Into an uncertain future

Dr. Richard Thatcher

Guest Columnist

The recently announced death of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald is a significant loss to the longstanding family of Saskatchewan press and news media outlets.

The upcoming December closure of a local urban paper, serving that community since 1889, is an ominous flag signalling the rapidly accelerating extinction of various forms of traditional print and electronic media communications. It is surely time to give the people of the province a hand in shaping this trend.

As an analogy to reflect on this concern, consider the fate in the last several decades of small businesses in Saskatchewan’s cities — and the resulting displacement of a knowledgeable and skilled work force in the retail sector. A similar fate could be waiting for print and media news.

To make my point on a personal level, just ask a clerk at Lowes or Rona where they keep their roto-rooters or set square, or a clerk at a large chain drug store where they keep bottled foam bath. Hint: don’t hold your breath.

It is hardly news that big-box stores, chains and identically designed franchise outlets networked across the country have together transformed the very nature of contemporary communities —and they have done so with little, if any, public challenge. All too often our politicians virtually invite such change in the name of short-term economic development, or we sit idly by while good things, including variety and locally customized products, are eliminated and replaced by goods of lesser quality, diminished variety and the obscenity of built-in obsolescence. We’ll do well to remember the meaning of songstress Joni Mitchell’s reference to paved parking lots.

By even the most basic standards of decent human sentiment, the loss of the Times-Herald and the upcoming fortunes of dismissed staff and their families deserve our sympathy.

Given the importance of a free press to our fundamental mix of institutions essential to democracy, public concern and action should stretch way beyond these sentiments. For the paper’s closure is part of a fast-rolling train careening downhill and carrying an extremely important, core load. How big a threat are these trends to the fundamentals of democracy?

Well, just consider the last federal election south of the border to realize how electronic media, left completely to the whims of the marketplace and overwhelmed by unfiltered and un-fact-checked info-spewings, can contribute significantly to such disastrous outcomes.

Concerns about press and media downgrading are further flagged by the predicable deaths of several other Saskatchewan newspapers. Consider the accelerating financial pressure in recent years on independent owners to close down or to consolidate rural weeklies. Without city and small town newspapers and their online coverage, where will locals or former residents readily find up-to-date reference to local news, opinion, events, merchandise advertising or postings for business, agriculture, equipment, land and housing sales, as well as charitable events and recreational opportunities and schedules?

The usual answer will be, “Don’t worry. It will eventually be on the Internet.” But, just as the elimination of daily newspapers in the province, the death several years ago of SCN, and the downsizing of CBC in recent years, much will predictably be lost permanently if these changes are not monitored and regulated in some way.

With the aid of electronic communications technology, corporate press and media businesses and even the CBC have gradually dismantled much of what was valuable in traditional journalism and broadcasting in this region. We have seen less regional and local reporting, critical analysis, and investigative journalism. Further losses can be expected. Localized event postings and coverage are also at risk.

Admittedly, this is not just a Saskatchewan phenomenon; it is Canadian and even North American generally, but maybe our province can model an alternative for fighting back. We can innovate and lead in this matter here, as the history of medicare clearly suggests.

I don’t know about you, but it galls me to have talking heads/reporters from Toronto telling us about scores in the SJHL and to lose reporting on highly localized sports (e.g. your kid’s baseball or hockey divisional victory). And consider the major losses that will inevitably come in coverage of municipal city council decision-making, the long-underdeveloped, independent journalism covering Indigenous affairs, and reportage of major arts and voluntary events in small communities.

Complaints about the quality of mainstream news in Saskatchewan have long been levied and many of them are surely justified. Thus, an argument for a thorough review — like an environmental assessment — of the status of news and print media offerings in the province is warranted, even without concerns about long-term trends. These long-term trends are a present and immediate danger to the quality of our local and regional knowledge and thus, to the functioning of our democratic underpinnings.

Much could be gained from a thorough review, followed by a substantial upgrade of the state of journalism in the province.

Despite the almost routine criticism that so readily dismisses the quality of existing news reporting and opinions in this province, it could be a lot worse. Consider the fact that the quality of professional journalism has improved substantially in recent years — and, yes, much will in fact be lost if current press and media shrinkage continues. In quality terms, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia references cannot compete with the outputs of trained journalists in the realm of thoughtful, thorough and fact-checked news analysis and information dissemination.

Consider the fact that, provincially, we are down to a handful of people undertaking skilled investigative journalism. That’s a problem. Where would public awareness of the GTH be without the work of CBC’s Jeff Leo? Surely we need far more of such investigative work, not less. Current trends do not look good on that front.

And don’t forget, older and low-income people who do not have the advantage of online knowledge are the biggest losers as this trend continues unchallenged.

Surely it is time to give serious consideration to a redesigned alternative, stable, made-in-Saskatchewan infrastructure for ensuring that a high quality of Saskatchewan news is on offer, preserved and enhanced long into the future.

In Part II of this column, I will offer some suggestions for how to proceed.

Dr. Thatcher is a retired sociologist, policy analyst and freelance journalist living in Craven and Candle Lake.