To say that Canada needs journalists is simply to state the obvious.
Of course, Canada needs journalists who are free to uncover, discover and convey news from our neighbourhoods on up to the international level.
Canada also needs commentators who are free to provide points of view or analysis.
But how can we have good journalists in Canada employed by stable media outlets?
As Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is learning while he looks for ways to stabilize news media suffering from declining revenues, there are no easy answers.
Some suggest that journalism freed from the strictures of big media companies are part of the solution.
Jen Gerson, who left regular employment as a National Post reporter to strike out on her own in 2018, is one such person.
“A lot of people who are in mainstream media look at what I’m doing and go, ‘Oh, you’re taking such a risk.’” Gerson tells Cardus’s podcast The Long Way. “I’m looking at them and saying, ‘You know, you’re two weeks from a layoff notice. Who’s taking risks?’”
She’s not wrong.
Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs in 2020. And the year, with all its economic troubles, isn’t done yet.
Now, Gerson has started her own crowdfunded outlet called The Line, offering “engaging, irreverent writing” from Canadian newspaper and magazine writers freed from “institutional cultures enforcing a state of stifling conformity.”
Gerson – who admits it would be challenging for her to be “governable” in a newsroom – is enjoying her independence.
But that independence, she says, still comes with the obligation to extend balance and fairness toward people with whom she may deeply disagree.
“If I’m going to talk to someone who is a deeply conservative, deeply religious person who believes that abortion is fundamentally killing babies, then I have to represent that person’s views fairly,” she says. “I can’t say this person wants to turn the world into a Handmaid’s Tale dystopian nightmare because that’s just not true, right? That’s not accurate to the viewpoints. And that requires a degree of empathy that I think is fundamental to the world of journalism.”
Empathy supports accuracy and nuance, in other words. But how much room is there for nuance in Canadian journalism today?
“I think there’s been a dramatic narrowing of what is acceptable to be talked about in mainstream media and I think that it’s been happening over time and then it accelerated as a result of COVID,” says Gerson.
She points to media finances as a major factor in this phenomenon.
“You’re only as free as your ability to pay the rent,” she adds. “And you’re only as free to say what you think as long as you can drop a client and afford to do that because your integrity matters more. The second you don’t have enough money in the bank to do those things, you’re stuck. And I think that that unfortunately is a situation that a lot of media outlets are in right now.”
To date, the federal government has stepped in with a $600-million media bailout for some outlets along with promises to get social media companies to pay their “fair share” in an effort to stabilize the media industry. Thankfully, Guilbeault walked back his suggestion of government licensing of news outlets, though many remain wary.
But government funding is no magic bullet. Gerson sees difficulties no matter how journalism is funded.
“You know, you’re always going to be beholden to the group of people who cut the cheque,” she tells The Long Way. “So, who do you imagine is going to cut the cheque if you try a different model? You know, government-funded journalism has problems. Crowdsourced journalism, which is sort of what I’m engaged with, has problems. Advertising-driven journalism has problems. And the algorithmically derived information bubbles that we’ve created also are deeply problematic.”
So, yes, Canada needs gainfully employed journalists and Guilbeault has his work cut out for him.
The problem isn’t totally new.
But the solutions, if and when we find them, will be.
Daniel Proussalidis worked as a journalist for almost 17 years and now serves as director of communications at the think-tank Cardus and as host of The Long Way podcast.