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Another change to a media landscape already in peril

The sale this week of newspaper publisher Torstar to a private investment firm, NordStar Capital, will be watched closely by those in the industry. And, ultimately, by the readers of newspapers such as the Record.

The new owners have pledged to make a long-term investment in the operation, supporting journalism and editorial independence. Taking the publically traded company private will allow a shift away from daily stock prices and quarterly earnings, says the new owner.

If so, that would be a welcome change from the trend in the industry, which has seen increasing corporate concentration, particularly by vulture capitalists more intent on stripping assets and encumbering businesses with debt than on the financial viability of newspapers. Investing in quality journalism is simply beyond the pale. (Newspapers aren’t the only ones subjected to such predatory practices, as witnessed by upheavals in the retail industry, for instance.)

Long seen by many – especially by those in the industry, not surprisingly – as a cornerstone of democracy, newspapers have faced some tough sledding of late. For the dailies in particular, falling circulation and advertising revenues have led to cuts and closures. Poor owners have not helped the situation. None of that is good for those working in the media, but worse still for accountability.

Besieged by new technologies, fragmentation in the market and what seems to be an increasingly detached citizenry, newspapers do have much to worry about. But the industry has been its own worst enemy in many cases, as concentration of ownership led to homogenization and a decline in quality, often fueled by new corporate masters more concerned with stock prices than with the good journalism, the very thing needed to attract readers.

There’s been a drop-off in quality in many quarters, which has only accelerated the decline.

Ironically, even as we’re flooded with information – from online news sources to Facebook and Twitter and that ilk – there’s a greater need for a source to filter and interpret all of that raw data. That’s precisely what newspapers have been doing for centuries.

And while more people go online to get their news, few people are aware that most of the material provided by news aggregators such as Google or endlessly rehashed by bloggers comes from newspapers, the organizations with trained journalists on the ground, attending meetings and poring through documents.

Often accused of relishing the negative (most commonly from those under examination), the media best serve the public when they challenge leaders on their actions, positions and statements. Yes, we also tell people stories about themselves and do our part to entertain, but the watchdog role is the cornerstone of the free press in a democratic system. ‘Why?’ is a perfectly valid question. Those who would make decisions that affect our lives must justify themselves – arbitrary actions are not acceptable.

As the Observer has noted more than once or twice, it’s much too commonplace for politicians and bureaucrats, including the local ones, to put their own agendas ahead of the public interest. Without anyone to shine a light on their actions, and to demand explanations, you can bet there would be even less accountability and far greater misuse of the public good and the public purse.

That watchdog function is what’s most at risk given the changes in the media, just as the oversight role in the corporate sector has been eroded by convergence and the rise of media conglomerates.

Somewhat removed from the industry’s internal issues by virtue of being local and independent, the Observer also takes seriously its role as the voice of the community in asking questions, while telling the people’s stories, clearly on display in this time of crisis.

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