“There’s a market for significant and high-quality local information, ” Jeff Dvorkin says (photo by Ken Jones)

Plant closures and newsroom layoffs: Jeff Dvorkin on the week in Canadian media

First came the announcement the Toronto Star would be shuttering its printing plant in Vaughan, cutting some editorial jobs in the process. Then Postmedia announced it was merging news rooms in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. 

Jeffrey Dvorkin, a lecturer and director of the journalism program at U of T Scarborough, has been the ombudsman for America Abroad Media and National Public Radio, a managing editor and chief journalist at CBC Radio and vice-president of news and information at NPR.

He spoke with writer Don Campbell about what these cuts mean to the health of journalism in Canada.

Along with printing staff, some editorial staff in the Star’s tablet division are being laid off. Does this indicate a tempering of expectations in terms of what digital content can bring in?  
It’s difficult to tell. The Star is taking what’s going on at La Presse in Montreal as a model; La Presse has now pretty much gone full tablet and is only publishing one edition a week on Saturday. However, the markets are really quite different. La Presse has a captive linguistic market whereas the Star does not. 

We’ll see how well the Star does with their plan. They’ve certainly invested heavily in terms of time and resources into the Star touch product. 

Will advertising continue to be key in the transition from print to digital?
Yes, and the advertising transition is happening slowly. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, wrote about something he calls Rusbridger’s Cross: essentially, as print advertising revenue declines there needs to be an increase in online advertising revenue and at some point the two will intersect. 

This hasn’t happened yet, although the New York Times has been very successful and is making quite a bit of money through online revenue. A big part of the reason is that the content produced by the Times is outstanding. 

That seems to be the crux of the issue; are newspapers providing readers with indispensable information that citizens need? In some instances they are, while in other instances it’s simply not the case. 

Yesterday, Postmedia announced the merger of newsrooms in four Canadian cities. What does this mean for their ability to cover the news?
It certainly has a lot of symbolic value. Postmedia is the largest newspaper chain in the country, so the consequences of the layoff are pretty significant. It’s also an indication of convergence in the media, which in the past may have resulted in some savings but has not resulted in better journalism. 

That’s a concern. If a newspaper had two or three reporters assigned to municipal politics or city hall they wouldn’t all just be going after Rob Ford, which is what happened when Ford was the mayor. The “Ford Follies” was over-covered because these newspapers are understaffed and only paying attention to one particular story. 

Even the CBC, which has gone through its own convergence issues, ended up covering Rob Ford like a blanket when in fact there were other stories that were of great importance that were outright ignored because Ford made for such easy copy. 

Newspaper reporters are far more visible now on other mediums. Will we see more of this?
It’s true. There are fewer reporters and there’s more pack journalism which is essentially reporters all chasing after the same stories. In addition to being obliged to cover a story for one medium, these reporters need to be on two, sometimes three, platforms including social media. If a reporter has more than a couple of hours to dedicate to a story that’s considered a luxury. 

I don’t want to start moaning about how much better it was in the pre-digital age because that time has passed and we’re never going back, but there is a downside to the digital culture and that’s a general thinness of context. There’s a predisposition to cover the journalistic low-hanging fruit, which is weather, traffic and crime. 

These three subjects are entirely sourced through the government. That’s why we’re seeing that type of journalism more often than long-form investigative reporting. Long-form is still being done, but it’s not being done in the way it could be. 

Can Canadian newspapers cope with an increasingly competitive and shrinking marketplace while delivering effective journalism? 
There’s a good case example where three American newspapers in mid-size markets, one in California, one in the mid-west and one in the south, decided they would invest more heavily in digital but do it in a way that was intensively local. They discovered that there’s a market for significant and high-quality local information. 

These papers were not doing all the stories they once did if they could get it from a syndicated wire service, but instead focused on stories that really affected their community – and suddenly found out they were making money with a pay wall. The combination of a pay wall and important, quality information seem to be a pattern of success for those markets. Would that work everywhere? I don’t know, but it would certainly be worth considering rather than going after the low-hanging fruit.

Why is it important that these outlets adapt?
For all that’s said about them, newspapers and the reporters who work for them are the single most reliable source of information for other media platforms, at least locally. There was a study in Baltimore that found 80 per cent of news content on the Internet, blogosphere, radio and television relating to Baltimore originated from the Baltimore Sun. It was the single most important source of information for these other platforms. So if there are continued cuts to newspaper staff will the quality of journalism in these other mediums be affected? Absolutely it will.

But it also speaks to media convergence. If news media have to continue relying on smaller staff and continue to insist on entertaining their audiences rather than informing them, in the long run people will go elsewhere for their information.

If they continue to rely on so-called click-bait and other content meant to drive web traffic only instead of covering the news, I think they will be do so at their own peril.   

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