Guest Commentary

Clark Davey

The Trouble With Media

Newsrooms have lost their connection to readers. I can’t believe how bad some reporting is. The era of cub reporters starting out as the copy boy and working their way up to managing editor vanished in the 1970s; now we have bloggers who are completely untrained.

I started at the Chatham Daily News in 1948. I wanted to go to Royal Roads but failed the medical exam due to poor eyesight. “How long have you been wearing glasses, young man?” the medical examiner asked. From age 6, I replied: I’d ruined my eyes reading by flashlight under the covers. I went home heartbroken, and an English teacher told me: “You know, Clark, people will pay you to write.” I was a member of the first journalism degree course at the University of Western Ontario, class of ’48.

The newsroom was my life. There weren’t many of us who saw it as a springboard to the public service. You need a yen for journalism. Today I’m saddened to note the newsroom has morphed into a corporate entity where many don’t seem to know anything; I’m astounded at the banality of some of the reporting, particularly in digital form.

Of course there is excellence in journalism; I’m a director of the Michener Awards Foundation and the best entries, while fewer, have never been better. The very best of Canadian media is on par with the service of media in the past. Yet increasingly, media ownership is not committed to invest in quality.

Newsrooms are driven to make digital formats pay. News is delivered in small bites, just enough to fill a screen. Readers and viewers then invest less of themselves in the product by spending less time with it.  The result is shorter news copy, less investigative journalism, fewer connections between media and the community.

In my years at the Globe we developed a system for excellence: we reached out for individuals with expertise in a particular subject – labour, justice, business, science – then taught them how to write. We concluded our best reporters were usually better off without a journalism degree. They knew something about the world.

Now, too often, the object is to fill up space on the screen. Reporters cover agriculture but couldn’t tell a bull from a heifer; they write about labour but rarely differentiate between a strike and a lockout. Management, in too many cases, has determined coverage doesn’t have to be good, but just good enough.

Newsroom ownership continues to change with corporate consolidation financed by “junk” bondholders who expect their 13 percent. The object is to squeeze as much money as possible out of the newspapers. Postmedia, which has already paid out $300 million in bond interest, purchased the Québecor-Sun chain for more than another $300-plus million, much of it in new and again high-priced debt.

Some of their dailies will inevitably vanish; real estate will continue to be sold; standards will be lowered. I still have the Ottawa Citizen, winner of the 2012 Michener Award, delivered; it’s free because I used to be the publisher. The redesign is lousy, the content is too often lightweight and readership is dropping. Would I pay to subscribe?

Maybe, if only for the movie listings.

(Editor’s note: the author spent 45 years in newspapering, fifteen of them as managing editor of the Globe & Mail, and is a past president and secretary of the Michener Awards Foundation for journalism. Mr. Davey’s commentary was originally published November 2, 2014)

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