So what is the future of news anyway?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering in my head ever since Explore Lifelong Learning invited me to give a talk at the library.
Truthfully, it’s a question I ponder a lot as I wonder what my future looks like in this industry.
A lot has happened since I started writing this piece. Buzzfeed News laid off 200 staff members. The Huffington Post, another online-only outlet, also announced layoffs of a significant chunk of staff. Public perception of the big outlets continued to take a dive as more think pieces about recent stories major outlets didn’t report properly spread.
As I sat, and read, and pondered, my Twitter feed filled up with both job opportunities and laid off reporters from big national and international outlets, the churn of journalism jobs in our modern era.
I gave my talk to a small, but very engaged, crowd, on January 22. That morning I was on CBC Saskatoon Morning to chat about the same subject.
As I read other people’s thoughts, looked at the research and thought about what I’ve seen so far, I came to one conclusion: there is no magic bullet that will ‘save’ journalism, but a market exists for good journalism done the right way, so long as individual outlets focus on what they do well.
The magic bullet that doesn’t exist might just be going back to basics.
We’ve been looking for that magic bullet for years. Outlets have tried paywalls, pay-only, user-generated income, pivots to video, shifts to digital, shifts back to print — no one strategy has appeared to stop the bleeding and provide a miracle.
But in different places, in different markets, things are working.
The Athletic, which charges readers a monthly subscription to access in-depth sports journalism, is doing well, it seems. So is the Discourse, a Canadian brand focusing on Indigenous and environmental reporting, again for a higher cost subscription-based audience.
Then there’s the Sprawl. I met them at an industry event in Toronto while I was on vacation around Thanksgiving. They’re a crowd-funded model in Calgary, again digital-only and ad-free. They don’t do breaking news. Rather, they write what I like to call “slow news.” Investigations and features with ideas pitched by readers, funded by readers through crowdfunding.
It’s a model that’s seen some success elsewhere – namely ProPublica in the United States, another outlet that’s hiring staff.
But while each of those cases shows promise, it’s clear they aren’t the one and only answer to the funding problems plaguing modern journalism. Those outlets as doing a good job filling the void left in some communities and in some areas of interest where legacy outlets can’t spend the same time and money they used to on in-depth, investigative writing.
Not that legacy organizations don’t. We do some here at the Herald. The StarPhoenix, Leader-Post and CBC work on investigations and features as well,
In fact, it’s my opinion that one of the ways print outlets can stay relevant is embracing more slow news. We can’t beat other outlets in terms of speed, but we can win in terms of depth and context. It’s an approach I’ve embraced here at the Herald. It’s something the staff have seen and have bought into, and from the feedback, I’ve received, it’s something our readers have noticed and appreciate seeing in our pages.
Looking for one thing, one medium, one model to save everything would be a mistake. But ignoring what works for others would be too.
All outlets should look at what is working elsewhere in terms of funding models and see how they can incorporate that into what they do to help fund the journalism that’s important to their readers.
It’s why after taking ownership on we turned to our website. Our paywall is gone. Everything posted to our website is available in full. It’s not everything that runs in the paper, but it’s most of it.
While there are times online discourse or social media debates can be annoying, digital and social tools are extremely powerful for distributing information and news stories that matter, and it would be a mistake to pretend they don’t exist.
But that leads me to the other topic of my Tuesday talk, a topic that takes up more and more of my worry and concern on a weekly basis.
There’s a lot of bad journalism out there and it impacts all of us.
It’s especially true of reporting on viral videos. Outlets have viewed one video from one account or read one outlandish thing from one random social media viewer, and then rushed to present it as the whole story. Outlet after outlet picks it up, rushing to write the same thing, the same way, faster, without stopping to ask or figure out what happened, if there’s another source, or what’s true. Eventually, another narrative emerges, and people pick sides. The original outlets race to cover this new thing without stopping to see where it came from, or why it is or isn’t relevant, and we all get sucked down the outrage hole.
That’s not good journalism.
I’m reminded of the first lessons I learned in journalism school. We were taught to know our audience and write for them. We were taught to verify facts for ourselves before publishing them. We were taught to not just regurgitate what was out there but to look for our own angle.
There’s an oft-quoted line from late print journalism icon Arnold Dornfeld. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
I have been as guilty as anybody for forgetting these three basic steps. Sometimes it comes from a time crunch, though that’s no excuse. If journalists want to be above the social media outrage, they have to do their job the right way.
I also took a business course at university.
That course was about entrepreneurship. In that course, we were taught that for a business to be successful it needs to prove why it’s different. If every store offered the same products at the same price at the same time, there would be no reason to choose one over another, and what works in one location, in one market, might not work in another. Businesses know they have to focus on what sets them apart. Media outlets should be no different.
If news organizations want to be successful, they have to find what they do well and do it better than anyone else.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way.
I used to be the editor of the Cold Lake Sun, a weekly newspaper in Cold Lake Alberta.
At one point I was working on expanding my regional coverage. Until the neighbouring town’s paper started biting into the news in Cold Lake and beating me on stories in my own backyard.
There was no excuse to be beaten on stories in my own community. Thanks in part to one of the advertising sales folks who gave me a stern lecture about not losing in my own market, I refocused.
What did I do well? News in my own community. What should I focus on? News in my own community.
It was a good wakeup call.
A major change here in Prince Albert since we went from corporate to local ownership is decision making has been much more local.
We live and work here. We know what people are asking for, what they want, and what they expect. We know what our competitors do well, and what our clients want to see.
Now, we’re able to respond to the community directly and find what works in our market. It might not be the same as what worked elsewhere. That place isn’t Prince Albert. Each community is different and each community’s needs are different. The days of treating media outlets like big box stores are over.
This is not a knock against outlets owned by large corporations. Lots of really good journalism comes out of newsrooms owned by corporations of all sizes.
The Cold Lake Sun was owned by Postmedia, one of, if not the largest, print media owners in the nation. I was editorially independent. The direction and tone of the newspaper were mostly up to me. If I didn’t want to run an opinion piece or a news story shared elsewhere in the chain, I didn’t have to.
We see innovative, well-researched, investigative pieces still coming out of the Leader-Post and StarPhoenix here in Saskatchewan. We see it from publications owned by the parent company of the Toronto Star, and out of other chain-owned dailies across this nation. We see it from independents and publications in smaller corporate groupings like the Winnipeg Free Press and Brandon Sun.
This week also saw the unveiling of an incredible, long-form piece of journalism from the Global News national team (hardly a small independent) looking into the RCMP as an institution.
In a lot of places, local journalists are able to make decisions that help steer the news agenda of their outlet where they want to go. That needs to be encouraged.
I would encourage large corporate and small local owners to continue to not only let individual local outlets innovate and experiment but outright encourage branches to figure out what works best in their community for their readers and their clients, instead of trying to be like everybody else.
But to do that, it’s also important to make sure local newsrooms are appropriately supported. People don’t read a community newspaper for what happened in Edmonton or in Vancouver or in the US. They read them for what’s going on in their local communities and for the wider news that is relevant to them. Cutting a reporter’s job and running more regional content won’t make people more likely to read your newspaper.
If each outlet is writing the same stories and doing the same thing, the same way, talking to the same people at the same time, they’re not creating value or proving what sets them apart.
People will, to a point, pay for good journalism. Whether it’s through subscriptions or sitting through a short video, or crowdfunding or advertising, if the product is a good quality, if it’s something you can’t get anywhere else, if it’s a unique story or perspective, people will read it, and a certain portion of the population will pay for it.
At the Daily Herald, we’ve seen circulation, especially recently, rise. Some of that has come from digital subscriptions (people who receive our entire daily paper electronically), a chunk of it in increased web traffic and even some on the print side. Some of it is people coming back, some of it is people trying us out for the first time. I like to think that’s because people not only support us but the product we work so hard to put out every day.
We do cover provincial and national news relevant to our leaders, but the focus is on our own community.
That news, though, isn’t fast or cheap. Good, solid, nuanced reporting takes time, training and skill. It doesn’t come free.
If we want to continue to support it, we have to pay for it. That might just mean turning off our ad blocker when we visit a news website. It might just mean ensuring we’re sharing original articles instead of someone’s summary, or a rumour, or a facebook post.
It might mean buying a subscription, though subscriptions alone aren’t the answer.
On Thursday, an American journalism professor expressed his thought on the topic through a thread on Twitter. It was a threat that was widely shared, liked and commented on. It included a link to a Nieman lab piece by Brian Moritz, a sports reporter with a Ph.D. in mass communications.
“Eventually, consumers’ subscription budgets hit a wall,” he wrote.
“We can’t assume people are going to subscribe to everything. You can’t expect people to subscribe to their local paper (which is vital to democracy, we tell them) AND The New York Times and the Washington Post (because Democracy Dies in the Dark) AND Netflix AND Hulu AND HBO Go AND The Athletic AND ESPN Plus AND their favourite podcast on Patreon AND …
“You get the idea.”
That’s something to keep in mind even at a newspaper, with a small subscription fee. That fee goes towards the delivery of the product. It doesn’t pay for news production, or photography, or to keep the lights on, or the phone or water bills.
That’s where advertising comes in.
Advertisements help keep smaller outlets — even newspapers — afloat. Otherwise, costs would increase to a point where nobody could afford to pay for it.
But there’s another risk. Charging a premium for news creates a market where only the wealthy can afford to consume it. If the entire news industry were to, tomorrow, decide that only people who pay a fee can read, watch or listen to our products, a good chunk of people wouldn’t be able to afford it. They wouldn’t be able to access any news and would be likely left out of coverage.
That’s not acceptable either.
It’s true that Facebook and Google are taking up a big chunk of advertising revenues that used to go exclusively to local media outlets. But as Facebook continues to be mired in controversy, and big, albeit cheap, ad spends online can prove as frustrating as shouting into the void, we’re finding more local businesses seeing the value in targeting their local market by working with the news outlets (employing local people) that reach those market segments every day.
Advertising revenues have lessened, but they haven’t completely gone away.
And despite all the doom and gloom, newspapers, especially community newspapers, still reach a large majority of Canadians every week.
Even down in Moose Jaw, where the Times-Herald closed, the Moose Jaw Express has been expanding to fill in the gap, and other news websites have sprouted up to try to provice some of the coverage lost with the loss of a daily.
While there are gloomy days, Canadian journalism isn’t dead yet.
So where do I think that leaves the future of news?
I think it will be local and focused, with outlets that focus on their niche, or their community, or their topics, will survive.
Outlets that focus on what they do well and that can set themselves apart from the shouting match and the outrage cycle, and that aren’t afraid to embrace new and changing funding models (so long as they don’t dilute the basics of what they do) can continue to thrive.
It involves journalists and editors making sure the values are there, and that the reporting is solid. It does mean not only constantly proving yourself, but also calling out bad journalism when we see it, and apologizing when we fall victim to it.
It also involves more inclusion of minority voices. Our publications should represent the demographic makeup of our communities. That means hiring more women, more journalists of colour and more Indigenous writers. It’s an area where many outlets, including the Daily Herald, fall short.
It will mean empowering local outlets, whether part of a chain or all on their own, to find what works for them. It will mean passion, and long hours and hard work.
It means making clearer than ever what is news and what is opinion, and what went into making certain stories happen.
It means going back to the basics of getting it right.
It also means consumers of news have choices to make.
Choices to support hard working outlets with their subscription or ad dollars, or by turning off their ad blocker, to ensure the content they create can continue. It means choosing to share a news article instead of memes from questionable sources on Facebook.
It might mean contributing to a crowdfunding campaign. It might mean holding off on hitting that “share” button on rumour and speculation. It might mean reading beyond the first three sentences of a story.
It might mean watching a 15-second ad before you can view the content. It might mean tolerating some mistakes if a reporter has a bad day, or asking questions before jumping to conclusions.
It might mean none of those things.
What it does mean is journalism isn’t dead.
It means that somehow, and some way, there is a future for news.