A decade ago, media companies were fat and so was their sense of entitlement. Newspapers and broadcasters were flourishing and to them, the Internet was an untapped lode, ready to be exploited. Convergence would add greater rewards, leading to unprecedented profitability. Business plans were bullet proof, or so the investors believed. Except reality proved different. There was no divine right of extravagant profits. Acquisition costs were extreme, savings from consolidation ephemeral, Internet revenue streams elusive.
Craigslist unexpectedly proved a web phenomenon; some characterized it an assassin of newspapers. With business lost to websites specialized in employment, automobiles and real estate, billions of easy advertising dollars disappeared from the print world. Lower revenue led to blander content, with investigative and analytical resources cut severely. Newspapers no longer set the agenda for public discussion.
Together, emergence of the Internet and decline of content meant that newspapers were no longer indispensable. Investor Warren Buffet says their pricing power was based on being essential and they were only essential to advertisers as long as they were essential to readers. Erosion set in rapidly, affecting even the largest publishers. Buffet says, “They have the possibility of going to unending losses.”
New Yorker Jimmy Breslin once wrote, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.” Given its present troubled state, the newspaper industry seldom takes chances. In all but a few corners, there is little commitment to discovery, no interest in hard targets, limited passion and certainly, no rage.
A few journalists in British Columbia’s major media could turn in their jerseys and take seats on the bench. These are the tired ones, people able to report only fully revealed stories, unwilling to step outside comfortable limits of polite inquiry. Investigative reporting is not dead everywhere but, in British Columbia’s print and broadcast outlets, it is moribund. This is caused largely, but not entirely, by financial pressures. Some journalists, have simply grown indifferent.
On Bill Good’s July 10 show, a caller said he thinks the Liberals have been getting a free ride from the media in BC and that issues such as BC Rail have not been investigated fully. As before, that comment brought a defensive reaction that suggested the newsmen were bewildered:
It’s difficult to report because all that’s out there right now are things that are said in court by the defence, who make allegations, make statements based on we don’t know what and there is nothing to really hang your hat on other than suspicions of what may or may not be true. The prosecution doesn’t say anything. The police don’t say anything. So you’ve got these things that are sort of unwinding in court without much detail behind it.
. . . The problem is that when it’s in front of a judge who’s making decisions on something like this, everybody takes the position, correctly from a lot of lawyers points of view, that until the judge rules and makes some rulings on various aspects of that case, there’s not very much for anyone to say or to even have the need to say anything. This is the problem that many reporters have. Where do you go on something like that?
I do not expect this journalist to win a 2009 Michener Award for outstanding public service.