Historians sometimes speak of a “usable past,” a common narrative about the events that brought us here and why we’re a “we” at all. This commonality is seen as essential to creating a sense of community or nationhood. Frankly, Canadians should be more concerned about maintaining a usable present. With the ongoing decline of local newspapers, we are also seeing a decline in common sets of facts.
On Nov. 28, Canadian media corporations Postmedia and Torstar announced plans to swap ownership of 37 community newspapers in a game of financial hot potato. Of these, 32 are known to be closing, and the remaining five are hardly home free.
Some have blamed the massacre on Postmedia’s bottom line–focused management style. While it may have been a factor, Canadians cannot ignore the digital elephant in the room. The internet has led to an explosive growth of media outlets, to the point of creating a news glut. The ensuing tight competition among news organizations means that casual readers can get their news fix for free online. This might please consumers in the short term, but there’s truth to the cliché, ‘you get what you pay for.’ The glut that’s shuttering local papers hasn’t yet offered a substitute for one of a newspaper’s key functions—creating a sense of community through common, accurate understanding of events.
The internet’s democratization of media is a double-edged sword: It has created platforms for unjustly marginalized voices by lowering the barriers to entry and access to mass communication, but that same factor has also allowed internet-only, agenda-driven outlets, like far-right The Rebel Media, to exist—never mind the phenomenon of state-sponsored “fake news.”
While ‘old media’ have their biases as well, these are kept in check by the limitations of their format. Unlike strictly internet media—whose consumer base can be defined by political persuasion—markets for print and television are divided geographically. This finite reach means local papers can’t afford to alienate segments of their consumer base with one-sided reporting. Their editorials can and do take political stances, and reporting can even show bias, but they can’t get away with distorting facts. As a gentler version of media theorist Marshall McLuhan might have said, the medium moderates the message.
Online news has no such limitations. Anyone, anywhere with electricity and access to Wi-Fi is a potential consumer. Not only can websites afford to cater to particular audiences, they profit from it: The Rebel’s YouTube channel has over 861,000 subscribers, even after its controversial coverage of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally in August.
That this level of attention paid to tabloidesque, partisan drivel persists in a generally moderate country points to a worrying silo effect: There is a growing group of people who distrust mainstream media, instead consuming all their news from a single chosen source, whether or not it is tied to their locality. This is the beginning of a harmful social gap.
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has an apt metaphor to describe what happens to a society that has lost its ability to find common ground: He describes it as “two movies [playing] on one screen,” with half the audience seeing one and the other half another, both thoroughly convinced theirs is the only one playing. While an individual local paper is hardly the glue that holds a nation together, the sense of commonality essential to a shared set of facts starts with one’s neighbours.
Stories, big or small, have power. Communities are held together by their shared experiences. In small communities, local papers have long provided the platform for this sharing to happen. While some have proposed federal funding for print media, trying to turn back the media clock would be like protecting scribes from the printing press. Sites like MTLBlog and Narcity offer local coverage, but without newspapers’ journalistic rigour. The solution, as usual, may be bottom-up. If consumers don’t demand rigour from their news sources, they won’t get it.