What we learned about the future of serious journalism from Madelaine Drohan, author of a new report.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

It’s an old saw that we are all familiar with by now: newsrooms are shrinking; beats are dying; young people entering the workforce have few, and precarious, options in front of them and boy, don’t people sure love lists?

In the face of what we can agree is a rapidly changing journalism industry, Madelaine Drohan, the Canadian correspondent for The Economist and the 2015/2016 Prime Ministers of Canada fellow at Public Policy Forum, set out to answer a question—does serious journalism have a future in Canada? Her recently released report examines some of the challenges journalists face.

First of all—what is serious journalism?

Anyone with Internet access and a Twitter account can call themselves a journalist—so, what makes the difference between them and someone who is being paid by a media organization to report on the news? “It’s sort of one of those things where you know it when you see it but it’s hard to give a succinct definition,” said Drohan. For the purposes of the report, Drohan settled on a definition that comes from the American Press Institute: journalism informs people, not just entertains them.

“It’s not that it can’t be entertaining, but it has to have some reason beyond that to be considered serious journalism,” she said. But the definition in and of itself is platform neutral. “It might even be a really well-considered tweet but it has to be something that informs people.”

The challenges we face are big

After starting her research in March of last year, Drohan watched as one service after another—Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat among others—created means for stories to be published directly on their apps and websites, rather than redirecting readers to another website. “That is sort of an existential threat to these media outlets if it is not managed properly.”

In 2014, Facebook and Google dominated the advertising market. And users who are already on one of the social apps, like Twitter or Facebook, are unlikely to leave it to go to another web page to read the story, which means news organizations lose out on page views.

Those producing journalism also face a job market that is increasingly comprised of precarious jobs. We are being asked to do more at our jobs—write, shoot video and maintain social media presence, for example—without seeing increases in pay or job security. Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University, and publisher of J-Source publisher, told Drohan that how much people are willing to pay for journalism will decide whether the pay increases, or if once again becomes an “almost blue-collar job.”

Should the government have a role?

The intrusion of the government into media matters always raises eyebrows—see, for example, the reaction to news that the federal heritage committee would be examining the local news crisis, or how some newspaper publishers feel about public funding for the CBC.

But what Drohan learned from her research is that people believe if the government does do anything, it shouldn’t be tailored directly for media because that could just as easily be taken away eventually. Instead, for example, if laws around foundations were adjusted so that they benefited all non-profits, that would also benefit people interested in starting non-profit journalism ventures.

Can serious journalism survive?

Drohan wanted her report to add a little reality to the debate. “If you don’t understand what the threads are, you are not going to be able address them,” she said. That reality is complex—the challenges are big, but there are several strategies to help support journalism going forward. Some of that is on news outlets to do a better job reaching their audiences.

Drohan said we should look at outlets that are trying new things, like, for example, the New York Times, which has experimented with allowing readers to ask questions within a story. “It’s just a really fresh approach to putting together a story,” she said.

An outlet’s focus can also set it apart. Some individual journalists and smaller media outlets have found success in reporting on niche areas, whether that be in a subject area or regional area. Experimentation with different forms of funding will be critical as well.

As Drohan points out in the report, serious journalism existed before any of the mainstream outlets producing it today were around but, so it will likely exist after. But the “bulk” of serious journalism today is being produced by them—so their two fates are tied together to a certain extent.

However, Drohan is cautiously optimistic. “All the signs point to a continued desire on the part of Canadians to be informed,” she wrote at the end of the report.

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.