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Recognizing journalism’s role in our democracy a good first step

Regional council’s unanimous endorsement of a resolution supporting local news is more support, if nothing else, for an embattled industry.

“Therefore Be It Resolved that Waterloo Regional Council recognizes that a healthy, professional news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in the region; urges other municipal councils within the region and across Canada to recognize that a robust news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in their jurisdictions; endorses legislation and regulations to support and rejuvenate news outlets across Canada; and urges the federal government to move quickly to pass legislation to ensure an ecosystem for a healthy news media to serve all Canadians.”

The resolution was the brainchild of a group of retired and former journalists, many of them from the Waterloo Region Record, operating under the moniker of Ink-Stained Wretches.

Former Record reporter and editor Mirko Petricevic is the lead ink-stigator of the project, which evolved from an email group of a dozen or so of his former colleagues.

“For some time, I’ve been thinking ‘how can we mobilize?’ There’s this huge fraternity of ex-journalists who are out there – you hear all these numbers, there’s hundreds and thousands of journalists losing work moving out into other forms of work since the big recession in 2008. How can we sort of get together and do something?” he explains of the origins of the campaign.

“So I just kind of threw it out there to the to the rest of the people – let’s see if we can build some support for journalism, for local journalism.”

Beyond the resolution being circulated to municipalities across the country, the group has no other asks, though its website does provide links to reports and organizations looking to tackle the problems in the news industry.

There’s also a petition that calls for politicians to help shape an environment conducive to journalism. “We encourage our elected leaders to enact legislation to shape an ecosystem that supports one of the crucial foundations of a functioning democracy: reliable, local journalism.”

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. Certainly not 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. Sure, there’s a steady stream of information – from the likes of Google and Facebook – but there’s precious little in the way of the media’s essential role: coverage of governments, the courts, public officials and the like.

That gap in a prime democratic function is the focus of reports such as 2017’s The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, cited by the Ink-Stained Wretches’ resolution.

In assessing the health of the media, the study looks at funding models, including tax incentives and perhaps subsidies, that could support journalistic organizations. The report is replete with ideas for both preserving real journalism and finding ways to fund it. The latter is a big part of the formula, as doing real news coverage requires resources – there is no end of people willing to blog or tweet about sports or celebrities, for example, but few who’ll wade through mounds of budget documents or sit through an endless stream of government meetings, hearings and commissions. The former is chaff that serves little purpose, while the latter is the lifeblood of a democracy that relies on an informed citizenry.

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.

“[I]f the decline of print journalism holds implications for the wellbeing of our democracy, then the newspaper business is not like just any industry. The need for a well-informed citizenry is the foundation for good governance, specifically the ability to ensure government is held accountable to its public. When newspapers close, the community loses more than just jobs, it loses a window on itself and society. Gone too is the public accountability that comes with journalistic oversight of those in government and positions of power,” writes Dale Eisler, senior policy fellow at Johnson Shoyama Graduate School Of Public Policy in Saskatchewan in a 2016 piece entitled Democracy and the Decline of Newspapers.

While government grants and tax incentives, popular among some segments of the industry, might be helpful to maintain journalism, something as simple as governments returning to previous levels of advertising would go a long way, not just in aiding publishers but in creating an informed citizenry.

While federal government ad spending has plummeted where newspapers are concerned – News Media Canada reports between 2008-09 and 2014-15, the proportion of ad spending fell by 96 per cent for daily newspapers and 31 per cent for community newspapers while increasing by 106  for the internet – polls show newspapers to be the trusted source for news.

A recent Nanos Research poll found nearly three quarters of Canadians say social media platforms are less accurate than traditional media – 74% per cent say that social media platforms like Facebook are less accurate than traditional media, while 10 per cent say they are as accurate and four per cent say more accurate.

There is public support for real journalism, a sentiment that doesn’t always translate into revenue supporting publishers. Last week’s regional council resolution is the kind of thing the Ink-Stained Wretches are after, as the group isn’t advocating for financial supports.

“We’re not proposing specific things other than this vocal support, and we’re not proposing that they buy more ads in the Record or anything like that. … There are a number of suggestions out there,” says Petricevic

|We definitely don’t want to propose something like a bailout – there’s no patience for something like that, I think. … We would like the elected leaders to create something for the long term.”

The media’s watchdog function is what’s most at risk given the changes in the industry, just as the oversight role in the corporate sector has been eroded by convergence and the rise of 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. Do we always get it perfectly right? Absolutely not, but we’re doing our part while remaining accountable to our readers.

Preserving that role in communities across the country and, indeed, the globe, is proving a massive challenge.

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