If a tree falls in a forest when no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Two weeks ago, 90 journalists from PostMedia Network Inc., Canada’s largest newspaper chain, were fired in the latest blow of its ongoing struggle to stay afloat. Along with the layoffs, the company, which owns over 200 media brands nationwide, will merge offices of previously separate newspapers in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. Although CEO Paul Godfrey noted that he will continue to maintain separate brands, it’s hard to imagine how effective this will be when merging offices also means merging editorial staff. The underlying issue, however, has implications beyond PostMedia and its recent controversy: Even if merging newsrooms allows PostMedia to stay alive for a while longer, the Canadian public needs to be aware that such a move will only decrease the range of stories and opinions covered in PostMedia newspapers.
Today, newspapers are caught in a seemingly downward spiral where, in order to survive, they need to attract online revenue. But in order to achieve this, they first need a greater online presence. While the evolution of the internet and communications technology has hurt newspapers everywhere, PostMedia’s decline has been especially rapid. Its failed attempt at transitioning into the digital market further shows the difficulty newspapers face in trying to sustain themselves through online advertisement space—Google and Facebook together swallow up 50 per cent of advertising revenue. Newspapers will benefit from large-scale innovation and creative solutions; however, when times are hard, funds for such seemingly excessive operations are usually the first to be cut, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
Instead of denying realities or lamenting the loss of newspapers, PostMedia’s decline should be seen as an opportunity for both current newspapers and aspiring journalists to pursue innovative, entrepreneurial, and creative strategies to create news that Canadian citizens, especially youth, want to read. Newspapers will inevitably have to build their digital presence in order to survive; in doing so, the companies that own them should bear in mind that a decline in newspaper printing doesn’t have to mean the disappearance of good journalism. The market for good journalism still exists—readership is at an all time high—but is decreasingly interested in reading news in the form of a newspaper. PostMedia is no exception to this challenge. It is, however, the most apparent example of the demands that the evolving industry poses.
Despite all newspapers having had difficulty transitioning online and maintaining past revenues, more recently conceived forms of online news have had remarkable success. The most visible examples are Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. Even other more traditional newspapers have demonstrated that online news mediums can be successful. For example, Montreal’s LaPresse has stopped printing dailies during the week and instead developed a profitable news app. Why this strategy worked for LaPresse but not for PostMedia is debatable, but there is no denying the impact of controversial, outdated policies from PostMedia—such as Godfrey’s decision last election to impose endorsements of the Conservatives.
In an age of information overload, it’s hard to justify paying for a daily when the essential elements of most stories can be found online for free—especially for students. Today’s students are naturally well-versed in navigating the internet, rendering newspapers an extraneous, unnecessary cost. Dictated endorsements of the Conservatives hardly help regain youth interest, but in the digital era, youth interest is precisely what PostMedia needs. Although the decline of printed news is sad for a number of reasons, it doesn’t have to mean the loss of good journalism—or good journalists. What has changed is that the next generation will have to be instrumental in effecting this change within the dying industry. Perhaps a tall order, but an essential one.
Instead of losing hope in the industry, aspiring journalists should take initiative and embrace the many benefits to be found in online publication. Discussion that was once limited to a coffee shop or a morning commute can now expand into comments sections or Reddit feeds. The ability to share articles online allows news to reach an enormously greater range of audiences, as well as to target specific ones. It can foster social awareness and induce change. Although newspapers struggle to compete with Google and Facebook for advertising, paradoxically, these sites are the most accessible routes for spreading and sharing online news articles, especially amongst youth. The demise of PostMedia is an opportunity for entrepreneurial spirits to innovate within the industry; these students should remain in Canada and work to rebuild the media industry.