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Journalism in jeopardy

Bob Price Large
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As layoffs continue to wreak havoc across the country, three respected veterans consider the future of the fourth estate.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

Yet again this past week, for the umpteenth time in recent years, I was heartbroken to see another round of layoffs affecting journalism.

In case you missed it, as of April, Canadian Press will employ 15% fewer reporters than it did a year ago. In a statement to employees, Canadian Press president Malcolm Kirk cited “tremendous disruption to traditional business models,” which has led to lower ad revenue of the news outlets that pay for Canadian Press services.

Sadly, for those of us in the media industry in general, layoffs have become the norm. Incredibly, cost-heavy news rooms have become a favourite target for publicly-traded media businesses to sweeten the profit for shareholders.

The bottom line is the bottom line.

In fact, the Canadian Journalism Project, J-Source has estimated that nearly 10,000 journalism related jobs have been lost over five years, with about 6,000 of those in the print sector.

“Newspapers have been the hardest hit, particularly the large metropolitan dailies” says Global BC’s Keith Baldrey.

“I started at The Vancouver Sun back in the mid ‘80s, and I think we had more than 100 reporters on the city side, business, and sports. Today I doubt if there is more than 25.”

While now a fixture in the Global newsroom while manning the network’s Legislative Bureau in Victoria, Baldrey himself has experienced cutbacks firsthand:

“I was one of the first people to take a buyout in 1995.”

Baldrey also notes that while economics have led to dozens of buyouts and layoffs since he left the Sun, the bleeding might not be over.

“The Sun and Province have an added problem,” he says.

“The papers are forced to service Postmedia’s crushing debt load. I don’t see a way out for that company. That debt situation is making a bad situation much, much worse.”

While several media observers have suggested that broadcast and print outlets are committing suicide by a thousand cuts, former Kamloops Daily News editor Mel Rothenburger believes other factors have contributed to the current state of affairs.

Mel Rothenburger

The Daily News itself was the victim of a budget slash when its 80-year run ended in early 2014.

“It’s become a cliché to blame the troubles of the mainstream news media on the internet, but there is a lot to it,” says Rothenburger.

Now the author of an online publication, The Armchair Mayor, Mel’s contention is that media outlets didn’t know how to handle the rise of social media and still haven’t quite figured it out:

“They were late jumping on the social media bandwagon as they watched formerly healthy profit margins slip away.”

Sadly, Rothenburger finds its difficult to feel optimistic about the future.

“Journalism school grads still get good training but their chances of finding work in journalism are increasingly slim. My impression from talking to students is that most of them use their journalism degrees to get into public relations,” laments Rothenburger.

The potential reality: while we have never been so connected, we have never been so misinformed.

As times change, award-winning radio newsman Tom Mark has had a front row seat. Like me, Tom is another journalist who fell victim to cost cutting.

“Today’s radio newsroom is a far cry what it used to be,” he says. But he also applauds today’s reporters for doing their best under difficult circumstances:

“From the newsroom, I look at CKNW and what’s left of it. To the producers and talk show hosts, they still manage to hold those in power accountable, still manage to bring issues to the forefront and still keep radio news alive. But it’s the Global News convergence that keeps it going.”

Tom Mark

In the words of late British author, Emlyn Williams, without news to feed it, the biggest story starves. That’s one of  Mark’s biggest concerns:

“One of the best compliments came from a local mayor who bemoaned the fact that he appreciated my questions, even the tough ones, because they gave life to local civic news which he felt was becoming harder to find.”

After having my own 42-year broadcast career cut short by corporate cost cutting last summer, its difficult not to echo Tom Mark’s sense of regret:

“It’s unfortunate the powers that be these days don’t see the importance of a good, well-balanced radio newsroom.”

But just maybe, there might yet be hope for good storytelling. As Baldrey so eloquently states, “the automobile replaced the horse-drawn carriage, but we still have horses and we still have carriages. They both exist, but they are used differently than before.”

“I suspect that may be the eventual plight of daily newspapers and broadcast news.”

As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on twitter: @kammornanchor

 

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary. 

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