Is there a future for CanWest?

My disdain for modern conventional media is not unknown. I have no time for television news at all (convenient since I have no television), with its tendency to show three seconds of important world events followed by five minutes of Punxsutawney Phil pissing himself silly if he sees his shadow, or ten minutes of dramatic events unfolding at the local cranberry harvest. One of the biggest problems is that the content is programmed so that those who spend the most time watching the box – the ones who stare at Golden Girls reruns over and over until they are bug-eyed and drooling – don’t get too confused by any matters that are too complex, or that is presented too quickly. That’s why many newscasts go something like this:

Anchor: “And now we go to Mike Duffy, who is going to tell us why Ed Broadbent is not in favour of the Stephen Harper Budget”.

Duffy: “Thanks, Ginger. In the Commons today, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent was on hand to explain that the budget is hard on working families. He said that “this budget will make it very difficult for working families to make ends meet”. Roll the tape, Ginger.”

[Cut to footage of Broadbent in the Commons foyer]: “I’m telling you, this budget is going to be very hard on working families, it will make it very difficult for working families to make ends meet.”

Duffy: “My analysis, Ginger, is that Broadbent is expecting the budget to be hard on working families. Whether he is proved to be correct remain to be seen. This is Mike Duffy, reporting from the House of Commons.”

Anchor: “Thanks, Mike, great job. No wonder they gave you the Order of Canada. Just to recap: Ed Broadbent says that the budget will make it very difficult for working families to make ends meet. What do you think? Express your opinion on our wesbite at www.ctv.ca/shoutback and you could win two tickets to see Celine Dion. “

I’m more of a print media enthusiast (whether in hand or online). I can choose the content, and I can absorb it at the speed I choose. Print media is not without its flaws either, though. Many articles in the pap-filled CanWest papers, for instance, follow a similar structure to that of a televised piece. Often major articles will repeat the same paragraph multiple times, just phrased a little differently each time. The Globe and Mail was much better for a long time, but even it is suffering these days.

I suppose it’s the internet that is killing newspapers, in many respects. Fewer people are buying newspapers, so fewer are seeing the ads. Internet classified sites such as Craigslist are surely putting a big dent in classified revenue, once a major revenue generator. Surely, though, the low quality of content in newspapers has something to do with their declining fortunes? Just look at their attempts to move things online. The Globe site fills the main page with all kinds of mindless crap, and then leaves it there for many days at a time. Fresh content, guys! At least on the New York Times you can find fresh content hourly, and not just the ‘top story’.

Though I have friends who work for them and would not like to see them unemployed, I despise the CanWest papers intensely and can’t fathom why people still get home subscriptions. If there’s a greater waste of our coastal forests than pulping them for the Vancouver Sun, I don’t know what it is. At least the Province is relatively up front about how trashy it is. The Sun is still trying to make us believe that it has some sort of sacrosanct glory, when it’s really nothing more than an inkier and less colourful version of People magazine. If it’s useful to anyone, it’s surely only asĀ  a handy organ for reinforcing the assumed manifest destiny of The Man and his acolytes in the minds of the masses who still have theoretical if generally unexercised power to oust them from their privilege.

Most of the people I know who subscribe to The Sun (and many other fluff CanWest papers) end up throwing 95% of it into the recycling bin unread. In doing so they’re probably doing their heads a favour, but not the rainforest. They only continue subscribing to it because, well, they always have. And their parents did. They’ll make excuses like “I need the stock market quotes”, or “the sports scores”. Or “the local news”.

You can get all those things online. Probably more accurately. Definitely more quickly. You can put a stock ticker on your browser and get real-time updates. Why would you want quotes on paper that are at least twelve hours old? Go on, take a chance. Call up The Sun subscription department at 1-800-663-2662 and tell them you want to cancel. And while you’re at it, tell them that you want your name and number removed from their telephone soliciting database. It’s no mystery why the federal government exempted newspapers, along with legitimate charities, from being bound by the “do not call” registry. Established newspapers are a great way for those with power and privilege to manipulate the opinions of the populace. Especially when most of the papers are owned by the same guy.

You need not worry about missing having something to browse while eating breakfast. Plunk your coffee and cereal down in front of your computer. There are plenty of news sites available that contain far more intelligent content at far less a social and environmental cost. Of course, you have to be choosy – not everything online is worth reading (just look what you’re frittering away your time on right now!), and some can even be considered harmful. Though not much more harmful than a CanWest rag.

Speaking of legitimate charities and newspapers brings me, in my typically digressive style, to the point of this whole thing. There was a slightly interesting article in the Huffington Post recently, describing an effort in Illinois to save newspapers (assuming that they are worth saving in the first place) by making them into a form of ‘not-for-profit’ businesses. It’s a U.S. model, but perhaps it might appeal to Lennie Asper, since most of his papers are already (functionally, if not officially) not-for-profit (CanWest shares are worth 30 cents, down from $6.00).

Now, I’m not recommending this particular publication as a model of ideal journalism (Huffington is not a city, it’s a family name, so journalistic integrity is already questionable), nor do I believe that the model being proposed will improve the quality of newspapers one bit. More likely, it will just keep them economically viable enough so that they can continue to slant news in the most practicable way without having to resort to donations from outfits such as the Fraser Institute.

But it is food for thought. What might be a creative working economic model for preserving (or rather, perhaps, re-establishing) a form of reliable journalism in our societies? The kind of journalism that asks tough questions, funds investigative reporting, is not economically dependent on sensationalism? That exists in the service of truth, rather than in the service of privilege and the advancement of corporate promotion? That seeks to inform, educate, and promote good citizenship rather than just to entertain and motivate to go shopping?

Perhaps this discussion in Illinois, while not in itself inspiring, will inspire more creative ideas for better journalism in the already existing alternative media world. We can only hope.

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