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05 February, 2016

WILL NEWS STILL BE NEWS IN THE ESCALATING DIGITAL AGE?

Burnt out, conflicted and suffering from acute anxiety, I walked away from a 20-year newspaper career in 1979, leaving behind my first and only vocational love -- the news room.  As I cleared out my Brampton Daily Times managing editor's office in the wee small hours of the morning for the last time, I sobbed uncontrollably. Divorce is never easy, regardless of the circumstances.

Out of a sense of self-preservation I became a quitter with a history.  Place me in an uncompromising stressful situation, outside of marital relations, and I look for an exit...Life is too short, I tell myself to this day. I have always had confidence in the ability of rediscovery, which may have been a lone saving grace in ensuing years.  Having obtained certain marketable skills in newspapering, I re-surfaced in a "media" relations capacity with the general insurance industry in Canada.  I did not skip a beat. In fact I gained certain financial stability.  In retrospect, I was a lucky fish out of water!

I have the utmost admiration for individuals who have the necessary sticktoitevness and toughness to stay the course in any line of endeavor and regret that I have not always been able to emulate that characteristic.  I am not as tough as I would like to appear on the surface.  Life in an insular, often unorthodox and unpredictable world of bipolarism, with associated deprivations, is like that.  I managed to survive and went on to experience at least two other career metamorphosis all the while clinging to the fringes of print journalism with a degree of qualification.

After all these years, I continue to contribute marginally as a free-lance writer/commentator and self-publisher with a preclusion to mourn the demise of news gathering as I once knew it.

Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar, with a 40-year background in newspaper writing, admirably tells 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," she explains.

"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 winner of two national newspaper awards adds. "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."

Journalists are indeed the eyes and ears of the public. They are in places that people on the street cannot be, posing questions the average person can’t ask, exposing wrongdoing they can’t see. News reporters listen to marginalized people and put a spotlight on individuals and groups fighting for change. they check out claims that do not sound quite right, chase down tips. The need to know is part of the DNA.

Others do it too, of course -- upstart bloggers, citizen journalists, online activists, freelancers and digital journalists who work for online magazines, newsletters, niche publications or Internet companies such as BuzFeed and Vice News that are cropping up almost over night. Some of them are more technologically agile and 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. But for the time being they are having an enormous impact.

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. As Carol so readily points out: "The majority of them build on reporting newspapers have already done."

Her 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."

She still believes, however, that 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."

In the twilight of her career, Carol knows that she will not play much of a part in journalism’s next chapter. But she hopes 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 her.

I remember when Carol started in the business and I bow totally to her ilk today...Unlike me, she is one who has had the fortitude to stay the course in a demanding media environment that has never been known to over compensate its members. She is of the old school and knows whereof she speaks. She, and others of her vintage, will ultimately walk away with heads held high, knowing that they were part of an honorable and colorful era of Canadian newspaper history that will never be duplicated.

Sad, but true!

Carol Goar has been a member of the Toronto Star's editorial board since 1997 and was editor of the editorial pages from 1998 to 2002. Since then she has written a column focusing on politics and social policy. She’s also won two National Newspaper Awards and was recently the recipient of the CMHA's Ontario Mental Health Media Award.  Prior to joining the Star, Goar worked for Macleans, the Ottawa Citizen and Canadian Press.

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