In case you haven’t heard, the newspaper industry is currently burning alive. Entire institutions that have stood for more than a century have crumbled and fallen, leaving ruinous piles of rubble where their glamorous, shiny buildings once stood. Their foundations, eroded by endless corporate greed and blatant mismanagement, are giving away like the arthritic legs of an old man left and right.
So of course, it was no surprise when I read today that more layoffs from newspapers either happened recently or will happen due to plummeting funds and the industry’s universal failure to adapt to changing times. And that’s just the tip of it.
What is more and more apparent is that journalists are regarded as worthless entities. They technically produce no revenue, as journalism is, in itself, a pure artform that cannot be priced, traded or sold. What used to sell papers in the past was the news; but when news is at your fingertips from literally everyone, then why pay money for it? Suddenly that art has the same value as a semi-satisfying cheap thrill, that, if it’s not about someone dying, someone doing something bad, or something horrible happening, isn’t even worth reading. On top of that, all journalists are now criminally labelled as heretics, lunatics and liars by the very forces they are trying to expose or bring to public justice, further pushing the already-deep axe into the public’ trust.
The Thirst for Revenue
When I lost my job as an editor/reporter in 2017, I was, like many other journalists who’ve been in that position, numb from head to toe. The punch in the gut wasn’t so much that I was unemployed, but that it marked the end of my involvement in the newspaper industry. Painful still was realizing that journalists were being let go while all the newspaper’s ad sales people were getting promotions and pats on the back. They brought in the dough, while those like me, who were focused on creating honest and high-quality stories, didn’t. At least, not in their eyes.
Little did I know that this was happening across the newspaper/media-scape. It wasn’t about quality, but quantity. Stories went from having three to four sources, to two, then to one, then to none. Accountability for journalism became an afterthought. Certain practices included making reporters and editors create hybrid abominations known as advertorials – advertisements disguised as stories – in turn ripping journalists away from their purpose of writing actual news content.
Don’t get me wrong. Someone needs to sell something in order to put food on the table. However, sales should not be involved at all with journalism, and vice versa; at least, in my opinion.
Turning veteran journalists into marketing marionettes and filling newsrooms with salespeople are just two of the perversions to journalism that currently runs rampant in the newspaper industry, further deepening its decline. Seen more often is when ads shamelessly streak their content over readers’ computer screens, invading their Facebook and Twitter feeds and pushing whatever trash the newspaper was given to sell by their advertiser… who, by a sick twist, is also paying their bills.
I have a vivid memory of such an occurrence; one that, if my journalism professors witnessed, would pass out from rage. Years ago, I was part of a meeting ran by newspaper execs who feverishly pushed multiple advertising campaigns on their editorial staff. One of the campaigns, which involved an auction of sorts, fed multiple posts per hour to all our Facebook followers via our newspaper’s Facebook page; it was so invasive, readers were sending in countless complaints, either threatening to unfollow us, or straight up just unfollowing us. These were readers that myself and others worked very hard for years to win over, and in a matter of hours, we lost them by the hundreds. In a room full of editorial staff, I stood up and remarked that the damage done to our audience far outweighed the benefits.
“But the campaign made us $100,000,” exclaimed one of the execs, who, while a former journalist himself, was now leading a team of “specialists” to help prop up the company’s plummeting ad revenue. He openly ignored my statement, while the rest of the room remained in total silence. What shocked me wasn’t that this guy was an asshole – I knew that the moment he opened his mouth – no, what shocked me is that not a single journalist in that room stood up to protest what this campaign, and others like it, was doing to our readership and the irreparable damage to the paper’s integrity and to journalism, that would be felt for years to come. Whether it was out of fear of reprisal, complacency, or ignorance, everyone failed that day, bringing with it the heavy realization that journalism is truly dying.
Sadly, it continues to die, either on a large, embarrassingly-public scale like Postmedia’s fall, or silently behind closed doors. Just last week, a 182-year-old newspaper was shut down instantly, tossing 161 staff (65 of them journalists) into the unemployment line after the paper’s owner decided it was no longer profitable.
People still ask me what I think will happen to journalism and if it will actually die at some point. There’s no easy answer to that, but I personally believe journalism in itself won’t ever die, because we can’t afford it to. Google, Amazon, Facebook, all the media tech juggernauts of the world still need real journalists on the ground to cover news and events, because the info still has to come from somewhere. Without journalism, we’d have no way of knowing who the pushers and pullers in our society are, and how they may be shaping it for their own personal gain. Good journalism is a fleeting artform, but, fortunately for now, still exists.
As for the newspaper industry as a whole, I suspect this painful metamorphosis will continue for years to come, at least until a stable model that combines revenue and quality content is found. I hope, one day, that it is, for everyone’s sake.