Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

If you want to help democracy, buy a newspaper

There are far fewer journalists working locally than there were decades ago, writes John Gushue. That means fewer leads, fewer calls and less accountability of public institutions.

Fewer leads, fewer calls, less digging and less accountability

My wife and I a few days ago were recounting a golden period in our life … those years BC (before child) when we had free time to spare, especially on weekends, and we would head out for a good cup of coffee and spend a good half hour or more swapping sections of the papers.

There were choices then. The Telegram was thick in those days (albeit with supplements and ads). But there was more: the Globe and Mail still had an excellent Saturday edition, and you could buy it here easily.  For a while after the National Post launched in 1998, it offered standout writing, features and production values — one broadsheet insert was even printed on magazine stock.

For a treat, we'd splurge on the gargantuan Sunday New York Times, which Auntie Crae's would arrange to have flown in. Even a late copy felt like a big indulgence.

Oh, those were the days. Both the Globe and the National Post stopped delivering here years ago; the latter paper has somehow kept its title, even though its distribution stops in central Canada.

Muriel Grant Dunphy is one of the Western Staff staff who lost their jobs in April. (CBC)

The Telegram is no longer the thick Saturday paper it once had — and while the editorial content is down, the big drop is ads. In the pre-Kijiji era, it was filled with classified ads, not to mention job recruiting ads, display advertising and flyers.

The media scene altogether is quite a bit smaller. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 1989 provincial election, which happened when I was a young reporter.

Folding papers

Has the media world here ever changed. The newspaper I worked at then, the Sunday Express, ran out of ink in 1991. The weekly Wednesday edition that had been launched beforehand — the Express — kept chugging along for a while, but it too eventually folded. Its parent company, Robinson-Blackmore, is no more, and the range of regional weeklies it used to publish are now fewer and farther between.

Just a few weeks ago, Corner Brook's Western Star stopped publishing daily. From now on, it'll be a weekly.

Here in St. John's, there were more and bigger newsrooms three decades ago. Q-93 had a newsroom, you might remember. My colleague, Cecil Haire, who sits behind me, got his start there, and he and his colleagues cranked out radio coverage all day. Long gone. ASN had a small bureau here. That's gone too. Q's main radio competitor was VOCM, which had a much mightier news presence in those days.

The St. John's Telegram operates from a production centre on Austin Street. (Cecil Haire/CBC)

The Telegram's resources are considerably smaller these days. I have a lot of time for the staff there, and they're cranking out six papers a week — the Sunday edition was a casualty of years-ago downsizing — with a newsroom that would politely be described as modest. The journalists have fewer colleagues in their midst: much of the production work is now done in another province.

The list goes on. I hope I don't have to tell you that the CBC staff today is quite a bit smaller than it was back then.

Newer media players have emerged, of course, from a revived, reader-funded online version of the Independent that Drew Brown is now editing to the subscription-based model that AllNewfoundlandLabrador is following with its business coverage.

But there are fewer people chasing stories these days.

Fewer leads, fewer calls, fewer documents being reviewed. Fewer stories being told.

The result? Less digging. Less accountability of our public figures and institutions.

That's why I tell people that if they want to do something good for democracy, buy a newspaper. You can get this column and much else for free from your public broadcaster (your taxes make most of this possible), but we need a rich, varied media landscape.

And that means we have to pay for it.

This is by no means a new trend

The long, slow decline of newspapers started quite a few years ago — long ago, in fact, before those wonderful Saturday mornings I described at the top. The Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune both collapsed in 1980 — the near-simultaneous closures prompted a royal commission on newspapers. Circulation figures were in decline in the 1980s, long before consumers got their news from the internet. In those days, cable news was painted as the villain.

The Globe and Mail stopped distributing print editions in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2013. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Decades later, that era now seems like the good old days for papers, as fraught as it might have seemed.

We're in a very different situation now. Maybe you think you can get all your news and information for free. But journalism is not cheap. Some of the best reporting can take time, skill and patience, and at the end of the day, a salary.

I could write a whole other column on the gradual erosion of the public's right to know, and how that principle — once taken for granted — is under siege.

To keep the right to know alive, we need a vibrant, competitive media scene, with opportunities for young journalists, and places for our stories to be told.

It's a not big price to pay, but being without that accountability comes with a very dear cost.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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