The eye of a hurricane is one of the worst places to assess the damage. You hear the winds swirling around you deafeningly. You feel their destructive power. You know people like you are being slammed, their lives upended. But you’re too close to the action to see the whole picture.
That’s what it’s like to be a working journalist in early 2016. You feel lucky but vulnerable; resolute but apprehensive; concerned about colleagues who have lost their livelihood, but unwilling to walk away from the business.
Here at the Toronto Star, the downsized team of reporters, editors, columnists, photographers, artists and designers who produce the words and images that fill the newspaper, our website and our tablet edition is working tirelessly to meet multiple daily deadlines. Most of us are too busy to analyze the market forces buffeting our profession.
But lately the layoffs, cutbacks, closings and grim statistics have been coming in such rapid succession that we — the news gatherers — have become the news. We trade bits of intelligence in the corridors, speculate in coffee shops, theorize over long dinners. Where will the next blow fall? And when?
Economists, professors of journalism, digital entrepreneurs, consultants and market watchers are quick to proffer their prognoses. Publishers and proprietors try one alternative after the other in a quest for a sustainable business model. Politicians wring their hands (some sincerely, some disingenuously). Investors shrug.
Understandably, readers look to us for an inside perspective. We’re on the front lines. We should know what’s happening.
The truth is most of us don’t. We have no more access than the public to our company’s financial information, let alone the economic health of the entire business. As journalists, we are trained to look outward, not focus on ourselves. Our job is to produce fresh, well-written news and commentary while our corporate executives track market trends, monitor consumer tastes, gauge the speed and impact of technological progress and develop a durable business plan.
In the Star newsroom there is no consensus about what lies ahead. What unites us is a deep-seated conviction that what we do is more than a business. To write that would sound self-serving or arrogant. But among ourselves it is understood that we are the eyes and ears of the public. We’re in places that they can’t be, we pose questions they can’t ask, we expose wrongdoing they can’t see. We listen to marginalized people and put a spotlight on individuals and groups fighting for change. We check out claims that don’t sound right, chase down tips. The need to know is part of our DNA. It keeps us going as the workloads get heavier and the rewards leaner.
Others do it too, of course: bloggers, citizen journalists, online activists, freelancers and digital journalists who work for online magazines, newsletters, niche publications or Internet companies such as BuzzFeed and Vice News. Some of them are more technologically agile than we are. They all have lower fixed costs.
Some of these ventures may turn out to be economically viable. It is hard to tell which, if any, will stand the test of time.
So far, none of them have the resources to do successive in-depth investigations. Some mix news and advertising. Some blur the line between fact and opinion. Some are designed primarily for American users. Others cater to specialized interests. The majority of them build on reporting newspapers have already done.
My view is that newspapers, in some form, will survive. We’ll have to disseminate our work digitally to remain relevant. We’ll have to compete in a crowded market with many sources of information. We’ll have to win back advertisers or come up with a new source of revenue.
After 40 years in the business, I still believe newspapers serve three essential purposes. We help keep democracy healthy. We provide part of the glue that holds communities together. And we serve as a forum for public discussion. Nobody does all three as well — yet.
I am in the twilight of my career. I won’t play much of a part in journalism’s next chapter. But I hope whatever succeeds print is independent enough to stand up to the powerful; comprehensive enough to serve Canadians with different priorities, backgrounds and interests; and versatile enough to showcase the talent and dedication of the extraordinary storytellers coming along behind me.