Cynics attempt optimism at CANADALAND panel in Halifax, with mixed results.
The largest independent newspaper in Atlantic Canada has been on strike for over a year, with no end in sight.
Of the remaining print properties, the overwhelming majority are dominated by one of two companies, which effectively operate monopolies in their respective provinces: TC Media in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island, and Brunswick News in New Brunswick.
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates have proposed either gutting the CBC, or scrapping it altogether, which would further cripple the country’s already hurting media landscape.
It’s in this climate that Jesse Brown of Toronto-based indie news and media critique outfit CANADALAND rolled into Halifax on a chilly March night to ask the million dollar question: Is Atlantic Journalism F****D?
Before a raucous crowd of around 200 at the Marquee Ballroom, Brown hosted Tim Bousquet, founder and editor of the online upstart Halifax Examiner, and King’s College journalism instructor Terra Tailleur, who spent 20 years in CBC newsrooms before moving into academia.
The panelists focused on the dearth of local journalism in the wake of the Chronicle-Herald’s strike winding into its second year, and how a lot of the remaining outlets are not making the situation any better for the public.
“It is a bad time [in Atlantic Canada], absolutely. What’s happening at the Herald is really a blight on journalism,” Tailleur said, adding “you don’t know what you’re missing” when it comes to the news.
To compound the lack of reporting coming from the Chronicle Herald in Nova Scoita, or the dozens of reporters Tailleur said have left the CBC’s Atlantic newsrooms in recent years, Bousquet added it doesn’t help that much of the news in Atlantic Canada is being hidden behind a paywall.
He referenced the time in June 2014 when Moncton residents couldn’t access information about at-large shooter Justin Bourque—the source of a manhunt after killing two Mounties—on the Times & Transcript (the daily newspaper that serves Moncton and area) website because management decided to keep their pay-wall up.
No matter what happens, people are losing their jobs… —Tim Bousquet
Paywalls do not endear newspapers to the public, or even to those publications’ subscribers; in fact, Bousquet argues, paywalls and other attempts to force people to pay for online news content are leading to the newspapers’ demise.
“This is not a nice story — no matter what happens, people are losing their jobs,” he said, adding in “another four or five years” there will be “no more of these newspapers in most towns or cities.”
Bousquet cited a top-heavy management style that is simply no longer feasible or even sustainable for most newspapers.
Perhaps sensing a premature answer to the event’s central question, Brown asked Tailleur how the public broadcaster fits into all this.
She insisted the CBC’s work remains “vital” to Atlantic Canadians, but falsely claimed that “[w]hat you know about [the recent taxi assault case] came from CBC reporting.”
Metro Halifax in fact scooped other outlets on the judge’s verdict in this controversial case, with local independent publications also contributing to the coverage, which Twitter was quick to point out.
— Ben Wedge (@benwedge) March 3, 2017
Brown then asked Tailleur about her role as journalism instructor and how teaching might contribute to the future of journalism for the region.
“We’re teaching research, critical thinking, writing,” she responded. “I teach resourceful, that’s what I do.”
Tailleur said she encourages her students to look outside traditional reporting when it comes to the job hunt.
“I think you’re training a wonderful generation of PR professionals,” Brown playfully responded.
The conversation then cycled back to the available media properties that do exist in Atlantic Canada, with all three panelists agreeing that if there is one cause for hope, it’s the growing number of smaller, independent media outlets that are emerging while traditional oulets appear to be flailing.
Aside from Bousquet’s Examiner, about a dozen entities, including The Independent, got a shout out for their ability to produce good copy on a small budget, while refusing to be beholden to advertisers, corporate publishers, or public opinion the way more traditional models are.
— CANADALAND (@CANADALAND) March 3, 2017
“We are not going to replace the Chronicle-Herald,” said Bousquet, explaining the Examiner won’t be able to fill gaps the daily paper is leaving on beats like sports and arts. “What we can do is advocacy journalism, and do investigative work, and it doesn’t take a huge crew to do those things,” he added.
The question remained: How are newspapers going to get people to pay for journalism again? Brown, optimistic, said, “If there is a future of news, it’s paid content, and I think people are starting to realize that.”
Then came the audience questions:
On government subsidies and corporate investment in media:
Bousquet was wary, especially over how outside influence could corrupt a newsroom’s integrity, to which Tailluer added that CBC’s public funding allows their reporters a degree of autonomy and independence when covering stories, which would be lost with corporate oversight.
On how burgeoning reporters should start their career:
Tailleur and Bousquet were both in agreement, insisting that any opportunity, no matter how far-flung, should be taken. Both agreed that leaving your region and comfort zone are big contributors to a reporter’s overall ability.
Brown remained ever the cynic, arguing what Tailleur and Bousquet were advocating sounded an awful lot like the traditional system of getting a job, which is part of the reason they are asking if journalism is fucked in the first place.
“I don’t know if those jobs exist in those small towns anymore,” lamented Canada’s foremost media critic.
On a new model, or at least a new way of getting paid without being influenced:
Tailleur argued institutions like the CBC are still vital for launching careers and funding journalism, to which Brown immediately rebutted: “Anyone who expects to have a career can’t divorce themselves from how this stuff makes money,” implying journalists are ill-equipped for today’s market if they can’t sell themselves in addition to writing well.
Both agreed on the importance of making the most of social media and the Internet, but, ever the pessimist, Brown then added that Facebook is “terrible for making money, but incredible for spreading news rapidly. Even fake news.”
Meanwhile, a smiling Bousquet made quick mention that Examiner shirts and coffee mugs were on sale at a booth near the back of the bar, driving home the entrepreneurial point Brown was making, and stating that this is the reality of how small-media reporters make money.
During the discussion all three implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the difficulty facing journalists who want to produce journalism without money or influence from the corporate sector or government, and that many are making their work available free of charge, hoping to generate revenue through crowdfunding or other means.
Gone are the days of travel budgets and daily stipends. Going are the days of traditional newsrooms. Communications and story pitches will be done in the virtual newsroom, which costs far less to rent.
And, outside a few novelty publications, the physical paper will cease to exist.
Despite all this talk of euphemistic downsizing and cynical snark, Bousquet, who at times seemed to be trying to out-cynic Brown, refused to write the epitaph for Atlantic journalism.
“Is Atlantic Journalism fucked? My answer is no,” he said in his concluding remarks.
Bousquet has faith that diversified, independent media could become profitable in Atlantic Canada. Tailleur hopes she can prepare the next generation to have a career in that landscape. While Brown just wants people to listen to CANADALAND free, and then hopefully pay for it.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated “all three [panelists] agreed that the model now seems to be that reporters today will be expected to write first and hopefully get paid later.” The text has been modified to more clearly and accurately depict the panelists’ take on the difficulties journalists face in transitioning to new media business models.
Ross A. Mair is a writer, reporter and photographer who was born in Scotland, raised in Atlantic Canada, and currently resides in Dartmouth, NS. He studied journalism at Holland College and UPEI and has worked as a reporter in three of the four Atlantic provinces, excluding New Brunswick. He publishes Public Editor # 1, an online media criticism blog, and can be reached on Twitter @publicednum1.