The stories appear almost daily. In September, Metroland Media, a division of the media empire whose flagship paper is the Toronto Star, ended the print editions of its community newspapers and cut 600 jobs.¹ An international survey summarized in the Reuters Institute’s 2023 Digital News Report found that more people now turn to social media for news than to the websites of traditional news outlets.² The media landscape has been changing rapidly for some time, and this transformation is not slowing down. To assess these changes, we invited two experienced and knowledgeable journalists to participate in an email exchange moderated by Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos. Mark Starowicz was the producer of several landmark CBC radio and television programs, including As It Happens and The Journal, and is now an independent documentary filmmaker. Harvey Schachter was editor of the Kingston Whig Standard and is now a columnist for the Globe and Mail.
I prepared for this exercise by reading two issues of the Montreal Star, the newspaper that my parents subscribed to during my childhood, from May 1958. Abundant advertising – constituting more than half of a 60- or 72-page broadsheet – was the basis of an economic model that sustained a local daily newspaper. This economic model no longer exists. What are the economic models now, and are they viable? The amount of information available now is orders of magnitude greater than it was in 1958, but are people better informed? What has been lost and what has been gained in the intervening years?
It’s an honour to exchange thoughts with you and take up Bob Chodos’s challenge. I can’t promise coherence; this is a confusing time.
So the Chodos family read the Montreal Star. It leaned Liberal. But the Starowicz family subscribed to the Montreal Gazette because it was more Conservative. Now the Star is dead and the Gazette is on life support.
Some backstory, to illustrate shifting times:
In May 1776, Benjamin Franklin came to Montreal, which had just been occupied by the invading American Continental army. His mission was to persuade the French inhabitants to join the revolution. That didn’t work out. But he also introduced a secret weapon: Quebec’s first printing press and a French patriot printer from Philadelphia to spread his revolutionary message. That didn’t work out either. The paper became the Montreal Gazette, which quickly evolved into a mouthpiece for the British elite. In today’s parlance Franklin’s printer would probably explain the hasty rearrangement of his loyalties with something like “Well, the business model had changed.”
In May 1965, 189 years after Franklin and his press, I joined the Montreal Gazette as a copy clerk. I loved it. However, the smoky composing room, with ancient Linotype machines that literally smelted lead ingots as they formed a line of type, did not seem to have evolved much since Franklin’s day.
Even to a callow 17-year-old copy clerk like me, it was evident that a technological shift was overdue. What I never expected, however, was that the whole print industry would virtually disappear before I reached retirement age. Well, the business model had changed.
We can debate when. Whether it’s sometime in 1989 with CERN,³ or with CompuServe or AOL or a dozen variants and websites, is just detail. I think the full revolution hit on June 29, 2007, with the release of the iPhone. If the World Wide Web was the Manhattan Project, the smartphone was Hiroshima.
There was a precedent, after all: Gutenberg’s “invention” of the printing press in 1450 (he wasn’t really the first, but moving on) enabled the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment by destroying the Church’s monopoly of the means of publication. Like many others, I think we are at an equivalent intersection of technology and history. The Web and the smartphone made a publisher out of every visionary and every poet – and, unfortunately, every crackpot and megalomaniac and crook. We stand on a historical and technological fault line of such tectonic magnitude that it’s not at all clear our democratic systems can survive it.
The state of journalism, and information in general, is full of paradoxes.
We are living in the golden age of the long-form article, even as print magazines are dying. Despite predictions that journalism would fragment into glorified tweets, I can’t remember a time when newspapers offered so many “long read” options. Even the surviving legacy magazines are expanding long-form journalism: the Atlantic, the New Yorker and even the New Scientist all have daily editions.
We are living in the golden age of the documentary, even as broadcast television is fading. Once again, there had been predictions that the internet would reduce everything to five-minute lengths. Yet excellent long-form documentary choices abound on the streaming services.
We are living in the golden age of intelligent radio as well, with thousands of podcasts – from a medium that arguably died years ago.
Never have more people subscribed to leading newspapers. You can’t find a newsstand, but the New York Times has 9.3 million paid subscribers, 8.6 million of them digital. The Wall Street Journal’s paid circulation is nearly 3.8 million print and digital. The Guardian, with no paywall, claims a monthly reach of 23 million. Of course, all their print editions are waning, but their readership is growing. And despite our generation’s lament that hardly anyone reads anything longer than a tweet, we may be in a period of relatively high public literacy. For a paper like the Times to reach more than nine million paid subscribers, somebody under 30 has to be reading it.
But the tragedy of the commons is that local journalism is virtually on its deathbed. No one is covering school boards, zoning committees, even local council meetings. I can only imagine the abuse of authority that now goes unreported. Local television news is on its last legs too, and we can already see the private Canadian networks asking to be released from their licence obligations. In a few years, they will be turning their licences in. There’s no money to be made in local – print or TV.
But in fact, the advertising business model, in the sense of big display ads like Eaton’s, was largely a 20th-century phenomenon. All my adult life I’ve collected antiquarian newspapers and magazines going back to 1685. Before the 1890s advertising existed, but it was modest, often limited to one page or the inside front covers of a magazine (Pears Soap). Newspaper barons like Pulitzer and Hearst depended more on impulsive newsstand sales (“The Maine Blown Up”) for their revenue – hence the hysterical tone.
I wonder if we’re not returning to the same dual business model: the Times is now largely digital subscription, Netflix is subscription. Magazines remain subscription-based even in their expanded daily versions, and much of the podcast world is subscription-based. The internet and broadcast media will remain advertising-based models, trying to outshout each other and lure passersby with clickbait – a social and political Wild West – while the rest of us have moved to the quiet neighbourhoods. And nobody will cover the zoning committee.
Something scares me about that.
Your thoughts, for all the paradoxes, captured and explained much of my own confusion. There is so much that is exhilarating at the same time as I see newspapers, where I essentially spent my career, crumbling. I have to explain what happened, for myself if not others, before offering ideas for the future.
On January 1, 1984, journalist Peter Benjaminson published Death in the Afternoon, cataloguing the closure of many American large city afternoon newspapers or their desperate gamble to stay alive by entering joint operating agreements with their morning competitors. The Montreal Star – the largest of that city’s English dailies – had succumbed five years earlier. Though its demise was precipitated by a pressmen’s strike, it was a victim of changing reading and information intake habits that have accelerated until today.
I was given a photocopy of his book in 1993, as if it were samizdat, by my boss, Jake Doherty, the publisher of the Kingston Whig Standard. Jake had been installed in that post when the longtime independent owner of the paper, Michael Davies, sensing where the trends were leading, sold his prized possession to the Southam chain. When I came to Kingston in 1978, Michael had told me how the delivery boys used to go door-to-door but now they were only going to about half the homes. And that was to decline.
Television was killing us. We were delivering yesterday’s news; TV had today’s news, served up by friendly anchors and reporters. We would close the final edition at 1:15 p.m. for late-afternoon delivery and evening reading, mostly filled with stories from the day before. At 6 p.m., eating dinner, people could get a fresher version of the main stories from the television in the kitchen or dining room.
And the chance to set a leisurely hour aside to read the previous day’s news was fast fading. Families were busier, often frantic. Increasingly women were working. Children were in endless activities, mom and dad as harried chauffeurs. Bill Thorsell, editor of the Globe and Mail, began to talk about how we weren’t selling newspapers but buying people’s time.
I was cautious about switching to morning, since it seemed people were even more rushed then and I was dubious they would keep the paper with them all day for further reading. We commissioned a survey, which inevitably found some people preferred morning and some evening, but it was decided for me when one of the pollsters, as we had a drink the night before his presentation, said, “You have to become morning so you can deliver the paper when news stops.”
Newspapers were dying well before the internet came along. Now, of course, news never stops. The smartphone, as you note, blew everything up. In yet another paradox, it gave newspapers the opportunity to be as fast as any competitor getting the news out, at least in their digital offerings. People can dip into the news at any point of the day. Facebook offers the equivalent of a new newspaper every time you open it: an unending deluge of opinion, ideas, jokes, family sharing, cartoons, sports memories, songs, whatever – customized in some fashion to your interests.
Those smartphones have frittered away our attention spans, with their promise of better dopamine hits if we just open another app. Ever since I entered journalism in the late 1960s, the main internal battle in newspapers has been over size: How long should stories be? Newspaper journalists gave up on longer stories by their colleagues (not their own brilliant and vital one of the moment, of course) well before readers did. But over the 1980s, perhaps as an outgrowth of busier family life, I sensed full-page stories were becoming too great a challenge for too many readers, at least during the week (our magazine, on the weekend, worked). USA Today’s success when it started in 1982 was interpreted as an argument against long-form newspaper journalism.
Newspapers then tended to get about one third of their revenue from circulation and two thirds from advertising. John Wanamaker, a legendary marketing wizard, had said in 1938 that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Given that fog, it was always easy to cut as recession neared: Thomson, which the Kent Commission on newspaper ownership called a “lacklustre aggregation of cashboxes,” began selling off newspapers after the recession of the 1990s, preferring subscription services for lawyers, accountants and mechanics offering essential work information that would be needed in bad times as well as good. Now there is a chance for better targeted advertising digitally, along with free classifieds and MLS listings on realtor sites blowing up the old model.
So as you point out, there are many bright spots. But newspapers, a worthy curated compendium of information, are in many cases on their last legs, not even publishing daily any more, and I worry about Kingston and the many smaller cities and towns in this country.
Of course you’re right: the commercial newspaper model started shrinking well before the internet, the result of television and of takeovers by conglomerates and predatory hedge funds which then savaged the staffs down to the absolute minimum. Then the first internet wave came and began to erode the model even more. Free Press, a journalism advocacy group in the United States, calculated that “40% of the jobs lost in the newspaper industry since 1990 occurred prior to 2008 and the boom years for online advertising.”
Then the social media tsunami – Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), iPhone (2007) – swamped the weakened survivors, to the point, Free Press reports in the same article, that between 2008 and 2020 more than a thousand newspapers ceased printing and “the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half.”
You and I agree that the ensuing evaporation of local journalism is an existential threat to our democracy. The question is what to do about it. Several European governments have legislated that the social media giants like Google and Meta have to reach financial compensation agreements with journalistic institutions in order to link to their articles. While this is a step forward, Australia discovered the underlying flaw in this approach. When Australian publishers lined up to get their compensation from the tech giants, the biggest beneficiaries were the large newspaper chains, not the little guys.
Joshua Benton of the Nieman Lab writes that while Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is getting millions of dollars a year from this arrangement, “the small fries in Australia are getting bupkis.”⁴ Meanwhile, in the United States, Senator Amy Klobuchar is advancing a bill that follows the Australian model and, sure enough, among its supporters are hedge funds like Alden Global Capital and giant broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcast Group. Canada recently passed Bill C-18, which takes a similar approach and which will generate over $300 million a year repayment from big tech, but will equally favour the big players and chains.
While it’s mildly satisfying that big tech will have to share its outrageous profits with the chains and big players it stole them from, that will not restore local journalism and independent voices.
The problem is not how to tinker with the failed 20th-century business model of ad-supported newspapers, which created these conglomerates in the first place and made journalism hostage to hedge funds. That model of a local paper with a cadre of local reporters supported by ads from the local grocery stores and auto dealers, buy-and-sell columns and movie theatre listings is dead. The grocery ads became Sobeys flyers, the used cars went to Auto-Trader, the Canadian Tire ads became junk mail and the buy-and-sell ads went to Kijiji and eBay or Facebook Marketplace. The next generation of reporters went into PR or event planning.
A democracy requires an informed electorate, supported by civic journalism that covers town councils and school board meetings; exercises scrutiny of police and administrative authority; monitors housing, transit, health services and infrastructure; and reflects the relevant social, religious and cultural debates and currents in a community.
Let me tell you a story that may seem, at first, to be unrelated.
John Hirsch was the brilliant – and flamboyant – artistic director of the Stratford Festival long ago, and he liked to have audience “feedback” talks after a major performance. I happened to be in the audience after a performance of Hamlet. One woman got up to say she enjoyed it but observed that the performances – and indeed her seat – were partly subsidized by taxpayers’ money: “Shouldn’t the theatre make a profit?”
Hirsch went ballistic:
Lady, your expensive ticket didn’t cover half the cost of the production, you’re right.
But do the schools make a profit? Do the libraries make a profit? Do the roads make a profit?
Hell, lady, do the sewers make a profit?
Why must the theatres make a profit?
I ask the same question about local and regional journalism.
Why should something as vital to a civic community as an independent newspaper or local radio and television news service be subject to a commercial market model that has died and is not coming back?
I’m not talking about government ownership, but I am talking about arm’s-length federal and provincial and municipal public subsidy, and local community ownership.
We’ve had the model in public broadcasting for over half a century: the BBC model, funded by viewers, is now almost universal is Europe. We have the CBC and TVOntario in Canada. The model can have variants that include mixed public and ad-supported institutions, subscription support, local collectives and foundations. These local/regional newspapers or radio/TV/internet channels should be nonprofit and community-owned and -governed.
An example I would encourage readers to explore is The Tyee, a British Columbia–focused and internet-based nonprofit daily newspaper that I follow. It has exemplary journalism and is funded by a spectrum of subscriptions, donations, foundations and government local news grants and tax credits. There are other models springing up in several U.S. cities.
We can also begin to rebuild local journalism on the airwaves, by reversing the massive cuts inflicted on national and local news departments over the past decade by the CBC and insisting that it expand local and regional coverage and extend its network of regional bureaus. We know regional news works because CBC Radio, despite the cuts it has suffered, is number one or two in most major local markets in Canada.
But most of all this is going to take an act of will and leadership on the federal level to establish the principle that our democracy depends on the vitality of our local journalism. Governments need to put their money where it will make that principle a reality. Just as Ottawa and the provinces finally understood that Canadian film and documentary required structural support and investment and helped bring about Telefilm, the Canada Media Fund and provincial tax credits, so we have to widen our focus to bring the same array of supports to local print and broadcast news, in defence of our democratic process.
There is a phenomenon thriving today that intrigues me: smaller-scale – often one-person – journalism. Yes, there are crackpots and cranks, but there are also academics and other intellectually inclined folks who have found an audience and a subscription base to add to collective knowledge.
I start my day with Heather Cox Richardson, the Substacker with the highest revenue, a gobsmacking $5 million – a professor of history who is laying out the story of our times day by day in a restrained and somewhat boring way, liberal but without rhetorical flourishes or the journalistic need to contain or debunk every statement a leader makes. Joyce Vance comes in most days, with a highly knowledgeable take on U.S. legal matters in the Age of Trump. Electoral Vote on Saturday has two academics answering readers’ endless questions on political issues with incisive information; on Sunday, they turn their space over to smart commentary by those readers. In Canada, Paul Wells and Justin Ling are building a Substack following for their informed commentary and investigative probes.
And throughout the week, hour by hour, like the old wire services you monitored in your copy clerk days, Taegan Goddard supplies his Political Wire report, summarizing everything of note (and more) for political junkies in two or three paragraphs with a link.
“The great thing about the internet has always been that people gather according to interests and not geography,” he noted in the Web Masters podcast. That’s not a novel insight. We have all experienced it since CERN’s prodigy came into our lives, allowing us to connect so much more easily with people who shared our interests. But as Goddard points out, it has given us new communities beyond geography that entice us, taking our time and money. The tragedy of the commons, as you so aptly put it, is that our geographical communities are endangered with respect to local information.
Actually, information and identity. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, in a discussion on his podcast with novelist Barbara Kingsolver about Appalachia’s angst and psychic distance from the media centres, mentioned in an aside that his paper has more subscribers in California than any other publication in that state. Although there are still some strong newspapers, he wondered about the impact on identity. It led me to think back to the CBC’s founding and its role in helping to sustain Canadian identity in a world where too much American information flooded us. Are we now, almost a century later, in need of similar government-funded operations in our communities?
You highlight paradoxes. With personal and organizational paradoxes, a helpful way forward is to catalogue the strengths of both poles and see if those can be merged in some way. As I think of the strengths of today’s successes that you and I have mentioned, exceptional quality comes to mind. There is a high return on the time invested by the reader, viewer or listener, to come back to Thorsell’s concern about reader time. There is a uniqueness in some fashion, often narrow specialization. Digital has allowed easy and cheap access to readers. Subscriptions drive revenue but often they are tiered in some ways, with different levels of payment, and usually an option that involves some ads for free riders.
Can those strengths be grasped by geographically based newspapers? Clearly they must be digital, but that’s hard for existing newspapers in smaller centres, which have readers still hung up on holding a newspaper in their hands. They must also be focused on local news – that’s their biggest strength. It will be hard for legacy newspapers which historically have believed they must supply national and international news; I had surveys telling me that in the 1980s, but now it just diverts staff resources to information available elsewhere.
Since the staff will be small, given economics, they will have to reach out and find the Heather Cox Richardsons and Joyce Vances of their community, as well as bringing together, in some way, groups in the community that share interests. A recurring battle in my time at The Whig was to get the duplicate bridge scores out of the paper since it seemed a waste of limited space, but each effort drew subscription cancellations that unnerved us. Today, with digital space unlimited, how can bridge lovers – and lawn bowlers, chess players, tennis aficionados and other groups – be brought into the newspaper? For many years, local correspondents used to provide reports on meetings or areas of the community the newspaper staff couldn’t cover, and ratepayers’ groups would also supply information. That may be needed again, with staff following up on major stuff.
I suspect this will only happen, as in the early days of journalism, with entrepreneurs – some ideologically motivated unfortunately – testing their alternatives. I think there is a role for foundations and cooperatives and other alternative funding. Perhaps the McConnell Foundation, built in part on Montreal Star profits in the good days, could lead the way. The National Trust for Local News in the United States, which already owned two dozen newspapers in Colorado, expanded in August by buying five daily newspapers and 17 weeklies in Maine.
In my column for Kingston Life magazine, an independent publication now owned by Postmedia, I have been writing for nearly 15 years on civic issues, institutions and leaders in the city, including before every municipal election providing citizens with a scorecard on how each councillor and the mayor voted on the key issues of the term. Even more of interest here, looking for new media models, I have been recently covering developments that affect a gentrified area of Kingston for a quarterly magpaper in that community (delivered door-to-door and shunning the internet) published by the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, using the funding it draws from various community and arts sources for its activities.
Dave Bidini, co-founder of the Rheostatics rock band, created and edits the seven-year-old West End Phoenix in Toronto, which counts Margaret Atwood as a writer and draws revenue from a variety of sources, including subscriptions. Author Simon Winchester, on a tour for his latest book on knowledge, boasted about his scoop on road closures in the Berkshires for the Sandisfield Times, the monthly newsletter-newspaper he founded with his wife and friends for the community of about 1,000 people where they live in Massachusetts. The 14-year-old publication is funded primarily through sponsorships from regional and local businesses and residents, with the help of donations from local homeowners.
Ultimately, government will have to play a role. Municipalities must raise their game in supplying balanced and readable information – written with a journalistic instinct, ideally under the supervision of an editorial board that can resist political pressures. School boards and universities may have to do the same. And the provincial and federal governments will have to supply more funding, in a fair and sensible manner, not bailing out deep-pocketed financiers, to revive the local newspaper or even, if they have the courage, reinvent the CBC for today’s world.
It’s time for short concluding pieces – anything in each other’s contributions you would like to respond to or points that haven’t emerged or that you would like to reiterate.
Last year, my wife suggested we buy digital subscriptions to the Toronto Star for three of our 30-something grandchildren, two living in Toronto and one at school in Peterborough. She had been distressed over young people getting their news from social media, and felt these subscriptions might at least signal that there is a better alternative. The Star has been struggling financially, and she wanted to support a progressive paper and help keep it coming to her door.
More of us should follow her lead. It used to be that young people got an exposure to the newspaper in their family home – I would have looked at comics and sports in those 1958 Montreal Stars. Then they were mostly adrift from the newspaper during university and the start of their working career, but as they formed a family and bought their first home, they became subscribers. Now they are seduced by TikTok, YouTube and the rest of social media at an early age, believing those are the fount of news and information.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and one of the leading writers on personal productivity in an age of distraction, has alerted us to the distinction between shallow work and deep work, and the importance of carving out sufficient time for the latter. Similarly there is shallow and deep news-information reading. Shallow can be fun and can have its uses; much of news is quick and shallow. Deep is vital.
We need to think about this distinction in our own lives. Children, armed these days with what you have labelled Hiroshima, have to be alerted to the dangers at the appropriate ages. It’s a new version of “The Talk.”
I have focused on reading, my preferred way to take in information, leaving radio and TV to you, Mark. The legacy of your career will be how much you contributed to deeper information intake, and consequent understanding, through As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal and documentaries. Young people have to be alerted to those options as well – the deeper possibilities in audio and television. They won’t change immediately, obviously. The dopamine hits from social media are enticing. Those grandchildren aren’t avid Star readers, but they are aware of it as an option.
The local newspaper – or, perhaps more accurately, the local newspaper’s successors – will also need support. They will offer less than that Montreal Star in 1958 (newspapers in that era in smaller centres were far more meagre anyway). It is easy in an era when we can feast on so much excellent journalism to be apart from the local newspaper, even dismissive, enjoying the New York Times, Economist, The Tyee, and favourite Substack writers.
We – here I am addressing those reading these letters – shouldn’t sneer at the local offering but instead help it. How can we contribute positively? We don’t live online; we live in communities – geographical communities. Solid news and information are crucial to those communities, particularly in an age of misinformation, polarization and populism with narrow and often dangerous intentions.
I like your vision of a galaxy of newsletters, comprising those who share common interests, supplemented by those that share the same geography. It’s a good statement of what we should strive to attain.
We appear to generally agree on most points, which may be a disappointment to our readers, but I feel less lonely in my fears. Let me attempt a summary of where we stand:
- There is a crisis in the national news industry of a scale that erodes the foundations of our democracy.
- The crisis particularly threatens the survival of local and regional coverage, resulting in swaths of local government and administration going uncovered.
- The old business model of advertising-supported newspapers and local broadcasting is on its last legs.
- Trying to save that model by propping up chains and hedge funds should not be the first line of government defence of the Canadian news industry.
- It is time for all three levels of government to accept that a vibrant press is a public service that is essential to a democracy and must be financially supported by city councils, provincial governments and the federal government. We have a track record of supporting public radio and television, documentaries, theatre and music; why not news outlets?
I would add, as you have also suggested, that the responsibility extends to other institutions of civil society: foundations, perhaps universities, civic-minded corporations. Advertising-supported newspapers and magazines are a phenomenon that existed between 1890 and 1990. Most of the history of print has been subscription-based. So the responsibility also devolves onto us as individuals.
I close with a memory from my fledgeling CBC radio producer days, when I met the affable and talented regional director of CBC Newfoundland, Dave Gunn. “Welcome to the Rock,” he said, rising from his desk. Behind him was a large map of Newfoundland with about 400 push-pins. About two thirds were red, the rest white.
Of course, I had to ask.
“Oh that. The red ones are where we have correspondents, the white we’re still looking for one.”
Are they on staff? Do they get paid?
“No. But they take a course, they get a card, and the community knows they are CBC stringers.”
I listened to the morning show the next day, and it was the richest tapestry of voices I ever heard. The “correspondents” were local teachers, librarians, nurses and retired people phoning in washed-out bridges, fires, missing fishermen, town council debates. It was exciting. Newfoundland came alive in my imagination.
Now I don’t want to get carried away with a caramelized vision of citizen journalists. I remember Morley Safer saying “I have as much confidence in the citizen journalist as in the citizen surgeon.” That’s harsh since there are many examples of great citizen journalists. However, in a world where 30 per cent of the U.S. population thinks Biden lost the last election, some caution in recruiting people to report the facts is likely advised.
There is, in sum, a spectrum of community-based financing models – from civic-minded entrepreneurs to nonprofits, subscription cooperatives and even some blended models that contain some advertising. All require citizens and governments to migrate from a dying business model where news is a for-profit enterprise to one where news is the vital plank on the democratic stage. As the legendary journalist A.J. Liebling summarized it, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”
1 Toronto Star Owner Cutting 600 Jobs at Regional Papers, Seeking Bankruptcy Protection for Unit, CBC News, September 15, 2023.
3 While working at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 1989, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web as a tool for scientists worldwide to share information.
4 Quoted in Timothy Karr, The Future of Local News Innovation, Columbia Journaliam Review, March 18, 2022.