Okay. I’ve been very critical of journalists and newspapers that are getting it wrong on climate change: here and here and here. But you should know that I have moments of being more, well, sympathetic with the modern journalist. I also believe that healthy journalistic institutions are essential for a healthy democracy. But our democracy is not healthy. And, like Noam Chomsky, I believe we live in one of the most extraordinary propaganda states of all time. But we also have some of the most freedoms of all time. So how is that even possible?
Well the answer to that question is too long 1 for this post. So instead what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few of the challenges facing the modern journalist by summarizing six challenges of publishing in this modern context.
First of all, newspapers are businesses. They have clients. And their clients are businesses that want to advertise. But they lose these clients when the newspaper promotes views and says things that don’t align with the bottom line interests of said clients. So an oil company based out of Calgary, for example, has a fiduciary duty to be opposed to policies that limit their profitability. That in turn means that they can’t spend money on advertising with broadcasters or publishers that promote policies that hurt their profitability. And that means that journalists have to write in ways that don’t make their editors choke on their ties.2 I call this the challenge of compliance.
Second, this is happening in an internationalized context where newspapers are losing market share and profitability because of “the google”, or the “interweb”. So the pressure on journalists to say something of more interest and value than say, a blogger, is immense. I call this the challenge of attention.
Third, issues are complicated. Climate science is complicated. Social policy is complicated. Police brutality is complicated. Did so-and-so “die”? Or were they “killed”? This is sometimes a very tricky business. And given the possibility that someone with money or an agenda might sue you for libel, it’s easier to just write about the sports. In a complicated world it can be very hard to find out the truth or reasonable approximations of it. I call this difficulty, the challenge of integrity.
If finding the truth and understanding complex situations is difficult, try doing it on a timeline. And that’s the kicker: publishing for a newspaper means saying something on time. The traditional newspaper has a press that runs on a rigid schedule for economic reasons and reasons of scale. And because newspapers, and the old people that read them, hate trees and don’t understand the interweb-thingy, they still produce content on this rigid schedule. This is the challenge of production.
Fifthly, the pressure for journalists to understand a situation, produce some engaging copy, say something non-threatening for their advertisers, not get sued by a person in the story, get it to print on time all the while bearing the weight of the future of the newspaper, is intense. The financial future of all the staff is on their shoulders and the weight must be spine-crushing. After all, if Canwest fails to avert their bankruptcy and the whole empire tanks, the Aspers won’t lose their retirement savings or their house. Contra a common capitalist myth, it’s actually the employees that bear most of the real risk of the Canwest empire crumbling. Employees that have moved their families and invested in mortgages or are carrying the debt of their journalism degrees can’t afford for Canwest to go broke. So all of the myriad staff that it takes to design and print a newspaper, distribute it and find advertisers all rely on the content produced by the reporters. That’s a lot of pressure. The reporters are accountable to their fellow employees in a major way. I call this the challenge of positive-thinking-will-hopefully-keep-this-boat-floating-until-we-all-pay-our-mortgages.
And finally and perhaps most significantly, journalists need to worry about their own jobs. I actually don’t know this for certain. But this is the word on the street. Journalists, apparently, are losing there jobs. And, apparently, it’s not just Canwest that has been losing employees. So it turns out that reporters need to keep their editors very very happy. So, in deference to the first challenge, I also call this the challenge of compliance.
- The challenge of compliance (for editors)
- The challenge of attention
- The challenge of integrity
- The challenge of production
- The challenge of positive-thinking-will-hopefully-keep-this-boat-floating-until-we-all-pay-our-mortgages.
- The challenge of compliance (for reporters)