The obituary for print journalism has been written many times over many centuries, most frequently in the last one.
First radio and then TV, then cable TV, 24/7 news channels and now, in a world of splintering and amplified echo-chambered social media, once again the organ of communication that’s been around since 69 BC is proclaimed to be dead in the water. And yet we persist.
It is not perfect, nor has it ever been, but print journalism has endured because it is vitally necessary to the health of any society. Free from the obligations and constraints of political ownership, it has built and destroyed republics, social democracies and despotic governments.
The power of the press has toppled corrupt presidencies and ended wars. Monarchies have faltered or altered when faced with the collective voice of the people.
Modern day newspapers are the more mannered offspring of their 17th and 18th century ancestors, which proliferated in both Europe and North America and created a cutthroat world of spittle-flecked competition in which fractious and nasty were expected, where political savagery puts today’s Fox News and Rebel Media to shame and where advertisers were secondary to the bottom line of the paper.
The coin of the realm was the readership. If you spoke about what people wanted and needed to hear, you were in business the next day. That truth still exists. If you are not relevant to your readers, you don’t survive.
We have seen this play out repeatedly with newspapers that consider themselves peddlers of advertising, or shills for political parties without truly understanding the communities in which they publish.
Newspapers are a mirror into your world. If you don’t see yourself in its pages, you move on.
Canada’s earliest dynasties were built by who owned the presses, presses that were sometimes trekked by oxcart across the sodden prairie to communities like Edmonton and Calgary, and gave voice to the politics that shaped our province.
People like Bob Edwards and Frank Oliver, who wrote reams of copy about the era in which they lived. Those words live on today in our understanding of where we came from, how we got here and what made Alberta what it is today.
Newspapers are front-line history, and often this work of imperfect, deadline-driven recording is done under great threat. Since 1992, more than 1,300 journalists have been killed, 43 this year alone. Often these deaths occur in war zones, but too often in totalitarian regimes where they are silenced because of the threat they pose to dictators.
Russia is a particularly dangerous place in which to ply your craft, but so are China, central Europe, central Africa and, increasingly, the U.S. Earlier this year a gunman opened fire on the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette newsroom, killing five and wounding several more. Their crime was in reporting news about the perpetrator that enraged him.
One of the first moves of any fascist or totalitarian regime is to take over the media and replace it with state-run communications. Censorship and repression are comfortable bedfellows.
A new threat has appeared on the horizon, through social media, where journalists’ credibility is increasingly under attack from basement trolls, presidents and politicians of lesser stripe. The power of social media to amplify a single voice into a chorus of discontent and then anger is profound.
Newspapers’ only defense is to keep doing what they have always done – gather the information, strive for accuracy and maintain integrity. The 21st century print media is still a pendulum in circuit. It has thus far not sunk to the level of partisanship that U.S. cable news networks have, although there are examples here in our own province of editorial control being exerted by owners from afar who are disconnected from their markets and too closely snuggled with political power.
Scribes have hewed too far to the stricture of providing balance, instead providing voice and legitimacy to industry-funded climate change deniers despite a preponderance of scientific evidence to the contrary.
They have tried to cover a despotic presidency with the respect the office, and not the man, should deserve, much as the mainstream press did in pre-WWII Germany, England and the U.S.
They have at times provided cover for their own enemies, for those who shriek, “Fake News!!” and try to destroy what is so fundamental to democracy that it has been enshrined in both U.S. and Canadian constitutions.
No, print journalism is not perfect. But aside from the editorial pages, it does one thing very, very well. It does not tell you what to think. It gives you information and trusts that you are smart enough to think for yourselves.
Carol Picard is one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Outlook and spent more than three decades working as a community and daily newspaper journalist.