Opinion and the Fact-Free Zone

Reporting costs money.

If a news outlet wants day-to-day coverage of city hall, police and fire news, local courts, the provincial legislature or Parliament – what used to be the basics for a city paper in Canada - they or the news chain that owns them had to pay reporters.

Then there is the cost of “soft” features, sports, business news, the arts and the rest. But to the companies that publish newspapers, those are costs than can be cut. (Private radio and TV got out of this years ago, so I’m focussing this piece on newspapers. Strangely, the news business had the opportunity to use a pool of gig workers – freelancers – for one-off stories and projects that would give heft to print and web pages and took a pass. In fact, freelance budgets were the first to be cut.

So coverage is down in all but one area: opinion.

Now, it’s all over the mainstream media. And many online publications are – like the appalling “The Line”, run by unemployed Tory hacks based in Alberta – all opinion. Or, like the Broadbent Institute’s pseudo-news outlet, Press Progress, are political messaging disguised as reporting.

As for outlets like True North, propaganda takes the place of news, something I warned about in my ten-year-old book Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. And Canadaland replacing real newspapers? Only Jesse Brown is dumb enough to believe that.

Back in the day, newspaper publishers and editors jealously guarded access to the editorial page, and to the opinion page that was beside it – the op-ed page. Editorials were written by the editor or members of a small, rather elite editorial board, a group of the smartest people on the paper. They usually had advanced degrees (editors loved to hire grads of the London School of Economics), and/or they had years of experience covering national or provincial politics.

Op-ed pages bought articles from smart freelancers, academics, and people who’d had good careers as elected politicians. There were famous  op-ed columnists, people like former Toronto mayor David Crombie at the Sun. The Toronto Star gave columns to longtime activists like Doris Anderson and Michelle Landsberg. The Globe and Mail had power couple June Callwood writing on social issues and Trent Frayne writing sports. Jeff Simpson, who won the trifecta of Canadian non-fiction writing at that time – the National Newspaper Award, National Magazine Award, and the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction books – anchored the editorial page.

I’ve left a lot out, people who were so famous that the best ones were household names, got TV time and easily snagged book deals. There are still columnists in that league: Chantal Hebert when she was at the Star (she’s on leave now and I’m not sure she’s going back); Andrew Coyne, who I’ve called a pundit who’s always on the cutting edge of conventional wisdom; Paul Wells, who was orphaned when Maclean’s changed hands, didn’t find a home in the hot sheets, and turned adversity into opportunity by launching a successful Substack and writing short chap books on the Ottawa “trucker” occupation and the political troubles of Justin Trudeau.

And there are local columnists who have built careers doing good journalism in small places, people like Ian Pattison in Thunder Bay, and Steve Kimber and Dan Leger in Halifax. They do/did the Lord’s work, since people outside Toronto need good journalism too.

There’s a point to all this. Columnists were a small, elite group in newsrooms. Papers were staffed with reporters who covered beats, chased cops, wrote sports stories, ferreted out news by spending time on investigations. These were the people whose salaries made up the bulk of the payroll. If there was enough good journalism created by these people, the paper was respected and its circulation rose. If there wasn’t, people decided “there’s nothing in that paper” and the death spiral began.

It’s almost impossible to know how many print copies of newspapers are sold in Canada. Rather than talk about sales, the companies that own newspapers talk about readership. The two are not the same thing. The newspaper companies have a formula for readership based on the theory that every newspaper that’s sold or given away is read by more than one person.

That’s an interesting theory. I have no idea why they believe this.

There was a time when newspapers were delivered to people’s homes. In this Leave it to Beaver world, dad read the news and sports section, mom read the women’s section, and little Billy and Cathy fought over the comics page.

You’ve probably noticed this isn’t true now, if it ever was. Dad’s on in the john on Pornhub, mom’s stalking her exes on Facebook, little Billy’s on Pornhub, too. Cathy’s having the last of her self-esteem and dignity stripped away by Instagram.

Take a subway (Metro), LRT (when it’s running) or a bus, and you’ll likely see no one reading a newspaper of a book. It’s hard to know if any of the many, many people who are looking at their phones are on a newspaper’s web page, reading news behind a paywall. But I doubt it.

Meanwhile, print papers get thinner and are almost impossible to find. Very few stores sell them. And the price is ridiculous. Rather than create web-only content, newspaper web sites are just online postings of the thin gruel in the print editions. With lots of cheap and unenlightening opinion.

Recently, I stayed in a hotel where I got free copies of the National Post every morning. In every paper, almost all articles on the front pages were opinion pieces. They’re a sign of cheapness. There’s no real reporting in them, no news, no surprises. The columnists aren’t famous, mainly because they’re not that good.

The page – the front page – the store window, the most valuable real estate in the paper, was filled with cheap copy written by nobodies. The paper pushes its political agenda while saving money on shoe leather reporting. The web page may mix this stuff in with wire stories and pieces by the few surviving staff reporters. But either way, it’s hard to disagree with readers who say there’s nothing in the paper.

And the death spiral continues.