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Future of Ottawa: The death (and rebirth) of journalism

By Apartment613 on April 23, 2015

This is part four in our week-long series The Future of Ottawa (arts and culture edition).  In this guest column, James Baxter, the founding editor and publisher of iPolitics, provides a thought provoking analysis on how the traditional mainstream media is crumbling.  Twitter users: use hashtag #futott if you want to discuss this series on Twitter.

Evolve or die.  That’s the lesson of history.  Sure, a few dinosaurs managed to make it through mass extinctions, but the ancestors of these once-dominant beasts are now being turned into boots and wallets.

So it is for Canada’s news industry. ‘Traditional’ media outlets are facing an existential threat just as mortal as asteroid strikes and climate change were for the dinosaurs.  Unprecedented technological shifts, the erosion of cultural industry protections, and an aging and culturally diversified population are combining to remove old barriers and shrink the markets traditional media outlets have enjoyed for decades.  Gone are the technological and geographical monopolies that printing presses and broadcasting licenses offered.  Gone, too, are the limits on foreign ownership — along with a relatively homogeneous population largely interested in the same news and views.

Like dinosaurs, monopolies die hard — but they do die, eventually.  So it will be for the Ottawa Citizen, CJOH-TV and even the CBC, at least as we know them today. A decade ago, they were giants.  They’re still the big kids on the block, but now they’re puny compared to Facebook, Google, YouTube and Huffington Post, the online media behemoths that increasingly monopolize our daily news consuming habits.

The monopolies are long gone — but their top-heavy cost structures of aging, unionized and bureaucratic news operations remain.  Also gone are the lucrative advertising contracts that used to sustain “free” newspapers and broadcasters.

Photo by Nick Thompson courtesy of Flickr (creative commons)

Photo by Nick Thompson courtesy of Flickr (creative commons)

The CBC is special, as it doesn’t have to make a profit to survive.  Instead, it chooses to compete directly with commercial media — and loses. Unloved by successive governments, the CBC is dying the death of a thousand cuts.  And as funding drops, so will its relevance to the community, further driving its downward spiral.

And the jig is up for the commercial news giants as well.  Advertisers now enjoy hundreds of options for reaching consumers far more cheaply than establishment media can manage.

But mainstream media lost more than just its monopoly on advertising; it lost its monopoly over the conversation as well.  Think back to what things were like for a city broadsheet just 15 years ago.  If you had a lawnmower to sell, you placed a classified ad in the paper.  For movies, you checked the entertainment pages; when hungry, you looked at newspaper restaurant reviews. Religious services listings.  High school sports coverage.  Stock quotes.

Today, it’s Kijiji for the lawnmower, Rotten Tomatoes for movie reviews, Yelp or Facebook to find the best new restaurants, Bloomberg for stocks and bonds (along with an online currency converter and portfolio tracker).  And even these sources are under siege from new online competition.

Photo by Travis courtesy of Flickr (creative commons)

Photo by Travis courtesy of Flickr (creative commons)

The danger, of course, is that young journalists aren’t getting the necessary opportunities for on-the-job training anymore.  Older journalists are clinging to the old jobs and younger ones are being turned off by the ever-diminished wages being offered.  It was one of the reasons iPolitics was founded – to ensure a generation of young reporters and editors had the chance to learn their craft while receiving a living wage.

Consultants and academics often look to past disruptive technologies for signs of what’s to come. One example that seems to fit the situation in mass media is the introduction of muskets to warfare — which very quickly led to rifles, Gatling guns, revolvers and modern automatic weapons.  Today’s sword-wielding media outlets are facing muskets — but given the pace of technological evolution, it’s a safe bet we’ll all soon be facing the Internet equivalent of the machine gun.

The sad truth is that even when forward-thinking media leaders want to evolve, they can’t.  They’re caught in what Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen calls The Innovator’s Dilemma. In a world in which investors in public companies move money in and out with the click of a mouse, there is no way for a publically-owned news organization to tell investors and stakeholders (including unions) that they’re going to shift from their still somewhat-profitable ‘dead tree’ editions to another platform where revenues are unpredictable and information is shared freely.

The internet is feasting on the generalist publications: Newsweek, Time, Maclean’s have all been emaciated by the ability for readers to jump from one expert news provider to another.  The more niche-focused and expert, the better.

James Baxter

James Baxter

But surely there must still be a role for local news coverage — the community-building role played by a local newspaper or radio station?  That fond hope exploded — at least in Canada — when local ownership was lost to Toronto-based corporations that used the cash generated from local papers to finance growth into films, public relations, or bizarre investments in far-off lands like New Zealand.

The dinosaurs died off and were replaced by smaller, more efficient and more intelligent mammals that had evolved to better handle the new environment.  Apartment613 and a host of other new online-first services are spreading throughout this changed media landscape.  And as bleak as the outlook is for the establishment news industry, there is also plenty of cause for hope.

Local news will live on, but it will come from people who actually live in their communities and will be community-oriented on a neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood basis.  No one will get rich covering local news, but they will become influential and vital members of their communities.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Into the vacuum in local news and community-centered coverage has come a flood of hundreds of small startups, bloggers and small news teams, each with a niche and a dream.  Brilliant new voices are emerging on an almost limitless platform.  For those willing to embrace the online world, these are risky — but exciting — times.

James Baxter is the founding editor and publisher of iPolitics.