If newspaper health is a measure of democracy, our democracy is in decline: Neil Macdonald

I walked through the doors of the Citizen in 1976 as a student, and strutted out half an hour later as a newspaperman.

Newsrooms would mount costly, complex investigations that took teams of reporters out of play for months

I walked through the doors of the Citizen in 1976 as a student, and strutted out half an hour later as a newspaperman. (Neil Macdonald/CBC News)

The Ottawa Citizen building, brown and unprepossessing, sprawls alongside a slew of big-box stores in the west end of the capital, just off the Trans-Canada Highway.

I always gaze at it longer than I probably should when I drive by. It was a wondrous thing when it opened in 1973 – the first daily newspaper operation in North America built entirely on one floor, the first entirely computerized newsroom with its own software, and the giant, modern offset presses that produced such a clean, sharp look.

I walked through the doors of that building in 1976 as a student, and strutted out half an hour later as a newspaperman.

Well. A copyboy, to be technical; my first job was clearing teletypes overnight and fetching coffee and doing Chinese food and booze runs and driving bad-tempered, half-sloshed editors home.

But if you could spell, and you were hungry, you'd be a reporter in a hurry. The paper was growing, and there was just so much money. We competed ferociously for space on page one, women reporters were paid the same as men, we all smoked at our desks, there was a beer machine in the lounge, and we had bylines. We were newspapermen and newspaperwomen. We swaggered.

Some of us rose quickly. Too quickly, actually. I was in charge of the night newsroom at age 23. My boss was 25. We were just punk kids. It was ridiculous.

We, of course, thought we were brilliant. What we did not realize was how anomalous it all was, how out of step with history, and how quickly it would end.

Inventing the news

Just a generation earlier, the newspaper racket had been notorious for its lousy salaries, and peopled mostly by semi-literate hacks (one of the reasons punk kids who could spell and edit were promoted so quickly in the '70s) who sometimes invented news if they couldn't find any.

One fellow, Joe Finn, was famed at the paper for having invented a commercial jackrabbit farm he claimed was considering a move to Aylmer, across the river in Quebec. Apparently Aylmer politicians actually began fighting over credit for the project, without asking themselves the point of breeding jackrabbits.

Finn also invented Hull Police Constable Zotique Laframboise – what a magnificent name — who was inevitably the first on the scene of any fire, traffic crash, or serious crime, and could be relied upon to say that in all his years of policing, he'd never seen anything quite as bad. Zotique became a legend, as did his creator.

But really, Joe was just a man who didn't speak French, so couldn't actually speak to most Hull cops, and who was supporting a huge family on borderline poverty wages. As were others. When I arrived, event promoters were still showing up with envelopes of cash to ensure good coverage, something still viewed as normal among my elders at the time.

Go back a few more generations, and most papers were outright partisan, controlled by or loyal to political parties. And savagely pro-establishment. They comforted the comfortable, and took their truths from power.

Saturday papers were big, heavy things, stuffed with advertising. Want ads were pure gold. (iStock)

But by the '70s, professionalism arrived. Along with ethics. Climbing revenues and unionization produced secure, well-paid jobs that attracted intense young graduates who regarded journalism as a mission.

City newspapers grew and flexed. The Ottawa Citizen, with average paid circulation at nearly 200,000, sent reporters all over the world, me included. Newsrooms would mount costly, complex investigations that took teams of reporters out of play for months, because they could afford to. TV reporters, whom we scorned (yes, I became one), spent most of their time matching newspaper stories.

The Citizen had well over 200 editorial employees.

Saturday papers were big, heavy things, stuffed with advertising. Want ads were pure gold.

We were the fourth estate. We were independent. We had a calling. And that wasn't our imaginations. For all our foibles and preening, we shined a relentless light on power.

Ultimately, though, our craft atrophied as quickly as our bodies, maybe a bit faster. In the late '90s, Craigslist came along and hijacked just about all want ad revenue. Following an insane impulse, newspapers began putting their content online for free. Advertising evaporated. Then came social media, and aggregators, and eventually, the violent information cataract that is the internet today, thick with its flotsam of lies and rumours (My Wikipedia entry, not written by me, contains two factual errors).

And then the other day, I noticed that the Ottawa Citizen building has a big "FOR LEASE" sign on its lawn. That once marvelous building was sold last year, and was put up for rent a few months ago. Workers are now busy inside, ripping walls apart, making room for tenants.

The newspaper and its clone, the Ottawa Sun, have leased back some space for the 40-odd editorial employees I'm told still work there. (The exact workforce numbers appear to be a company secret, as are its shriveled circulation figures; the paper last acknowledged 92,000 readers four years ago).

The Citizen's parent company, Postmedia, is owned by an American hedge fund that is, essentially, sucking the company dry, as hedge funds do. Newspaper salaries are regressing toward the level of semi-skilled labour; why any bright young graduate would want to get into the game nowadays is baffling.

John Honderich, chairman of Torstar Corporation (and a fellow former copyboy at The Citizen), has publicly said the end is in sight for the mighty Toronto Star, where Hemingway once worked. Montreal's La Presse is converting itself into a non-profit. The Citizen no longer appear to have a front page; like other newspapers, it routinely surrenders that holy space entirely to advertisers. Newspapers now routinely run "native content," an evil euphemism for ads posing as news stories; parasites, really, feeding on credibility.

Nowadays, you are a must-read, or you're doomed. Papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are still prospering. Other papers are guttering and flickering out all over North America. The strangely named New Orleans Times-Picayune just fired its entire staff. Other outlets are giving in to their audience's desire for partisan information reflecting a political ideology. We are returning to another time.

Michelle Richardson, the Citizen's current editor-in-chief, puts on a game face when asked about the business.

"Is it the way that it was? No," she told me. "And it's not going to go back to that."

But, she adds, "It's an encouraging time. A lot of opportunities and success stories are being overlooked. We are too focused on the way it was."

Perhaps. But I can't help it. The way it was, for such a brief time, was so much better than the way it is.

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Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.