Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The future as we know it...

Reader beware: Barbara's rant.

On Monday, the big Canadian headline was the news of a deal between two media giants that decimated the local print media in Canada, mainly in Ontario. Postmedia and TorStar made a deal to "swap" about four dozen newspapers in smaller cities that they had previously bought up, and immediately closed down three dozen of them, throwing hundreds of people out of their jobs and silencing the voices of local communities.

Print media has been under siege as the news industry goes digital and global companies gobble up more and more of the market. Media consolidation has been going on for years as newspapers try to cope with declining ad revenues and readership, with the result that citizens now have almost no choices when it comes to sources of news in their area. Those papers that have survived, usually by cannibalizing their competition, has been slashed to a fraction of their previous size and offer almost no local or "niche" news, opting instead to rerun "big-money" features generated by the powerful multinationals. For the art world, including books, this has had the devastating effect of reducing features and reviews about Canadian or lesser known creators and replacing them (if at all) with reviews on the latest blockbuster Hollywood movie or John Grisham novel. And if you don't think that influences our attitudes and buying habits, just consider the latest Globe and Mail top ten best selling crime books, which contained nine American male mega-authors, and one lone Canadian male (yay, Linwood!). No women at all.

In September, the Canadian government, after a lengthy review that recommended greater subsidies for print media, announced that it was not going to prop up failing business models, thus ensuring the further collapse of professional and local reporting. Although newspapers are a business and need cash to survive, they are much more than just a business; at their best they are a source of information on our democratic institutions, a watchdog of private industry, and a source of local community cohesion. Without the eagle eye of investigative reporting, both private and public institutions would have free rein to pursue their own interests with impunity, to the likely detriment of the public good. If the Canadian government is not prepared to "prop up" this failing business model, who is left to do that vital civic role? TV reporting, which delivers news in sound bytes and is engaged in a similar struggle for survival? Online news sources, which are popping up to fill the gap but which lack the funds to support professional investigative reporting?

The Globe and Mail, itself owned by yet another media giant, reported on this latest "swap and close" move yesterday, in an analysis worth reading. It made the following key point:

"The bigger challenge is that even large media companies are dwarfed by both the scale of digital giants such as Google and Facebook – and also by the amount of data those giants have on their users. The massive aggregation of people's personal information is a gold mine for those digital behemoths, because advertisers demand greater levels of detail to help them better target their ads."

Google and Facebook... our sources of information. What a comforting thought. We know that both target not just their advertising but also their information articles to our particular interests. So increasingly we will end up in echo chambers of our own views, with thousands of articles flung at us willy nilly with no ranking as to their professionalism, objectivity, or indeed veracity. Certainly not the way to ensure the informed and discerning citizenry needed to maintain democracy.

To these two digital behemoths I would add a third – Amazon, the online giant that is driving many smaller competitors out of business. Vertical and horizontal monopolies are alive and well in the digital world. Choice and diversity of opinion are on the chopping block all across the business world, all in the pursuit of financial greed, or as they claim, survival. Many educational institutions in Canada have decided they no longer have to pay Canadian authors for copying their work, because it costs too much. Similar violations of copyright are occurring in other countries. Publishing houses are consolidating into a small group of multinationals, gobbling up national and regional houses, culling authors who are not huge money-makers and cutting the advances of those they keep. The result is fewer authors, fewer unique books and voices, and more books targeted to "the masses". Artists in all disciplines are struggling to make any kind of living wage, and while a few make millions, most make peanuts. Before he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's richest literary prize, Michael Redhill reportedly had $411 in his bank account. Michael Redhill is an established poet, playwright, and novelist with an impressive list of publications.

The decline in number and choice of books and newspapers should alarm us all. As information becomes more controlled in the hands of a few, and more difficult to find and evaluate even if we go searching for it, informed voting will become endangered and the critical thinking, diversity and tolerance of our society will be eroded. "Fake news" has already become the proud rallying cry of the ill-informed.

It's easy to blame the greed of faceless corporations, but we must also look in the mirror. How many of us check out the wares in local stores and then buy them on Amazon because they're cheaper? How many download music, books, newspapers, and TV shows from "free" or pirated sites, often bragging about how we never pay? How many of us shop at discount stores to buy cheap goods from developing countries with dismal environmental and labour standards, including forced or slave labour, thus driving local manufacturing out of business?

It costs money – our money – to maintain the society we have built. We need to think of the local businesses who create jobs and pay taxes in the community before we buy that $5 pair of leather gloves at XMart. We need to think of the local creators before copying or pirating their work. If we don't support them, they will not be able to continue. Our loss.

So as we all go about our holiday shopping this year, consider the small businesses who depend on our support. And if you're Canadian, buy a book from a Canadian author. There are many excellent ones, probably by authors you've never heard of. Crime Writers of Canada is a good place to start!


Rick Blechta said...

Spot on assessment! Thanks.

Type M for Murder said...

Great post. Sad to see that what happens in the US also happens to Canada.

Unknown said...

I wish you would send in this article to various news agencies to print, Barbara. Maclean's for a start.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Very well said!