For centuries, newspapers have offered a voice to the vulnerable and have uncovered countless travesties that might have otherwise gone undiscovered.
But print journalism’s days could be numbered, predicted John Honderich, the former publisher of the Toronto Star.
Honderich elaborated on his view of the future of newspapers when he delivered the Kesterton Lecture at Carleton Jan. 22.
“If the media doesn’t function well, a society can’t function well. Serious print journalism is essential to keep our leaders honest and arm the powerless with information they need to protect themselves against the tyranny of the powerful,” he told a crowd of about 100 who attended the event.
Many newspapers, including the Toronto Star, hit their financial peak in the late 1980s when the Internet was “still a whisper,” he said.
“Back then, there was absolutely no talk of Armageddon.”
Newspapers across the continent are now dealing with shrinking ad revenue and sinking subscriptions as many readers turn to online news and commentary authored by what Honderich describes as “so-called journalists.”
“There are some who rhapsodize this trend as a democratization of information, allowing one and all to participate in news gathering and commentary,” he said.
“They herald this trend as the welcome disarming of journalists as the gatekeepers of news and information. I do not share this view.
“This, to me, is not the stuff of serious print journalism,” he added.
Recently, the Sun Media and Canwest newspaper chains have announced staff cuts of 600 and 560 respectively. TorStar Corporation has also laid off dozens of staff from its Metroland Media Group division since December 2008.
Honderich pointed to three possible solutions to save the world’s true watchdogs:
- Not-for-profit newsrooms: Propublica, an independent, not-for-profit newsroom, works exclusively on “truly important stories … with moral force.” Every story is distributed to outlets across the United States.
- Grants for independent journalists: The Fund for Investigative Journalism awards grants to freelance reporters and authors for the publication of more than 700 stories and broadcasts and some 50 books.
- Community-funded reporting: Spot.us helps the public vote on and commission journalists to do investigations on important and overlooked stories.
But serious print journalism comes at a cost of resources and reporters, Honderich pointed out. Short-staffed newspapers simply can’t afford to pay for quality investigations.
During Honderich’s time as publisher of the Star, the newspaper helped uncover a seeming case of racial profiling in a much lauded investigation of the Toronto Police Department.
“It took fortitude, patience and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Honderich on the investigation. “Was it worth it? You bet. We nudged the world a little bit.”