicate directly with consumers in cyberspace.
Those were print books aimed at the newbie Internet user.
But it also means that if the media had had the foresight to get on the Internet in the earliest years of the 1990s, they would have had to become part of the proposed Commercial Internet Exchange.
But in 1991, 92, 93, online in a newsroom was confined to what was called in many American (and Canadian) newsrooms, the “geek in the corner.”
The situation was already changing even as those books went to press.
Here is how Wikipedia explained the changes.
The interest in commercial use of the Internet became a hotly debated topic. Although commercial use was forbidden, the exact definition of commercial use could be unclear and subjective. UUCPNet and the X.25 IPSS had no such restrictions, which would eventually see the official barring of UUCPNet use of ARPANET and NSFNet connections. Some UUCP links still remained connecting to these networks however, as administrators cast a blind eye to their operation….
In 1992, Congress allowed commercial activity on NSFNet with the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1862(g), permitting NSFNet to interconnect with commercial networks. This caused controversy amongst university users, who were outraged at the idea of noneducational use of their network
So, the US Congress had opened up the Internet to commercial activities in that country.
The geeks, bearing content
Most of the media was still clueless and didn’t jump to the opportunity, even if they ran Sunday feature stories on the geeks or closing items on the evening news about this thing called “The Internet.”
It is likely that the vast majority of executives with their eyes on Wall Street and paying consultants pushing 1970s media models had no idea that they employed a “geek in the corner,” much less what the geek was doing.
Apart from tech companies, both hardware and software’s growing giants plus the small office start ups and computer science grad students with big ideas, which made up most of Strangelove’s “commercial activity,” the private sector around the world was slow to take up the challenge.
The CBC, as Canada’s public broadcaster, had, at least in those days, a mandate to experiment and innovate. So in 1993, CBC began an experiment working toward streaming radio on the Internet, in cooperation with the Communications Research Council. But as an experiment and coming from a public broadcaster there was no thought of charging for the service. (The history of the early days of CBC.ca shows the kinds of problems that executives faced. And it was a lot harder for the private sector which was expected to make money and even harder now in the era of bean counting consultants and their talk of profit centers).
When business executives finally realized that the Internet was open to commerce, the news media was one of the first industries to make a major effort to invest on posting their material, most of it repurposed on the World Wide Web. The move was most often driven by those managers and employees who were still around from the videotex and teletext days, who saw web based news might succeed where the 1980s projects failed. Usually, these experiments were not sanctioned by head office and the money came from a little creative budgeting.
That meant the content had to be free, right from the beginning.
There’s one factor, that today’s audience metrics obsessed media bean counters have never considered when they say “If only. ” Their all important audience. The audience for online news in the mid-1990s were Internet and Web early adopters and most had adopted the culture of free information. In those early days, no media was willing to make an investment in online content that was actually worth paying for. Most of the news was repurposed from existing print, radio or television, which was readily available (for a price, of course)
So when the first media pioneers ventured on to the Internet in the mid-1990s (including CNN, NBC, the CBC where I worked, the Raleigh News and Observer, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and others) the media was caught in an evolutionary feedback mechanism.
To attract the early adopter audience, the news had to be free. The audience that might have paid was not yet online (although the richer business types were using proprietary electronic services–which meant they didn’t need to pay for web content either. That pre-web willingness to pay for business information is why the Wall Street Journal paywall has worked while others failed).
Where was the money to come from? The early click through rates for the first banner ads (which many in the audience actually objected to) were dismal.
Development of good websites cost time and money and the media was already facing the culture of free. (I predicted trouble for newspapers when I was interviewed by Craig Saila for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in fall 1996, an article published in spring 1997 www.clueless.@nd.hopeless.ca (Registration required) (Also available on Craig Saila’s site)
The headline pretty much sums up the attitude the students of the time had to media management which was failing to adapt to the fast changing environment.
Looks like the students were right. The Ryerson article was just about the media that had had the courage to venture on to the web by the fall of 1996.
Most of the news media were late comers and took almost a decade to catch up in page views with the early starters. The late comers couldn’t charge for their content because 95% of those early online services, their competitors, were free. Neither were putting that much money into real web content.
There was one day that all the media could have made sure they could charge for content. September 1, 1993.
For it was in September 1993 that the Internet (not yet the web) took an evolutionary leap from a government, military and academic information network and communication system to one used by the public.
In September 1993, America Online, then the largest paid service, opened a gateway to Usenet, the “newsgroups” of the Internet for its subscribers. It was a time for those who then thought the Internet was their exclusive domain remember with horror, called by some the tsunami or the beginning, as described by Wikipedia as the “Eternal September,” when their private party ended.
Yes there were a few news organizations with a presence on CompuServe or America Online on September 1, 1993 but far too few and the content was far too thin.
If the media wanted to charge for content, after September 1993, when the thousands of AOL subscribers ventured on to the adolescent Internet of the time and embraced the culture where they expected free content, it was already too late.
A tectonic collision occurred that September, the leading edge of one continent collided with another.
Invasive species penetrated the long balanced media ecosystem and disrupted it beyond imagination. So will evolutionary forces work, will the news media adapt to the new environment?
(Note I haven’t been doing much blogging for the past several months. I took early retirement from CBC News and moved back to my old hometown of Kitimat, British Columbia, a process that took much longer than I anticipated and is still ongoing as I wait for electricians to finish some electrical upgrades on my new house. I am now resuming my quest to find hints on the long term future of news and so the blog and related projects will slowly appear here.)
The old adage from the earliest days of computing, Garbage In Garbage Out still holds.
The beleaguered news industry is obsessed with metrics, too obsessed in my view. That obsession also seems to be based on the idea that the data being gathered is good data, not junk.
Yet this week, up popped on my iPad a sad example of what is wrong with the efforts to save journalism, sad because it comes from one of the United States’ most respected journalism schools. It is a survey, a survey that shows just how out of touch with reality some studying the future of news are, a survey that is so seriously flawed that when I was teaching journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, in the 1990s, I could have used as an example to teach students what to avoid.
When I lived in big cities, and being part of the generation raised on print, I would devour the morning paper along with my breakfast, mostly the Globe and Mail in Toronto, but in the various other cities I have lived, also the Ottawa Citizen, the Times and the Guardian in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the Vancouver Sun and The Province.
Now, in Kitimat, British Columbia, there is no newsprint waiting on my doorstep at dawn.
The iPad (as opposed to a netbook computer) is the next best thing. I can prop the tablet up on the breakfast table and still get my morning news fix (I mean update) without having to go to the computer in my home office. I check the Globe and Mail, AP, the BBC, New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. I enjoy the Guardian’s Eyewitness best of the day photo gallery. (And I would actually consider paying for a Guardian iPad app, but for some mysterious reason, it is only available for the iPhone and I’m an Android user.)
So there I was Saturday morning, scanning the Associated Press app, when there appeared at the bottom of the screen, a very enticing ad.
Since I am interested in shaping the future of news, I tapped.
The first page was both a further enticement and the usual academic disclaimer needed when surveying human subjects. The survey was from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the best institutions south of the border, so I was quite optimistic.
There were warning signs. The disclaimer added a further enticement for ongoing participants, but only to Americans, saying that to win the goodies, an iTunes gift card, you had to be United States resident over 18.
I am interested in shaping the future of news. So I tapped. The first screen came up. My heart sank.
The first question asked for the subject’s five digit US zip code.
That meant immediately that everyone outside the United States didn’t count. I filled in the field to let me see if I could continue. I could, but now the survey has no idea where I’m from.
So much for shaping the future of news.
Here’s the first problem, just the day before the ad popped onto my iPad, on Friday, October 22, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Morgan Stanley estimates that about 13 million Apple tablets will be sold this year, out of 15 million total tablet sales world-wide.
For 2011, Morgan Stanley estimates that Apple’s number will rise to 30 million, while non-Apple tablets will skyrocket to 20 million.
So assuming the figures are correct (and if you check these other links, the Morgan Stanley figures appear to be in the right ball park), 15 million people around the world use tablets at this moment.
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 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
On Nov. 6, 2009, I was invited to speak to student newspaper journalists at the PULSE conference at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario about how to survive the coming years as a visual journalist.
Here, as promised, is a PDF copy of my talk, with the appropriate web links.
(Large file, right click and save as appropriate to your software)