‘Legacy media’s’ attitude problem

Notes from a panel at NASH 78

The 78th annual national Canadian University Press conference was business as usual in a number of ways. Once again, a student organization’s leaders were heralding the end times, and for good reason. Heading into the conference, CUP’s board was in shambles, and the state of affairs of the not-for-profit’s finances looked somewhat similar to those of other news-related organizations across Canada.

With this tone, the conversation that sprung up around first panel, “The Future of Legacy Media,” was appropriate. Consisting of Adrienne Batra, the editor of the noxious and reactionary tabloid The Toronto Sun, John Cruickshank, the publisher of the left-liberal activist Toronto Star, and John Stackhouse, a former editor at the stodgily Tory Globe and Mail turned banker, to call the panel uninspiring is an understatement.

Between Batra suggesting that aspiring journalists should be happy working as advertisers and Stackhouse predicting the collapse of the media industry from his comfortable position as a vice-president at the Royal Bank of Canada, there was more than enough about the event to drive delegates to drink.

As the event’s hashtag indicated, the favourite part of the panel for most of the attendee’s was hearing Cruickshank’s commitment to orienting the Star’s business model toward tablet users. Incredulous would probably best describe the attitude of the 20-somethings in the room when faced with this business decision. Those who have at the very least a begrudging respect for the last major paper in Canada with the budget and the willingness to actually conduct major investigative work were appropriately horrified.

The inanity of the panel cannot, however, be blamed on the conference organizers. While theoretically possible to realize that these prominent figures were disinclined to have a serious and public conversation about the possibility that their organizations will cease to exist in the near future, I think most people in that room expected something at least approaching analysis from them.

The question on my mind was “why bother saving legacy media at all?” If legacy media means the continuation of the sort of journalism that the Sun engages in, or full-page Lexus ads in the Globe and Mail, there isn’t much of value worth saving. What was worth saving about traditional media was the job stability and decent wages afforded to reporters and other workers. In the face of the annihilation of good media jobs, I will not be shedding tears for the remaining owners and senior editors as they turn the lights off in their newsrooms for the final time.

I’ve been fairly uncharitable to the panelists and their organizations in this article for a few reasons. One is that it is a cathartic exercise, badly needed after listening to wealthy, successful people chuckle about the fate of an entire industry made up of workers who will continue to lose their jobs. I don’t really believe “legacy media” is set to disappear anytime soon, but I do think that if we are not careful in attempting to build alternatives there will be a dangerous vacuum in the space national newspapers used to occupy, replaced instead by open racism and loud headlines for a committed subset of readers, half-decent reporting accessible only to tablet users, and sponsored content seen by everyone else.

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