The Back Page

THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS

And it’s not good: fewer reporters are covering the stories that matter

PAUL WELLS January 10 2005
The Back Page

THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS

And it’s not good: fewer reporters are covering the stories that matter

PAUL WELLS January 10 2005

THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS

The Back Page

And it’s not good: fewer reporters are covering the stories that matter

PAUL WELLS

AND NOW THE NEWS FROM OTTAWA. Or rather, the news about the news from Ottawa. It is discouraging news: there are fewer and fewer people here to report the news. For this information we are indebted to Christopher Waddell, a former Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and then for the CBC. Today he is the Carty Chair in Business and Financial Journalism at Carleton University. In November, Waddell testified at the Senate committee on transport and communications, which is pondering the state of the Canadian news business. Fiere is the mess Waddell described for the senators.

“When I started in Ottawa in the mid-1980s,” he said, “Canadian Press had a bureau of about 36 people. It has half that now and probably does less than half of what it used to do. CBC TV had about a dozen reporters in its Ottawa bureau. Now it has half that. And it operates a 24hour news channel in addition to everything it did before.”

Many newspapers—the Windsor Star, London Free Press,

Hamilton Spectator, the Regina Leader-Post—used to staff their own news bureaus in Ottawa.

Not any more. Surviving bureaus have shrunk. The Mon-

treal Gazette had three Ottawa journalists in 1994, and has one today.

Shrunken news operations hinder each reporter’s efforts to chase a complex story or a beat for months or years at a time. “The only option is to turn your reporters into general-assignment reporters,” Waddell said. Twenty years ago, there might have been a reporter in Ottawa who knew enough about economic policy to explain Newfoundland’s dispute with Ottawa over equalization. Today, the poor sap just runs, from the release of a Supreme Court decision, to a briefing on disaster relief, to a cabinet minister’s arcane and complicated news conference.

The upshot, in Waddell’s succinct and chilling formulation: increasingly, politics is covered “as though everything that happened that day has never happened before and will never happen again.”

How do you cover a story you’ve been

dropped into the middle of? You emphasize what any other stranger would notice: personality (that Danny Williams sure is colourful) and conflict (my, he’s angry at Paul Martin). We can’t hope to make sense of government, so we cover shouting.

I know one Ottawa pundit who argues that Ottawa newsrooms were properly gutted, because Jean Chrétien made politics routine and boring. It’d be a more convincing argument if resources that vanished here had popped up somewhere else. No such luck. Foreign news? Many organizations have closed bureaus in Tokyo and Moscow and London, relying instead on international ambulance-chasers. So the same problems that infect Ottawa coverage distort foreign coverage too: amnesia and blindness to any story that isn’t a crisis.

Local news? In 1981, Mark Harrison, who was editing the Gazette, told Tom Kent’s royal commission on newspapers that scarce

resources couldn’t go abroad because they had to be deployed at home. “Most editors, if they must choose between spending another $100,000 for one correspondent abroad, or using it to provide three extra reporters to cover city hall, or the West Island, or Quebec City, or Ottawa, will spend it, naturally, on local or regional coverage.”

If only. Nowadays they simply don’t spend it. Here’s what Joe Matyas, a journalist and union representative at the London Free Press, told the senators on the same night Waddell testified. “If you were to have looked at [the Free Press] 10 to 15 years ago, you would have seen that we had 152 people in the editorial department. Today the number is 77,” Matyas said. “We no longer have reporters assigned to cover agriculture, consumer affairs, environment, labour, religion, social services, and other areas of interest as we once did.” Big trials are covered sporadically, instead of by a single reporter who remembers a scrap that didn’t get into last week’s paper but may suddenly be significant.

What’s driving this race to the bottom? Witnesses are telling the senators about the usual suspects. Chain ownership. Convergence—the absurd idea that one reporter can tell the same story in a newspaper, on TV and on the Internet. The collapse of competition among owners.

How to fix it? A lot of you won’t be happy with Waddell’s suggestion, but I endorse it entirely: drive up the value of Canadian media properties and the level of competition by busting the protection racket of Canadian ownership. Let foreign owners into the Canadian newspaper market.

I can hear the squealing from the vested interests already. My first question for them isn’t economic, it’s moral: apart from getting rich and gutting newsrooms, what have Canadian owners done in the past 15 years to deserve further protection? lifl

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