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Panellists point to an unsettling but hopeful future for media

  • Cam Buchan
  • |
  • May 14, 2020
Panellists point to an unsettling but hopeful future for media

Today’s media outlets could face an unsettling future of “clever little rodents” who will run rings around them. Yet despite the challenges, a passion exists among students entering journalism to make a difference, backed by an abundance of innovation in the industry.

In a wide-ranging talk, moderated by Ivey Academy Executive Director Mark Healy, media professionals discussed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on media and its captive audience for a complimentary webinar called Trusted Sources: Responsible Media in the Viral World, hosted by The Ivey Academy. Guests were Canadian political journalist Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Troy Reeb, Executive Vice President, Broadcast Networks of Corus Entertainment, and Paul Wells of Maclean’s.

Wells – Clever little rodents

“I believe there are the clever little rodents of the dinosaur age, small startups, people we haven’t yet heard of, who are just going to run rings around us. And a lot of them with a conception of what journalism is that most long-time journalists find repugnant, barely disguised lies, harsh partisanship, preaching to the converted… that’s just going to be around.”

Delacourt – Theatre on TV

“I actually don’t mind the idea that paper journalism goes away. I actually thought that, during this pandemic, delivering something tactile to people’s doors doesn’t seem like a smart idea, and that we get our minds around the idea of digital journalism. I always compare it to when TV first came along; it was all about putting on shows on stage because people were thinking theatre had turned into TV. And I still think we’re in a stage where we think the internet has to look like the newspaper online.”

Reeb – A transparent future

“As much as some of us in the mass media would wish these highly-partisan, barely truth-telling media outlets would go away… that’s not going to happen unless someone is prepared to crack down on free speech and the Internet, which I think would be alarming for all. So, we have to acknowledge that they’re here to stay. If there is a role for regulators or government, it’s in requiring more transparency.” 

Advertising pressure

While media outlets have experienced an increase in audience numbers throughout the pandemic, for businesses, closings have meant very little advertising.

“Right now, businesses are closed,” said Reeb. “Traditional advertisers are trying to protect their cash. I just saw numbers from the radio sector, which are absolutely jaw-dropping at the level of revenues that have disappeared from private radio stations in Canada.”

Advertising as media’s main source of revenues is under tremendous duress right now, even at a time when it is most needed, said Reeb.

“I think it’s an open secret that newspapers, even before this pandemic, were trying to adjust the business model from ‘paint by advertisers,’ to ‘paint by subscribers,’” said Delacourt. “We need people to pay for news, which is not something that people have grown accustomed to. We need people to recognize that there is a cost to doing journalism, and getting the journalism they want.”

Delacourt said the pandemic has shown weaknesses in the business, but the strength in the need for the public service element of business.

Wells added: “It was already a very difficult time in news media in the country. It has gotten like an order of magnitude more complex as a business proposition for our owners. As practitioners, we don't have to worry about that all the time, but we're always aware that our organizations are on shaky footing.”

While panellists agreed that media still perform an important public service, the traditional model of local news supported by the more profitable parts of the business, doesn’t work anymore.

“So the economics of the model for the longest time, when there was a scarcity of delivery systems of media, really supported this: Build your trust around the public service piece, and then use that to make profit in the other parts of your business, and that's all been disintermediated,” said Reeb. “And that's the fundamental challenge of media, is that it still clings to the idea – and it's an important ideal – that we are providing a public service, but our ability to then convert that public service mandate into any meaningful dollars, has been blown apart by the internet.”

Government support

The highly problematic idea of government support for news media was an anathema to the panellists, but redirecting revenues from Google, Facebook, and from foreign media companies entering the market who pay no taxes has increased the conversation about how to level the playing field. 

One example is an article in The New York Times on how Australia is forcing these media giants to compensate local media outlets.

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist, has talked about this idea, “that they’re getting away with murder. So I think there is a whole bunch of knots tied up in this conversation about state sponsorship of media,” said Delacourt.

A time for reinvention

“I still think we’re in a stage where we think the internet has to look like the newspaper online. We haven’t totally got our minds around that yet,” Delacourt said about the future. “But I do think, in my optimistic days when I think that I’ll still have a job by the end of this year, I think that this could be a time for reinvention.”

Wells spoke about the opportunity for excellent journalism in this time.

“What I keep reminding myself, try to remind colleagues is, whenever you retire, whenever you look back on your career, these are going to be the greatest moments of your life. So what are you doing today to measure up to that challenge?”

Reeb spoke about the role of government in requiring more transparency in the financing and operation of media outlets. But his conclusion was optimistic.

“I speak before a lot of journalism classes every year, and I'm sure Susan and Paul do as well,” Reeb said. “The amount of passion that continues to exist in young people to enter this industry, to make a difference, to be able to be truth-tellers to promote accountability is incredible. And the amount of innovation that continues to happen on a yearly basis is incredible.”