Off the Record: News: use it or lose it

Newspapers and the media get a lot of grief for sometimes getting things wrong, but very little credit for generally getting things right almost all of the time.

Most newspapers, with dozens of pages of content, can fit their corrections into a couple of paragraphs.

If you set aside the acknowledged biases and politics of the editorial pages, the degree by which the actual news is influenced by a newspaper’s political leanings is also debatable. It’s true that no paper or reporter is 100 per cent objective, but when it comes to reporting the facts you’ll usually find almost the same information about the day’s events in the right-leaning The National Post as you would in the left-leaning Toronto Star.

I bring this up because the fact that journalism isn’t completely perfect or objective all of the time is often held up as a reason for letting the newspaper industry die — for not caring about all the news outlets across Canada that have permanently stopped the presses, for calling for the defunding of the CBC, for generally distrusting the one Canadian institution that actually fights for fairness, transparency, accountability and ordinary Canadians every single day.

Imperfect though they may be, newspapers play a key role in our democracy, holding politicians and increasingly powerful and globalized companies to account. The truth is the only weapon that the average person has sometimes in a world where governments have been known to spin, manufacture and deny the facts, and where companies spend billions on advertising, PR and think tanks.

The kind of in-depth reporting that papers do can never be replaced by blogs, TV or radio news, “alternative news” sites, or social media — especially not at a time when we have proof that certain foreign governments, which don’t have a free and open media of their own, are currently paying people to create fake and biased news. The waters have been muddied.

People need real news — global, national and, most importantly, local.  

And yet here we are. The Whistler Question will stop printing after serving the Whistler community for almost 42 years.

By now, it’s a familiar story in Canada. In November it was announced that 24 community newspapers owned by Postmedia would be closing, most of them in rural Ontario. Metro and 24 Hours will be closed in Toronto and Vancouver. Since 2010, some 23 community newspapers have closed across B.C., including one paper — the Nanaimo Daily News — that had been around for 141 years. In a week it will be 24.

It’s no secret that newspapers are struggling in the digital age. For one thing, the Internet has taken over classified listings, which were always an important revenue source for newspapers. People have also stopped paying for subscriptions and buying newspapers, preferring to get their news for free. Then there’s advertising — businesses are following their customers online, or have less to spend on ads because their customers are buying more and more from Amazon.
Industry-wide, online advertising on news sites only raises around $1 for every $7 of conventional print advertising that our newspapers are losing. Imagine what would happen if you cut your own earnings by 85 per cent.

Fortunately for all of us, Whistler still has Pique, and hopefully always will — it’s easily one of the biggest and most successful community papers in all of Canada, and probably North America as well. That’s your doing, readers.

But we can’t take it for granted, either. Consider The Question’s closing a wake-up call for everyone who believes that we are better for having an engaged, politically active and socially aware population, and a news outlet that covers the stories that matter to us in depth.

At the end of the day if you want good, local news, you have to read it. You also have to find some way to support it.

I’m not saying Pique should start charging $1 an issue, but the citizens of this town can contribute in other ways — starting by reading it and bumping up circulation. People should use the classified section to find employees and tenants, and to sell goods and services — and let the advertisers know exactly where they found the ad. Businesses should take out ads as well —mainly because the circulation is strong and it’s still the best way to reach a lot of locals. And people should support the paper indirectly by shopping at stores that advertise.

It’s the only way this is going to work. The alternative is kind of depressing.

Working as a reporter in this town for over 14 years was an honour and privilege, but I’d be lying if I didn’t sometimes feel a bit like a whip and buggy maker watching the first Model T drive past my shop. The difference is that cars were an improvement on horses — they were faster, probably safer and they didn’t crap all over the streets. The auto industry went on to create a hundred jobs for every one that was lost.

There was, in other words, an upside. There’s no upside to the problems that our media is facing. Nothing is replacing what’s being lost.

A huge thank you to The Question for running this column for the last three-ish years. Thank you to editor Alyssa Noel for doing a great job at the helm. Thank you to all of the reporters, photographers and contributors that made it such a good community paper.

Thank you to all of the engaged readers who get it, and to all the people who contribute every week by answering the phone and talking to reporters. Thank you to all of the advertisers and staff who made it all possible.

This is not the end. The future, however, is up to you.

© Copyright Whistler Question

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