Traditional media firms are undoubtedly suffering in the digital age. But does it follow that the public is being harmed?

By Madelaine Drohan

Traditional media firms are undoubtedly suffering in the digital age. But does it follow that the public is being harmed? The Public Policy Forum’s recent report on the state of Canadian media conveys a great deal of information about journalistic jobs lost, newspapers shuttered and the giant sucking sound of advertising revenues going to Google and Facebook. Yet it fails to demonstrate that these problems are harming Canadian democracy. Without hard evidence to that effect, its recommendation that the government use its clout and taxpayers’ money to prop up struggling firms rests on shaky ground.

This is one of two crucial failings in The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, a report commissioned by the government to provide advice on what if anything it should do about the blood-letting in Canada’s traditional media sector.

The second is almost as worrisome. The report’s recommendations address the industry’s current problems instead of casting ahead to determine what the media sector might look like tomorrow. To compare it to another industry being disrupted by digital change, it’s like recommending the government help the taxi industry in its struggle with Uber when driverless cars are already on the horizon and are likely to blow both groups out of the water.

Some disclosure is needed here: I looked into the state of the news industry when I was the Prime Ministers of Canada fellow at the Public Policy Forum in 2015-2016. I was researching a separate but related question of whether there was a future for serious journalism in Canada. Layoffs and closures were already a familiar part of the media landscape and Google and Facebook were taking an ever-increasing chunk of advertising revenues that traditional media firms depended on to survive. My conclusion was that serious journalism would continue to exist because the demand for it still existed, but there would be less of it and it might appear in unfamiliar forms.

The Shattered Mirror adds a lot of meat to the bones of those closures and losses. It increases the figure of job losses among journalists in the last few decades to 12,000 from 10,000 and cites figures from Ryerson professor April Lindgren of 169 local news outlets that have closed or merged with larger entities, while 53 new ones have opened since 2008. It concludes that there is less information “about civic affairs, from city halls and school boards to courts and legislatures” and consequently the public does not have the information it needs to hold governments to account and, thus, democracy is under threat.

This may well be true but the report gives no evidence to support this conclusion. Is the public really not as informed as it was in the recent past? Or could people be getting information from sources other than journalists? The Internet has allowed governments, advocacy groups, businesses, universities and individuals to get their messages out without going through media outlets, which used to be the only game in town. Might they be helping to fill the gap? The report talks of competition from clickbait and social media and gives passing mention to news aggregators and bloggers. But it does not deal with all these other reputable sources of information or whether they might be an adequate substitute for journalism.

It is hard for journalists and former journalists to conceive of a world where they no longer have a near-monopoly on information. It was this near-monopoly that led to a free press being enshrined in the constitution and to the belief that its existence is crucial to the functioning of democracy. There are stirring quotes in the report from Thomas Jefferson, Albert Camus and Keith Davey. All were made before the Internet opened the floodgates and ended the role of journalists as gatekeepers of information. In the digital age, any causal link between a free press and a well-functioning democracy should be tested anew before it can be affirmed with confidence.

One possible test would be to find a survey or surveys done in the past on government policy and rerun them at the local and national levels. That way you could measure change over time. You could pick a place where local news outlets have closed and another where media competition is still thriving. It could turn out that people deprived of their local newspaper, radio or television station really are less informed and less able to hold their government to account. Or perhaps not. Right now, the report’s authors ask us to take their assertion as a given.

Another assertion that is not adequately backed up is that fewer journalists automatically means important topics are not being covered. That may well be the case, but where is the evidence? There is no sign that a study was done of the coverage over time of what the report calls civic journalism. There have been studies in the U.S., but Canada is not the U.S. There is also no acknowledgement that some of the lost 12,000 journalism jobs have been lost to digital technology, which enables media outlets to put out the same amount of information with fewer people.

A case in point: When I first covered Parliament in the early 1980s, the CBC routinely sent multiple, four-person television crews to cover events. There was a reporter, producer, soundman and cameraman in each crew and a separate crew for national French and English and local French and English. The job that required 16 people can be done today by one person with a digital camera, who then shares the digital recording with all the other services. The event is covered, but with fewer journalists. No research is cited to say how many jobs fell under the sword of digital efficiency and how many represent a straight loss to news gathering and analysis.

The report acknowledged that the media sector might look different in the future. “Are we merely passing through a turbulent transition to a more open and diverse future, or witnessing something that could inflict lasting damage on democracy?” its authors asked. The question was never answered. The recommendations addressed the media sector as it exists today.

The quote from Wayne Gretsky comes to mind about being successful because he skated to where he thought the puck was going to be, not to where it was. Given the presence of digital experts among the advisors, not exploring possible futures for the Canadian media is a surprising omission.

As a journalist, I want to believe everything the report asserts: that journalism still plays a crucial role in informing the public and remains a pillar of democracy. But as a citizen and a taxpayer, I want my government to insist on reliable evidence before meddling in the industry and using public funds to do so. The authors themselves assert that “a public policy response to the economic challenges of the news media is justified only to counter a risk to the health of our democracy”. There is still more work to do.

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Madelaine Drohan is the Canada correspondent for The Economist. For the last 40 years, she has covered business and politics in Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia. In 2016, she became a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. In 2015-2016 she was the Prime Ministers of Canada fellow at the Public Policy Forum.