Thursday, May 6, 2010



It would be a hot topic around the Toronto press club bar but press clubs everywhere have disappeared faster than reporting jobs and media revenue.
Just who is going to cover events in the future and produce the foundation of basic reporting on which the tottering superstructure of bloggers, columnists and commentators rest?
I doubt that some bloggers have thoughts greater than one ungrammatical put-down paragraph. But the poor man's columnists, plus all the hotline hosts and TV talking heads, really can't function unless someone actually goes to the meetings or digs up the dirt or covers the trials or wades through the crisis or interviews the movers and crooks and cops.
Journalism isn't falling out of bed and sitting down at the computer in your undies and firing off an insult about a story you just heard on radio or TV. You just can't take the lint in your belly button and weave together enough of a story to support even a bad rant. There has to be a writer somewhere who actually wrote the first story for a newspaper, because, as is well known, the news on TV and radio is stolen 99.9% from newspapers.
And lately, the poor reporters, the foot soldiers of the media, have become an endangered species as fat corporations figure that a few columnists, wire service copy, inventive editors and some pictures will just be the thing to keep the ads apart. Oh yes, sports too, because it's easy to cover and you can fill a lot of space with action pictures and stories even of practises. Movie reviews are also a cinch, compared to the nitty gritty of winkling the truth out of bureaucracy.
Jon Stewart, the comedian who is one of the best critics of media around, had Jon Meacham, the Editor of Newsweek, on his show the night that it was announced that the veteran news magazine is going to be sold. The graffiti scrawled on the wall says it will fold.
Meacham felt that only the venerable Economist was making money among such magazines and that maybe the best thing is to concentrate on producing good daily coverage of events for the Internet and then package the best of that for a magazine to be printed weekly for those who like to hold news in their hands. After all, reading the computer in the tub is not recommended.
The important part of the interview was Stewart and Meacham worrying about just where the basic fodder in news was going to come from if newspapers and magazines continue to languish and their staffs continue to be decimated as the bosses try to keep afloat.
For Southern Ontario, there are textbook examples of the squeeze on reporters and news coverage. The National Post is so slim some days that you wonder why they bother. The Toronto Sun is being squeezed like a dish rag so that Quebecor can get every last buck out of it to pay for its dismal management.
There doesn't seem to be a month when there aren't major firings and layoffs and closings and mergers as news rooms and press halls and call centres are crimped and shuffled and combined.
The Sun is reshuffing columnists and beats, presumably to cover the yawning absence of reporters. Ironically, it is returning to its roots, before it was cash cow,, when basically it was a paper of columnists and not much else.
The Sun rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Toronto Telegram, when the beloved Tely was folded by the Bassett family to make some money. The Tely featured a half-dozen columnists that were often the talk of the town. So the Sun's founders, basically Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington, decided out of necessity to go the Tely one better and make columnists the backbone of the new tabloid. In fact, the legs and arms too.
For example, until 1985, I wrote a daily column on politics on Page 4. I was said to be a City Hall columnist but actually I covered politics at every level, walking between City Hall and the Legislature and flying to Ottawa for throne speeches, elections and budgets. Generally there was no other coverage of the same events for the first few years.
With Worthington, the eternal columnist, and Doug Fisher, the dean of the Press Gallery, completing our political triumvirate, no one seemed to notice that we really had no political reporters, especially with Bob MacDonald functioning more as a bare-knuckle columnist.
In Sports, we had George Gross leading a trusty band of columnists. In Entertainment, George Anthony covered movies and North America like a champagne-soaked blanket. Joan Sutton strutted on high heels around the LifeStyle world and stared down society.
It all worked, and the Sun confounded its critics. But each year reporters were added and in time the Sun resembled a mature newspaper where editors actually had assistants and there might actually be more than just one reporter on a beat.
Now the Sun is setting in that area, and columnists are shouldering more of the hard news load.
But there can be problem when you rely on your big columnists to always provide the major, and sometimes the only, coverage of big stories.
One of the charms of being a columnist is the freedom to pontificate about whatever takes your interest. You don't, or shouldn't, assign columnists. If the editors keep calling up columnists and telling them to write on a specific event, then the columnist is just another feature writer and the job is no longer as attractive.
This will come as a shock to all the kids who show up and tell the interviewing editors that they would like to be a columnist but the best columnists have a decade or so of tough service first as reporters and editors. They should be among the newspaper's best reporters but that doesn't mean they want to function as a reporter. Where's the fun in not being able to call the mayor a super mouth?
We face a challenging time for those of us who like our commentary to come with the icing of real facts. Imagine the despair of all the spielers and bloggers out there if they actually have to do some digging themselves and find that trials can last for weeks and a political debate for an eternity. Journalism isn't just ripping off the facts from others and saying what you think about them.
The free ride can't last forever. The outfits who still employ a few reporters will figure out eventually how to recover some of their costs from the Internet and the death spiral for media will cease.


Lyn Cockburn said...

Hi John
Most interesting.
When you get a moment, maybe you can drop me a line.
Lyn Cockburn

Joan Sutton Straus said...

Bravo John, and thanks for remembering me...of course, heels were not as high then as they are now, although the Dorothy Parker type heels are probably unchanged.....but don't put all the blame for the Tely on the Bassett family.......there were a few Eatons involved in that decision too....miss you and think of you and Mary, fondly, often. Joan sutton Straus