Newspapers are Suicidal

The only time I’ve ever been fired was from a Milestone’s in Vancouver, sometime around 1998. It was not a pleasant day, a day made worse by the fact that upon returning home unexpectedly and unemployed, I discovered my partner and my roommate had been having an affair. Losing a job and a lover in the same morning is humbling, and yet the two have striking parallels. Both, one could argue, are essential to living. Both are gratifying, in their own ways. Both provide you with money. I’m often hesitant to introduce both entities to my parents. But I can empathize with anyone who has lost either, though they are learning moments. I learned that you shouldn’t work for an organization that has their own glossary, or more than 20 employees. I also learned that when your girlfriend spends late nights with your roommate, it’s not because she digs his Captain Beefheart LPs. Earlier this week, a large contingent of Postmedia staffers lost their jobs in what is a sign of the times for the newspaper industry. But, unlike my ability to learn from heartbreak and loss of a $8-an-hour cooking gig, has the newspaper industry learned anything from its losses? I think not.

Newspapers have been dying for some time. Content is free online, and not just theirs. There is a near infinite supply of news and opinion available. It’s part of the reason you’re reading this, and not some other chump’s ramblings. Newspapers had a monopoly on printed news and opinion for, well, forever, and now they are feeling the effects of not adequately preparing for a shifting marketplace. They failed to adapt to a rapidly changing industry, whether by flaw of ego or a lack of understanding. How anyone could watch and not learn as technology nearly destroyed, and then reinvented the music industry is beyond me, but I’m of a different generation than those running newspapers and those who continue to pay to read them. And therein lies the problem. The newspaper industry is built around a demographic that no longer dictates the mode by which we consume. The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and the rest of Canada’s papers are written and edited by, and marketed and subservient to Boomers and beyond, while the generations that follow are rapidly reinventing our methods of news consumption.

The newspaper industry has a collective and self-destructive lack of respect for a new generation of consumers. It’s a common argument that this generation doesn’t read as much as its predecessors, but that’s a misconception that is contributing to the downfall of both the newspaper and publishing industries. In 2012 we read more than ever. We read on our phones, our tablets, our laptops. We’re hungry for information, and our access to it is both invigorating and enlightening. Newspapers’ tragic misstep was in not providing content that appealed to this hungry demographic of consumers, instead it chooses to continue to pander to a generation that will not contribute to its longevity. And by “appeal” I don’t mean Justin Bieber stories and Paris Hilton exclusives, but rather transparent, informed, intelligent arguments and coverage of the greater discourse.

As a microcosm of newspapers’ failure, consider the ongoing Quebec student strike. Not only have newspapers (and most other traditional media outlets) failed to cover the story without bias, but they’ve done so in an aggressive and dismissive manner that has discouraged trust in the industry. While I support Margaret Wente’s right to call arts students “the baristas of tomorrow” I also feel that The Globe and Mail would best serve its readership by providing an alternative to that argument. The Globe’s unwillingness to do so has contributed to their fall in readership, and is evidence of their inability to foster a new generation of consumers of its product. Their move to a pay-subscription service as a means of stabilizing their business reeks of both a lack of imaginative and ambitious solutions, as well as a vehicle to further drive younger consumers to other media outlets. The same can be said of initiatives to cut Sunday papers, eliminate Books sections, or fire staffers. The industry, and the readership, deserve better.

The Globe is not unique in their failure of content. Just this morning, The National Post, days after large layoffs within their offices across the nation, published two opinion pieces that are poorly constructed and poorly written, and perfect examples of insulting and flawed op-eds that don’t understand the era in which their written. Barbara Kay’s op-ed is violently dismissive of a generation, referring to the “self-satisfied millennials lack humility and competitive drive.” Students sacrificing much of themselves, their time, and their semesters in order to march nightly and protest for what they believe in shows a remarkable amount of both humility and drive, two qualities The National Post itself would do well to embrace if they’d like to remain relevant and in business.

Kay continues her curmudgeonly, grandma-on-the-porch-with-a-shotgun rhetoric: “They’re mad as hell, venting on websites. ‘Why won’t the Baby Boomers step aside?’ rants one. Response: ‘Because many of us are too busy supporting our college graduate kids who won’t shop at Walmart … and BTW, you are NOT getting my job, Crybaby.’” Herein lies another illustration of where newspapers have not adequately adapted to a rapidly changing world. A quick search for the phrase Ms. Kay employs to make her point leads one to discover that it is from a 2011 Yahoo! Answers query. Within the context of the discussion of the 2012 Quebec student strike, Ms. Kay uses an obsolete and anonymous source from 2011, and not only does she lack the intelligence or respect to realize that the reader won’t be able to figure this out with a right-mouse click, but her editors allow it to pass as well. It’s like watching your grandmother try to send an email using a rotary phone.

The Post’s George Jonas also insults prospective readers with rambling nonsense in today’s edition. He writes “The Montreal student riots puzzle most Canadian adults because they’re ‘senseless.’” He doesn’t attribute the quote, nor does he qualify the statement. Instead, he makes a blanket assertion like your drunk uncle at a holiday dinner argument. Which is fine, except I expect more from a national newspaper than I do from my uncle Paul seven whiskies in to a Christmas afternoon.

Jonas continues:

“I wouldn’t ask: ‘What sense do the student riots make?’ taking it for granted they make none. They’re nature’s tax bill: The young of every generation who have more energy than judgment — in our times, aggravated by diploma factories educating students beyond their intellectual means, and flooding their limited analytical and moral capacity with liberal infusions of quasi-Marxist sewage until it overflows into terminal self-righteousness.”

This type of dismissal of the young and educated, as well as their hard-earned educations, goes beyond insulting, and truly is not worthy of publication by The Post or anyone else. I would hesitate to call what has been happening in Montreal “riots”. It’s activism, with an at times unfortunate violent edge, but that’s not the point of my argument. The point is, where are the voices in opposition to Jonas and Kay? The one strong dissenting voice during the student strike in the Post was John Moore, and he got beaten like a redheaded stepchild by his colleagues. I expect him to join the ranks of underemployed bloggers at any moment.

Newspapers are complicit in their own downfall. My colleague Ian Orti posed the question yesterday as to why many newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Montreal Gazette et al., don’t hyperlink their sources. It’s a fair question, and one that illuminates a larger issue and that’s newspapers inability to react and adapt to a new reality. The “millennials” as grandma Kay calls them, are hungry for news, hungry for opinion, hungry for information, but know how to find it on their own. Newspapers need to develop a symmetry with these needs if they want future generations of readers to not only absorb their content, but to want to, or bother with it. The days of the paperboy delivering a rolled up paper to your doorstep from the seat of his red bike are all but over, and the manner in which the industry clings to those days has become sad. Newspapers need to focus not only on the technological advantages of the modern consumer, but the manner in which the vast array of news outlets begs a transparency and lack of bias that papers have never been asked for.

There have been attempts on the part of Canadian newspapers to appeal to younger generations. The Globe and Mail often trots out Leah McLaren and her third-rate Sex and the City-esque ramblings, like the earth shattering exposes: “Simon Cowell’s secret? Botox, pizza sauce and bad publicity” and “Ashley Judd’s face: When celebrities are right to fight back”, apt examples of the newspapers’ believe that post-Boomer generation’s capacity for news begins and end with celebrity culture. This type of pandering journalism is not just insulting, but also self-defeating. If you’re truly thirsty for a story on Kim Kardashian’s latest beau, you’re not hitting up the pages of The Globe and Mail for it. The National Post does better to skew younger with its writers, but the talent seen in such contributors as Michael Lista, Bruce Arthur, and Mark Medley, doesn’t appear often enough outside of the Sports and Arts sections, and in the realm of political discourse.

I read The Globe and Mail almost daily from the time I could read until recently. While I still read The Globe, it is with less frequency and increased frustration. Part of this is because I’ve found alternative media outlets, and part of it lies in my disappointment in the paper itself. At the same time that my reading of papers is up, my purchasing is down, in fact non-existent. But unlike the challenges of the music industry, we’re not downloading newspapers illegally. They are there, free for the taking, like an unlocked newspaper box. And the readership is still there, in fact it’s growing, fostered by the educations that Jonas dismisses. We have a multiplicity of platforms on which to consume information. The market is there for the taking, and yet newspapers are stubbornly pandering to a static demographic that that it hopes to outlive, but won’t if it doesn’t adapt. I don’t claim to be able to solve the financial challenges of replacing lost subscriptions, but I can make demands of newspapers to reconsider the manner with which they choose to contribute to the public discourse. Because if not, one day, The National Post is going to come home and find its entire readership in bed with alternative media, and its relationship with the Canadian consumer will be irreparably damaged.