In the weeks since the latest, deep, round of Postmedia cuts, some journalists who still have jobs have written thoughtfully about the state of Canadian media. In amongst it all, an interesting idea popped up. In the Globe and Mail, via Lawrence Martin, it went like this: “If traditional print journalism cannot be sustained, what fills the void? Is there a larger role for the public sector? In Nordic countries, subsidies extend not only to journalism but to print as well – and with apparently good results.”
In the Toronto Star: “The federal and subnational governments have a role to play in funding non-profit trusts… should any of the country’s 100-plus daily newspapers hit the wall.”
At iPolitics: “Ottawa could follow Europe’s lead and even-handedly subsidize newspapers. It’s a modern version of the long-standing federal policy of subsidizing of postal rates for Canadian magazines, intended to ensure Canadians have access to diverse media voices.”
The idea had its immediate detractors.
At the National Post, Terence Corcoran provided cautioned against emulating those Nordic countries. The result of this policy in Sweden, Corcoran wrote, “is a warped newspaper market, including an abundance of local newspapers that critics say act as boosters of local politicians and Sweden’s numerous political parties rather than as critical sources of journalism.”
At the Sun, Lorne Gunter suggested that “government committees that would oversee grants to papers aren’t likely to censor newspaper content directly… but once newspapers come to rely on tax funds to keep the doors open, they will become vulnerable to indirect government pressure to avoid uncomfortable opinions.”
So, okay, these are all fine reasons for and against, but there is a much deeper underlying quandary that seems worth getting at here.
Were the government to signal that it would consider subsidies for newspapers, it might first want to know what it’s investing in – specifically, what it is, exactly, that has caused newspapers (and not just Canadian ones) to fail, quite apart from revenue problems. Because the weird thing is that by the time it found the answer to that question, the government might end up wondering whether it, too, could soon fail.
The underlying idea behind all these columns either suggesting (in whole or in part) or negating the idea of a government-subsidized journalism sector and/or of newspapers is the theory that journalism as we know it is still important for a healthy democracy. This is the very reason why, beyond suggesting that governments subsidize journalism, Martin suggests there ought to be a full-blown public inquiry into the whole thing (!). But is that true? It seems like it should be. How else does democracy operate properly unless there is a strong voice of transparency and truth?
While it’s still probably true that democracy can only function to its fullest with a robust journalism sector, it’s not still true that journalism is important to democracy in the same way it always has been. Things are different now because we are different now. Our relationship to government and power structures has changed.
“The age-old theoretical problem of how consent to be governed by a political authority arises is being turned on its head. In the historical framework of social contract theory, the presumed default position is that of a legal opt-out. There is some kind… of original consent, allegedly given…by any individual subject to the political state, to be governed by the latter and its laws,” writes Luciano Floridi in The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. In the new context, “the expected default position is that of a social opt-in, which is exercised whenever the agent subjects itself to the political multi-agent system conditionally, for a specific purpose.”
In other words, whereas before our present day, you could of course not pay attention to the news, your participation in the system was more or less assumed for a variety of reasons. And that agency was important, whether you used it or not. People fought for that assumed participation. Now, we still have political agency (ie. the ability to vote), but if we don’t choose to exercise it, there are now alternatives that can, in some cases, produce similar results. This is why petitions or GoFundMe campaigns are popular – it’s not necessarily because we have a ‘slacktivist’ generation, it’s because participation in the system is seen in a different way, as a citizen-consumer choice.
A shift in that relationship seems important because journalism, in part, is about getting the kind of results that don’t come simply by voting. Newspapers have, in the past, affected change and brought attention to issues, and they still do. To put it crudely, they were activists before there were activists, in a sense. In any case, the point is that to do that work took time – often lots of it. Now, a call for change happens much quicker. The results (legislative change, an official stepping down – whatever) might still take time, but the impetus is just as likely to be based on a single moment of trouble or strife as it is to be based on a methodical assessment or investigation.
That shift to the instantaneous (or, at least, the very, very quick) has taken over journalism, too, as it tries to keep up with this very fundamental shift. That’s no secret.
We can see this kind of thing occurring in our “hot-take” environment, for example, where an instant explainer is meant to clarify everything from the start. There is no slow build to a climax, followed by a denouement anymore. It’s not about the horizontal, but the vertical.
Hello, I am a #hottake
Journalists, editors, and corporate media CEOs all know this is happening, they are just trying to keep up, posting what they can online to gather engagement and clicks. But in doing so, news organizations (and newspapers, in their move online) haven’t just been undermining their business models, they’ve been helping to do what the rest of the internet, and an increasingly networked society, are also doing: undermining narrative.
“Our digital devices and the outlooks they inspired allowed us to break free of the often repressive timelines of our storytellers, turning us from creatures led about by future expectations into more full present-oriented human beings,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. “The actual experience of this now-ness, however, is a bit more distracted, peripheral, even schizophrenic than that of being fully present.”
Look at any news website and you’ll see this in the insta-analysis and the #hottakes. Everything is immediate, designed for maximum eyeballs all at once. What else is a viral event but a spike in traffic, forcing the totals to jump upwards suddenly? Then we move on, bouncing from one thing to the next, never forming a linear trajectory. And this constant now-ness is also important to journalism for another reason: it raises issues of identity – fundamental questions about where we fit in the world, and how we relate to it.
Along the way to being plugged in at all times, constantly notified and updated by a mobile device, we have lost a certain sense of autonomy. When you step into an Uber, for example, you are not an anonymous person getting into a taxi cab – another unknown face blending into the city, free to do as you please – you are a number, a node in a larger network of connected people and connected cars. You are you, but you are not just you. Similarly, the assumption that the Edward Snowden revelations were not affective because we’re used to sharing our personal information misses the point; the point is that no information belongs to us in the first place – we have no ownership over our identity.
This would seem to go against the idea that a social media site like Facebook or Twitter allows us now to construct whatever identity we please, but while both let us be a certain abstraction of ourselves, at a more simplistic level, their incessant updating – the constant refreshing – works again to destroy our sense of a timeline. Ironically, Facebook actually has something called a “timeline” but that’s not really what it is. It has no past or future. Things that have been posted two minutes ago appear right above or below something that appeared 20 minutes or two hours or two days ago. Snapchat messages disappear within seconds, existing purely in the now. Twitter is working on a way to get rid of messages appearing in chronological order – another deconstruction of our sense of narrative.
What becomes clear is that the key to all of this is time, and how we think of it.
“Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative,” Rushkoff wrote. “The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information.”
This living without context leads to some odd occurrences as we fumble about, not for our history, but (to paraphrase Baudrillard) to remember a time when we had a history. Or, put more simply by McLuhan: “One of the big parts of the loss of identity is nostalgia. And so there are revivals on all hands, in every phase of life today, revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, everything.” This is how we end up with Seinfeld- and Friends-themed cafes opening in Toronto, or Full House and the X-Files returning to television, nearly a full generation after those shows left the airways. It’s how we end up with constant revivals of movie franchises, and listicle quizzes about being an 80s kid, and perhaps even why so many are captivated by the promise to make a nation great again.
What was our great societal marker of time? What do we save in boxes in the basement? What was it that Marty McFly grabbed in his hands in both the past and the future when he needed to confirm not just the date and location, but his existence? Not a calendar, but a newspaper.*
Newspapers have always been about more than what was going on in our city or our country. They have always been about more than information and identity. They have always been about all of those things, but more fundamentally, they are about time. The excuse used now to explain why newspapers are dying is that people don’t have the time to read them because everything is happening too quickly. That’s probably true, but maybe not the entirety of it. In the world of now that we are currently constructing, there is no reason for a newspaper to exit. It is literally the builder of a horizontal narrative; it is a marker of time – something else that no longer exists the way it once did.
The interesting thing about the arguments for and against government subsidizing journalism is that they assume the two are not in this together already. Not in a coercive way, but in that the challenge they both face is to bring a narrative to people’s lives, to essentially recreate time.
That’s a weird thing to say. So, let’s put it more simply: the problems journalism is having are coming for politics – and soon. In fact, they may already be here.
“We thought of forms of direct democracy as complementary options for forms of representative democracy. It was going to be a world of ‘politics always-on’,” Floridi writes. “The reality is that direct democracy has turned into a mass-media-led democracy, in the… sense of new social media. In such digital democracies, distributed groups, temporary and timely aggregated around shared interests, have multiplied and become sources of influence external to the state. Citizens vote for their representatives but can constantly influence them via opinion polls almost in real time. Consensus-building has become a constant concern based on synchronic information.”
It is difficult to make sense of the world and where you fit in it on your own, one viral story at a time, one notification to another. Gradually, a weird thing happens to our perception of institutions like newspapers. Not only do they feel irrelevant, but also not reflective of the moment-to-moment world we experience. They become unknown, and un-trustworthy. So we theorize on our own, and connect this random thing this second to that random thing the other. We know only ourselves – me, a singular node, existing apart from you, another singular node. We feel there is still a greater truth – we can see it in blips here and there – but we can never quite get to it, as if it exists on another dimensional plane, like seeing things only in 2-D.
How do you govern this society of disconnected, conspiracy-theorizing, time-less singular beings for whom identity is fluid, if existent at all? The state, as we know it, assumes we believe in common things, a common story. What happens when that starts to break down, when we lose that narrative? Or when the instant opt-in, rather than sustained interest, is the dominant form of engagement? It’s not just business models that are undermined, probably.
A government endeavour to investigate the realities of journalism subsidies might be beneficial. The issue of failing media has been approached with the idea that the success of journalism is a public policy question; as it turns out, it might be that the success of public policy is a journalism question.
* I think it’s been largely unexplored in the 2015 Back to the Future hype (I might be wrong), but probably the most futuristic thing in those movies was the real-time updating of a newspaper. More fitting, maybe, that the newspaper changed because the timeline did… but anyway.