Journalism is more important than ever — and we can't let the pandemic destroy the industry
Matthew Hays has seen his field jeopardized time and time again, and it's facing another threat now
Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.
As the collective trauma of COVID-19 — a crisis that is distinctly global and local simultaneously — has set in, many have likened the sensation to previous shocks to the system. The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a common point of reference. The aftershocks of the sudden, if predictable, economic collapse of 2008 also springs to mind.
As a journalist and editor, the 2008 crash is especially poignant. The forces were already conspiring to dismantle the business model that propped up most journalism: the internet's arrival in the '90s, full of fanfare and the promise of exponential gains in ad revenue, gave way to the shift from print to digital, destroying business models while effectively rendering the written word almost valueless. Print journalism was but one casualty; music, books, porn, cinema — loads of creative industries were changing dramatically, and there seemed to be no shortage of people who were willing to give their work away for free, creating a race to the bottom.
For me, these shifts were crushing. In 2008, I was contributing to a broad range of publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, while also writing occasional features for magazines like The Advocate and The Walrus. My first book won an American literary award. I got a two-year contract programming films for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and won a teaching award at Concordia. My career was moving in all the right directions, all at once.
And then came the crash — and with it the collapse of vital ad revenue.
Freelance budgets were slashed. It became much, much harder to sell a story, even when it seemed obvious the pitch would lead to a green light. The Advocate, the American magazine I had contributed to for over 15 years, ceased publication for a time as it changed hands; the Montreal Mirror, the alternative weekly I had contributed to for over 20 years, folded in 2012. The last piece I did for the Globe, tellingly, was itself an obituary for the print edition of Xtra, the Toronto-based gay newspaper I had also contributed to since '91. (Xtra lives on as an online news source.)
A state of existential dread set in, but I wasn't about to give in without a fight. I pitched to everyone and wrote about everything I could. I wrote for free for local online startups, some of which managed to survive, others not. But the slog became harder and harder. It became normal for editors to simply not bother replying to emails, even with a polite no. The Huffington Post model — pay nothing but the exposure will be great — dragged down the value of journalism even further, setting a terrible standard. I tried desperately to heed the advice of journalist Tim Kreider, who persuasively argued writers should not give their work away for free. But this led to a dilemma of its own: I wanted to continue writing, but in many cases the outlets that provided the most satisfaction to write for were places that had quasi-academic cred but didn't necessarily pay that much.
In need of a new primary income, I spent much of the post-'08 decade expanding my teaching (thank god I finished that MA) at both Concordia University and Marianopolis College. Teaching journalism classes brought its own set of dilemmas: I needed the gig, but each week I had to face the near-impossible high-wire act of delivering uplifting lectures and go-get-'em pep talks to eager young aspiring reporters while also warning of the dire reality on the ground. Since '08, being laid off has been the industry standard for journalists, with thousands across North America losing their jobs. When the students looked at me, I could tell they wanted All the President's Men. I didn't know how to tell them that my own career felt more like 28 Days Later.
I have managed to transition into full-time teaching, which is a pretty damn good Plan B. But the loss of valued journalism still stings. I think the saddest moment for me came when I realized I no longer wrote every day — a break from a quarter-century habit. I still write for various places, including trade and union magazines (including POV and Canadian Screenwriter) as well as American magazines like Cineaste and The Gay and Lesbian Review. But at a certain point, I felt like my status as a journalist stretched about as far as a word on my business cards.
I know they say you shouldn't make your job your identity, but with journalism, that's very hard to avoid. It's all-encompassing. Everything about it is exhilarating: chasing stories, landing unusual interviews, questioning people in positions of power, imagining story ideas, pitching new places and meeting deadlines under duress.
The current crisis sets off a feeling of deja vu because, as many industry onlookers have noted, the news business faces another set of extreme challenges in terms of more collapsing ad revenue. Sadly, there is a strong case for pessimism for the entire industry, as well as the jobs of individual journalists. And that comes with a powerful irony — if this crisis has taught us anything, it's that well-written, evidence-based journalism is absolutely crucial.
When the students looked at me, I could tell they wanted All the President's Men. I didn't know how to tell them that my own career felt more like 28 Days Later.- Matthew Hays
Governments must respond by declaring the provision of news an essential service. (Thankfully, the federal government has indicated it will provide some financial help to struggling news organizations). Continued funding of the CBC should be a priority (and no, I'm not just saying that because I'm writing this for the CBC). Further, the federal government must intervene where corporations own too much of the media; corporate monopolies, beyond any reasonable doubt, have proven disastrous for the institution of journalism and its fragile integrity.
These are very real actions that can be taken to avoid another staggering set of blows to our news media — something every bit as important to our health as a society as the food we eat, the water we drink and air we breathe.
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