Thursday, October 12, 2017

Too High A Price To Pay

This year, The Star has been running an Atkinson Series entitled The New Newsroom, which looks at both the challenges and the possibilities facing journalism in this age of Internet freebies. It is an excellent series that I hope you get a chance to check out. Here is an excerpt from a recent installment and the theme of today's post:
When the news industry and its supporters seek government funding to give it time to find a new business model, it’s because of the role news plays in maintaining a strong society — protecting democracy, in the phrase often used. If we don’t know what our governments are doing, we don’t control them. If we don’t know that hospitals have long waiting lists, we can’t find a solution. If we don’t know a development is planned, we can’t fight to protect the green space instead. Without information, we can’t have knowledgeable conversations with each other. We don’t have a voice. Our communities then belong to the powerful.
It is one of the key reasons I subscribe to The Toronto Star, which has a remarkable record in effecting change at the local, provincial and federal levels thanks to its many investigative reports. Without those investigations, public awareness of problems and injustices would have been quite limited.

To read a daily newspaper is to facilitate something all citizens should have: critical thinking skills. Without those skills, and without the information needed to inform those skills, we really are at the mercy of forces that would prefer us to be in darkness so they can carry out their agendas, agendas that rarely coincide with the public good. A column today on increases to the provincial minimum wage by provincial affairs reporter Martin Regg Cohn amply illustrates this fact.
Despite the scare stories, a proposed $15 hourly wage in 2019 is proving wildly popular. By all accounts, it is a vote-winner.

The usual suspects are upset: TD Bank, Loblaws, Metro, the Chamber of Commerce and the small business lobby are warning higher wages will hit hard, and hurt the working poor by costing them jobs.

It’s a recurring tale of two competing victimhoods — businesses at risk and jobs in jeopardy — but people aren’t buying it. The old fable about the boy (or business) who cried wolf is a hard sell when few believe the wolf is at the door.
Were the business perspective our sole source on this issue, we would likely be inclined to believe the hike is going to wreck our economy. Having a countervailing view assists us in making a more measured judgement. And, as Cohn points out, there are other factors to consider here, such as societal consensus:
Perhaps people are waking up to the impact of poverty amidst plenty. And are prepared to pay more at their local Dollarama — rebrand it Toonierama if need be.

Canadians who were content to live alongside the working poor are increasingly sensitized to the argument for a living wage. Times change.
For the longest time, people put up with second-hand cigarette smoke, drove while drunk, forgot their seat belts, or sneered at nerds who wore helmets for motorcycling, cycling, hockey or skiing. Now, cigarettes are taboo, drunk driving is anathema, seat belts are the law, and helmets are de rigeur.
Add to that some hard facts that demonstrate the one-sidedness of the business argument that the sky will soon fall:
A previous column about the business lobby pointed to the flaws in outdated econometric modelling that vainly tries to foretell future job losses from doomsday scenarios. Their conclusions are contradicted by more advanced research that looks retrospectively at recent history, showing negligible or unmeasurable impacts from minimum wage hikes.

Yet major retailers keep warning that automation is the inevitable result of higher wages. Been to a Loblaws, Sobeys, or Canadian Tire recently? Seen those automated check-out counters, even at today’s minimal minimum wage?

Automation is inevitable. Lowering the minimum wage won’t bring back full-service gas station attendants, or persuade the banks to remove automated tellers from your local branch.

Economic disruptions are also unpredictable. Even if business scaremongering about a wage hike were remotely true (at the margins), the reality is that a rapid increase in interest rates would have far more impact, as would a collapse in the housing market.
We all have our biases and values. The fact that I subscribe to The Star attests to mine. However, I also am free to reading countervailing views from conservative and pro-business organs like the National Post and The Globe and Mail, and frequently I will not dismiss out-of-hand some of their perspectives. The point is, however, that the more information I acquire from a legitimate news source, as opposed to fringe Internet sites that feel no obligation to abide by the rules of evidence and reason, the more equipped I am to draw reasoned conclusions.

Journalists do the heavy lifting for all of us. To lose them would be to lose any chance to have a healthy and sustainable democracy. That is surely too high a price to pay.


  1. Countervailing views. They're imperative, Lorne. Without them there can be no critical thinking.

    1. There are far too many amongst us who fear and loathe them, Owen.

  2. If we want to restore a functioning and genuinely free press in Canada we would do well to dust off the Davey (1970) and Kent (1981) Commission reports. Paul Martin was in the process of an updated review when he was toppled by Harper/Layton. Journalism in Canada has degenerated under our current corporate media cartel. Even the CBC has declined significantly. I stopped watching television news years ago and see no purpose in going back.

    I was talking with my ex about this a few weeks ago. She studied journalism at Carleton. I went into news while she headed to public relations. Back then those careers were adversarial. She was a "flack," self-excommunicated from the priesthood.

    This may sound ridiculous but in my newsroom your work was intensely scrutinized by your colleagues. Everyone had their leanings but you were expected to suppress them in your work. Anyone who blurred opinion with information would be ridiculed by their peers for writing a "blowjob piece." The scorn was genuine and palpable. Your colleagues might withdraw and stop kicking around ideas with you anymore. You were suspect. That didn't mean you were bound to present "both sides of the story" if one side was bullshit. It just meant that you recognized your biases and did your best to restrain them in your writing. I have no sense of that continuing today and the product is worse off for it.

    The Victoria Times Colonist ought to be the poster boy for newspaper reform. At one time just another captive outlet of the CanWest chain, it went indie, standalone. The paper changed its focus from just a repeater outlet for editorial content written at some strip mall in Hamilton into a broadhseet daily for Victoria and the rest of the island. It re-kindled a connection that is lost in most contemporary newspapers. I was delighted one morning to see the headline story a review of the previous night's Tony Bennett concert in Victoria. I just found that wonderfully refreshing, really capturing the 'small town' character papers no longer provide. I'm pretty sure they ran most of the stories similar size papers in other provinces had that day only Tony Bennett, who apparently was terrific, led that day.

    The Times Colonist wasn't given great odds of survival when it broke away to go indie. For quite a while I wouldn't subscribe imagining it to be just another CanWest/NatPo repeater but a free trial subscription certainly changed all that.

    1. It is very heartening, Mound, to know there are still some success stories in the world of journalism. Local and regional news coverage is crucial, given how much of our lives are affected by what goes on immediately around us.

      A few years ago, it looked like our local television station was going to fold. Instead, it was bought by another organization which ultimately decimated the staff, but despite that it still provides some useful local news. Our local paper, The Spectator, has been hit by the same kinds of reductions other newsrooms have experienced, but without its existence, the community would be far poorer and more ignorant.

  3. I remember "the Spec" from a time gone by when it was a very respected newspaper, holding its own even in the shadow of the Toronto giants. It served a 'beyond-Toronto' constituency and did it very well. Then it got vacuumed up into the corporate media cartel with the predictable, perhaps inevitable, outcome. I'm convinced that did not need to happen.

    What saved the TC carried on for the local TV station, CHEK. Again its network announced it was shutting the station down. What happened was that the community came together,bought out the assets at fire sale values, kept the on-air personnel and stayed on the air as the 'island' station. It's far from perfect but it will furnish local stories from Port Hardy all the way back down to Victoria. It covers the island communities, the island economy, island news, first and foremost, but it also picks up feeds from CBC and CTV for other news. Perhaps the island factor played a larger role than we might imagine. There's something that feels wrong in being cut off, dependent on the mainland, creating perhaps a broader feeling of needing 'our own.'

    1. Helping to foster a real sense of community is surely a very, very important role for local and regional media, Mound.

  4. Following up on my remarks about CHEK there's a new report on the Victoria TV co-op in The Tyee.

    1. The Tyee article is an inspiring piece, Mound, and could very well be a model for local news. The model reminds me of what Naomi Klein has documented in Argentina: worker-owned factories: