British Columbia

'No news is bad news': Canadian media is collapsing, says journalist and author

Ian Gill says the decline of newspaper subscriptions and the consolidation of newsrooms has contributed to a lack of quality content across Canada.

A Q&A with author Ian Gill on his latest book that chronicles the decline of Canadian media

Ian Gill says the decline of newspaper subscriptions and the consolidation of newsrooms has contributed to a lack of quality content across Canada. (Getty Images/Flickr RF)

The media landscape is shifting dramatically and Vancouver is one of many cities that are feeling the crunch due to declines in advertising and sales and the rise of digital platforms.

Earlier this year, newspaper giant Postmedia cut 90 jobs across the country, merging the Vancouver Sun and the Province newsrooms. And just this week, the 24-Hour newspaper in Vancouver closed its doors, laying off its entire staff.

"News poverty, as it's now called in Canada, has reached critical levels," said Ian Gill, former Vancouver Sun and CBC Television reporter. "And if you do not have people paying attention and making sense of complex issues, it's actually really bad for democracy."

Gill recently penned No News is Bad News: Canada's Media Collapse, and What Comes Next. He joined stand-in host Michelle Elliot on CBC's BC Almanac to discuss the challenges afflicting journalism in Canada.

Michelle Elliot: What do you mean by 'media collapse?'

There's a cascade of things that have been going wrong over a number of years, and you can actually trace it back in the newspaper business, at least to the 70s, when the Davey Commission first said the ownership of our newspapers is too concentrated and that's bad for democracy. We've had commission after commission and the government has done nothing about it.

The consolidation [of Canadian newspapers] has gotten deeper and more troublesome to the point where you have Postmedia to the point where it is. It's basically in thrall to the debt-holders and hedge funds.

Newspapers in this country, for the most part, are incredibly hollowed out by comparison to what they used to provide. The subscription rates of newspapers are plummeting to the point where they're going to become uneconomic to even produce.

How have digital platforms changed the landscape?

The advent of the internet has been a huge disruption to conventional media. It's not a uniquely Canadian problem.

[Canada has] been behind the curve in terms of media innovation on a technology basis, but we've also been losing the battle around content too. We have not adapted to the fact that a whole generation of people who are news consumers and are interested in the news aren't interested in the news they're getting in the platforms that we're delivering them on.

We've lost our audience, and we've lost about 10,000 journalists in this country in the last decade or so — that's a lot of boots on the ground that aren't there anymore.

So what does all of that mean for what people are reading and what news they are consuming?

The world is awash in content. If you want to find out some news has happened or if you just want to look at cat pictures, you can find that wherever you want.

But not all digital media is created equal.

The challenge is, where do people — millennials in particular — generally get insightful, deep analysis about what is an increasingly complex world?

We can provide that in digital media, but [readers] are going to have to be conscious of where to go and to find something other than click-bait. And importantly, they're going to have to support it in some way — they're going to have to pay for it.

What's the role of the public broadcaster?

Journalism is a part of public infrastructure in any country and our public infrastructure in journalism is collapsing. If it was roads and bridges falling down or the sewers weren't working or anything else, there'd be people marching on city hall.

We've allowed our journalistic capacity and our infrastructure to decay dramatically in this country and partly because we've lost a vision of journalism as providing a public service — and in a democratic society, it's an essential public service.

In my book, I call the CBC the Canadian storytelling service. We've built these channels over the years with taxpayers' money, and we still invest taxpayers money in the CBC. We need to make room for stories at the margins in this country and that's sort of a sacred trust that the CBC should take very, very seriously.

This interview has been edited and condensed

With files from CBC's BC Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: No News is Bad News — journalist and author discusses Canada's changing media landscape