'Our society needs journalists': Reckoning with the future of news in the wake of latest Postmedia losses

The company that owns the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun lost $99.4 million between June and August and now plans to cut its workforce by another 20 per cent. That's troubling to Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman.

Mount Royal University professor says news media's role 'now more important than ever' in Canada

Once rivals in the city, the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun now share staff and the same stories and photos appear in both newspapers, after Postmedia acquired the Sun chain and merged the newsrooms in many cities where it operates two dailies. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The company that owns the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun lost $99.4 million between June and August and now plans to cut its workforce by another 20 per cent.

Postmedia employees have been given until Nov. 8 to apply for voluntary buyouts and, after that, another round of involuntary layoffs may come.

That's troubling to Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman, who noted the Herald and Sun newsrooms — which are now combined and share content between both papers — have already been cut more heavily than others in the Postmedia chain.

Holman spoke with David Gray on The Calgary Eyeopener Friday morning, offering his take on the situation, and the consequences for Canadian democracy.

Here is a partial transcript of the conversation:

Q: Does the news about Postmedia's financial situation surprise you at all?

A: "It's not surprising but it is depressing. The reason it's depressing is because our society needs journalists. That's because journalists are the only real-time truth-seekers and truth-tellers that we have.

"Some professions do perform the accountability function but they don't do it as fast as journalists do. And that real-time truth-seeking and truth-telling is necessary if we want an informed society, if we want informed citizens, if we want informed voters, if we want a democracy that functions, if we want a marketplace that functions.

"And these cuts that are being proposed by Postmedia are just going to devastate that chain. It is already very, very thin … and it's about to get thinner."

Q: What do you know about current staffing at the local papers, the Herald and the Sun?

A: "This is a problem. During the last round of Postmedia cutbacks, the Calgary Sun, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Edmonton Sun were all harder hit than any other newspapers in the country in the Postmedia chain, so I don't know exactly where they're going to get the staff that they propose to reduce across this particular chain.

"But the real troubling question is whether or not Albertans are actually going to care about this. According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, in 2013 just 53 per cent of Albertans said they followed the news and current affairs daily. That was the lowest level of interest in the country. By comparison, 63 per cent of Quebecers said the same thing.

"And when you think about 53 per cent of people following current affairs on a daily basis, who knows how in-depth that actually is? And that's really troubling."

Q: A year from now, will we still have two [Postmedia] newspapers in Calgary?

A: "I think that's a really good question. I think that we will have at least one newspaper. Whether or not we'll have both — who knows?

"There's a lot of talk right now about what's ailing the news business, and a lot of people, when they think about that question, they think about the business model answer. They think to themselves, oh, well as a result of the internet, newspapers aren't making as much money because they aren't getting the kind of advertising they used to.

"But I think we should be thinking about that question in a little bit of a different way. We should be thinking about whether or not our society actually has a demand for this product and if it doesn't, then we should really be thinking seriously about what that means.

"What do I mean by that? Well, first, we need to ask ourselves how many Canadians really understand the public interest news that journalists roll out every day. How many Canadians understand how their local city council operates? How the legislature operates? How police boards operate? How school boards operate? And I bet you the answer to that question is probably lower than we think."

Q: Is this just a newspaper phenomenon?

A: "If it is a newspaper phenomenon, then that's a really serious phenomenon, because newspapers do a lot of the digging. Absolutely, CBC certainly has a good track record when it comes to that, but when we look at other news media outlets, it's definitely newspapers that lead the way when it comes to actually breaking news.

"So, if you don't have newspapers, you are eliminating a huge chunk of the accountability mechanism that is supposed to exist in Canada via the media."

Q: What do you tell your journalism students about the future?

A: "I tell them that it's now more important than ever to have journalism, because if we don't have that kind of accountability, if we don't have that kind of truth-telling and truth-seeking, we are in a very dangerous position as a society.

"Who else is going to do that job? That is, I think, a legitimate question to ask and if there isn't an answer to that question, then it is vitally important — and I think there isn't an answer to that question, other than the news media — then I think it's vitally important that we, as Canadians, think very, very deeply think about the kind of challenge that is now facing the news business and how to solve it.

"And I really believe that my journalism students are going to be a part of the solution to that problem."

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener


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