Newspapers need to tell their own story

Pictou-Advocate-opinion

American comedian John Oliver could not have delivered a better present to the newspaper industry – a 19 minute F-bomb laden tribute on the importance of local newspapers, which he describes as the foundation of the media food chain.

He’s right. Radio newscasts are notorious for stealing content directly from the pages of the morning paper. Some of you may say you don’t read the paper, but you do. You just don’t realize it. Your Facebook and Twitter streams are chock-full of original content generated by, you guessed it, newspapers.

Readership for newspaper content has never been higher. Ever. We are reaching audiences never dreamed of when the sole product was print on paper. But now there are desktops, smartphones and tablets. Content is continually updated. But the king is still the paper product. Fifteen million community newspapers, that does not include dailies, are printed every week in Canada. It is a number that remains stable. A few of you may be surprised to know circulation for The Eastern Graphic even increased last year.

But the impression many have is that the newspaper industry is dying. It is a wrong impression too often supported by the power of our own pens. Major media corporations love celebrating the challenges of their corporate competitors and we as an industry fail to promote our strength which shows that 80 per cent of Canadians engage with a newspaper on a weekly basis.

When compared to the trials and tribulations of local radio, which is undergoing unprecedented fragmentation (think Sirius, think CBC, think Internet, think Apple Music) and local television news and cable (think Android boxes, think Netflix, think YouTube), newspaper troubles pale in comparison. But you’d never know it.

All papers, especially dailies that have grown accustomed to almost endless revenue from classifieds and national advertisers, are experiencing troubles compounded by quarterly financial statements and the reality that a growing segment consumes media in non-traditional ways. Our small community papers are not immune to challenges. Our advantage is our connection and loyalty to the communities we serve.

In typical newspaper fashion, even the Newspaper Association of America could not simply say thank you and accept John Oliver’s support, which includes biting commentary on some of the silly things the industry has done. Nope, the NAA had to fire off a press release and whine about Oliver picking on the industry.

It’s a typical exercise in taking your eye off the ball. Our fight is not with John Oliver, it is with governments, both provincial and federal, and advertisers that see social media as a panacea for all ills. The federal government is spending tens of millions of dollars with American-based Google and Facebook while turning a less than critical eye on the results these outlets deliver. A Nova Scotia cabinet minister recently bragged of spending more than $250,000 with Facebook. The PEI government is considering an honorarium for a person who built a Facebook page, in part, on content taken from The Guardian without payment. Media buyers enamoured with social media blissfully ignore the continued dominant position newspapers hold. The irony is the federal government prohibits Canadian media from being sold to American interests but funnels an increasing level of Canadian tax dollars to American corporations that neither support our communities or our democracy through jobs or taxes.
And here’s where it becomes an Island issue. I have a grudging respect for the website Redlikeme which, on a limited number of occasions, has pushed issues into the public spotlight. If that was all the site delivered it would be a positive disrupter to the media environment.

But it is not. Far too often unproven, unsubstantiated allegations are simply thrown up with nary a scintilla of supporting evidence. On many occasions the site is nothing more than a repugnant peddler of rumours and innuendo of a personal nature that have no place in the public discourse. If people want to read junk, that is their right. If they choose to believe some or all of what is written, that is their right as well. There is no law against ignorance. But it does prove the absolute requirement for a strong media presence to hold government accountable, something far greater than just throwing the latest unattributed rumour online.
The opportunity of our time is the growing appetite for great journalism, news that is relevant to the community being served. Too often we, as traditional media, have forgotten relevance matters. Newspapers are the foundation of the media food chain, and we will be around for a long time to come. But if democracy matters and if old-fashioned gum shoe reporting matters, and I believe they do, governments must realize that throwing money at American corporations that serve no purpose but their own bottom line, does nothing to combat the challenges our citizens, our communities and our provinces face.

Paul MacNeill is publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com