Black and White and Dead All Over

Young people prefer online news to papers—if they read at all.

By Todd Babiak

Between my second and third years of university, one of my friends secured me a well-paid position at an oil and gas processing plant. My job was to kill weeds and gophers, tend the gardens, paint pipes and chuckle at the salty jokes told around the cafeteria table while the microwave laboured away on a series of pizza pops that, in my 19-year-old mind, had come to represent death. 

It was, as advertised, ridiculously easy work. Of course, I found ways to make it difficult.

The friend who had recommended me for the position praised it this way: “You don’t have to think.” But I couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking that it was not my place to decide if and when small mammals should die. Thinking I was probably going to get cancer from the systemic broad-spectrum herbicide I was spraying on rock gardens and lawns all day. Thinking about thinking about thinking.

So, one warm afternoon, I walked out into a field with a scythe and my hard hat, and pretended to faint. I lay there for several hours, until the end of the day. No one found me, or even searched. I brought a book and tried it the next day, and the next. I abandoned my actual job and lay in the tall grasses every day the following week.

Finally, on the verge of serious heatstroke and worried about fomenting a mental illness, I was forced to make a doctor’s appointment and fake the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome so I could extricate myself, honourably, from the oil and gas sector and work at the Leduc Representative, a twice-weekly newspaper, for a quarter of the salary.

Money, I decided while lying there for hours in the sun, did not matter. I wanted to follow Hemingway and Amis and Richler into print journalism. I wanted to be around words and ideas, the great debates of our time, flawed politicians and overreaching businesspeople, great joys and sorrowful tragedies, poorly dressed colleagues who smelled of whisky and soup.

That summer was the hinge on which my life turned. It is why, 10 years out of university, I live in a 920-square-foot bungalow and labour to pay off a student loan while my friends who were always comfortable around oil and gas live in suburban mansions in Calgary with two SUVs and an air-conditioned condominium in Osoyoos.

My task at the Leduc Representative was to cover softball tournaments, a school play, traffic collisions, a knockout vegetable garden or two, and what we called “enterprise stories”—in which I went out and took pictures of kids skateboarding or old people walking around, holding hands, in heartbreakingly formal outfits. I just now checked the website for the 2008 version of the Leduc Representative. The lead item, with a crackerjack photo: “Skateboarder catches air.” 

The majority of my working life has been for newspapers and their glossy periodical cousins. I write for the Edmonton Journal, as a columnist, but I do not get free home delivery of the newspaper. So I pay for it, and when it is late I brood and fuss and curse the gods because, early in university, I convinced myself it is uncivilized to eat breakfast without a newspaper. Every day I read the Journal, the Calgary Herald and The Globe and Mail. I read the Montreal Gazette, the New York Times and, when I’m feeling brave, La Presse, online. My household subscribes to four magazines. One—The New Yorker—is a weekly. 

When I think about the crisis facing newspapers, magazines and other manifestations of the printed word today, I think about a meeting I had in 2001 the editor of the Edmonton Journal, Giles Gherson. He wanted to know how to capture more readers in the elusive 18–35 demographic, so he invited a few of us who were in that demographic to a brainstorming session. I wanted to impress him, so, hepped up on free coffee and peanut butter cookies, I blathered on a bit about how investigative journalism, witty and well-informed commentary and a focus on the local were what I looked for.

“Just a minute, Todd,” he said. “Never make the mistake of assuming you represent anyone.”

The subtext was clear: you’re a little freak. I was chastened and humiliated in front of my boss and my demographic. Giles Gherson, I decided, over a final, silent peanut butter cookie, was a god damned fool. But the five years that have passed since that meeting have proved he was not a god damned fool. 

I have been abandoned by my demographic and the one below it. We do not read newspapers and magazines. We do not read books. We don’t read. 

There is just no time: our jobs, our new little kids, our television programs, our video games, our shopping excursions, date nights, household chores, holidays, Internet pornography. Some of us claim to keep up with local, national and international events and opinions on the Web. I have a local friend who claims the Journal is too right-wing, and reads The Guardian online, instead. I have another friend who claims the Journal is too left-wing and reads The Wall Street Journal online. They don’t really. They read headlines, mess around on Facebook, check out that thing on YouTube where the guy falls down and bleeds profusely.

At parties, my more sensitive friends rush up and apologize for not reading what I’ve been writing in the newspaper. Most avoid the subject. I try to rationalize this. I don’t keep up on their doctoring, lawyering, managing and parenting. Why should they read my newspaper, my columns?

My rationalizing fails and, in bed, as the wine wears off, I imagine what I should have said to my friends:

Scene: A kitchen party. Empty and full wine bottles on the counter, a goat-cheese dip dried up in a tray. Independent rock music plays in another room. Children walk in and out. Several men and women stand rapt and a little bit frightened as a slight, nervous man—not quite young but not yet old—shivers with indignity.

Babiak: You’re contributing to the death and decline of the newspaper, and therefore the death and decline of civilization as we know it. If you’re not participating in the local, the local withers away into irrelevance. New York and Los Angeles have already overwhelmed us commercially and imaginatively, with their chain stores, television shows, video games and movies. Now, with your complacency, your smug complacency, you’re allowing them to cloak our legislative building and our city hall in a fog of silence. Yes you are, Baxter! Yes you are! You’re refusing to be citizens, all of you. You’re renouncing your commitment to democracy, to the principles of the Enlightenment. You’re embracing ignorance, and bragging about it. The Guardian? The Wall Street Journal? Edmonton and Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray… without newspapers, they aren’t even cities, let alone “world-class cities.” They’re branch plants. Suburbs of nowhere.

Baxter: I’m pretty tired. Let’s go, honey.

Babiak: No one’s going anywhere.

A child weeps. Fin

Canadian newsrooms are shrinking. Newspapers are shrinking. The move to websites has been vigorous, but not vigorous enough. Young people—even smart young people—are getting their information from social networks. But even social networking needs a primary source. Where does it originate, if not with newspapers?

In August, a young man was murdered in a most gruesome fashion on a Greyhound bus in the environs of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. It was a fascinating story. The prosaic (bus trip across the prairies) met the horrific (random stabbing, beheading, flesh-devouring). The police weren’t saying much at first, so real journalists undertook the work of real journalists. They interviewed passengers on the bus and researched the lives of the victim and the accused. 

While this was happening, a growing cadre of citizen journalists, who are bound by neither training nor libel laws, took to the Internet. They blogged, inventing and repeating rumours. They guessed. They commented on one of the murder-related Facebook sites. For at least two generations of wired North Americans, there is little or no distinction between citizen journalists and professional journalists, between rumour and reporting. On university campuses, “mainstream journalism”—otherwise known as MSM or corporate journalism or The Man—is considered to be biased in favour of the US government, Monsanto and Exxon Mobil, the Chicago School of Economics, Israel, war, suburban sprawl, Hummers and dread Jesus. Nothing is squarer, more compromised, than MSM.

… I couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking that it was not my place to decide if small mammals should die.

Soon after the bus beheading, Misty Harris, a Canwest reporter based in Edmonton, wrote a feature story on contemporary news gathering and dissemination, and interviewed a communications professor named Glenn Sparks, from Purdue University in Indiana. “The speed at which this whole [online] environment is operating is a force against trustworthiness,” wrote Sparks. “You move things quickly, update them quickly, change them quickly. It inherently de-emphasizes the attention we’d normally give to making sure our messages are above board in terms of credibility.”

Credibility is losing credibility, for readers and for those who have devoted their lives to the profession. 

Journalists are being laid off, they’re taking packages, they’re leaving in disgust—taking corporate and government jobs, starting businesses, travelling the world, hanging around in hotel bars and squinting through the bitter mists of nostalgia.

This is not a Canadian problem. A recent Salon article about American journalists moving to India—the only place in the world where English-language newspaper and magazine journalism is growing—cited spooky statistics from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2007, 2,400 journalists departed newsrooms in the United States. Revenue and circulation are falling across the country. The New York Times Co., owner of the newspaper of record for a continent, has seen its share price fall by 45 per cent from a year ago.

I have a wife and two daughters, a small house that only seems to be getting smaller, and no other marketable skills. Let alone interests. I write novels, television episodes and screenplays on the side, but these analogue media are declining along with newspapers and just about everything else I love—telephone booths, chivalry, wild salmon, personal letters, untattooed skin, modesty and a decent $10 bottle of wine.

But I’ll be fine. If I can’t write for a living, I can easily work in the asbestos removal and storage industry. My greater fears are social and political. What happens to the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, the political party that has controlled this province since 1971, without the traditional “watchdog” function of strong, widely read newspapers? What happens to Edmonton and Calgary, as cities, without the virtual public squares that the Journal and Herald, at their best, have been for over 100 years? Will there be art and theatre and literature without art and theatre and literary critics? If Albertans have more in common than licence plates, and share dreams for the future of this place, how will they articulate, mould, debate and enact these dreams?

Journalism schools aren’t shutting down. The interns who worked at the Journal this summer were energetic, intelligent and talented. I spoke to a few of them about their worries for the future—they didn’t seem to have any. They’re confident that journalism, in some form, will always be around.

The poor fools. Storytelling, certainly, will always be around. But journalism, as we know it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Doing it well is expensive, and most media companies are traded publicly, with shareholders to please. As a craft, it couldn’t be more fragile.

Like modern religion, the widely circulated newspaper was made possible by the invention of the printing press. As printing technologies improved, and the industrial revolution spread around the world, rich men founded newspapers. Slowly these products evolved into what they are today—daily packages of facts, opinions, photographs, information and analysis, tied to a city, a region or country, that bind us as citizens. Printed on newsprint. Available for a price.

As technologies change, business models change with them. It may be that professional print journalism, devoted—perhaps naively—to something like objective truth, will survive. It will continue to merge with broadcast media, as most newspaper companies also own television properties. The Huffington Post is a serviceable model for digital journalism, attached not to a city or a region but to a celebrity, a brand and an ideology. Academic writing and research, with its regulations about citing sources, will maintain a tradition of quality in social, political, cultural and economic discourse. Perhaps the universities of the future will cleanse corporate journalism of its perceived flaws and, like the Poynter Institute in Florida, publish not-for-profit newspapers and magazines for a shrinking class of readers. 

Like every other writer, I am terrified by the long-term prospects of an actual career in this beautiful business. From time to time I worry that I made not only a moral error but a strategic one at that oil and gas processing plant, when I was 19. Owners of media companies know that every writer is replaceable. There is, and will always be, a surplus. They’re everywhere. We’re everywhere.

That, more than anything, is why I’m reasonably confident there will always be readers. If not “newspapers.” We’re in the mysterious realm of inevitability here.

The need to share information, to tell and hear stories in some form, is universal and timeless. It has existed, and will continue to exist, in and out of tune with the profit motive. For the sake of Alberta and Canada, I want the local newspapers to live forever (please subscribe immediately). Like every other writer, and human being, I’m selfish and biased. But if my demographic cohort continues to abandon me, if newspapers don’t survive, like every other writer I know, I’ll work for anything. For free. #

Todd Babiak is a columnist at the Edmonton Journal. He has published three bestselling novels—Choke Hold, The Garneau Block and The Book of Stanley. 

Published in Vol 11, No 10, December 2008, pgs 32-35


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