Discover more from Paul Wells
Went down to the crossroads
The End of Media, Chapter 1: How it used to be
I’ve been preoccupied lately with the decline of two sectors this newsletter watches closely: media and government.
Every week brings word of some new catastrophe in the industry I used to inhabit, the industry of large news-gathering organizations. Revenues and market penetration have been in free-fall for so long that you’d think free-fall would have gotten old by now. And yet it continues. This month Bell Media showed that the abrupt dismissal of Lisa LaFlamme in June 2022 was merely proof of concept. The telecoms giant cut 1,300 more jobs a year later, without apparent regard to anyone’s hair colour, and is asking for regulator permission to keep going. Management turmoil is the order of the day at beleaguered Postmedia and (a close cousin to the news business) beleaguered Indigo. My alma mater, The Gazette in Montreal, is not doing well. Torstar’s had a hell of a year. I could go on. There is no shortage of examples. A new one broke while I was writing this.
Meanwhile governments are becoming worse at communicating, even as they become more obsessed with communications. Or rather, they’re getting better at saying less. The federal access-to-information regime is a sad joke. Ministers’ answers in news conferences and in Parliament are often empty slogans. They face triple, triple triple the inanity across the aisle. Political leaders pare back the number of questions they will tolerate when they bother to take any.
The sharply circumscribed limits on real communication seem to pop up well beyond the interface between reporters and the government. When two Globe reporters asked about a government contract with Irving Shipbuilding, the government alerted the company. When staffers thought a story contained errors, they asked Facebook and Twitter to delete it.
And the defensive crouch that characterizes so much of the way governments interact with the world seems to have corroded governments’ ability to communicate even intra muros. Ministers keep finding out about goings-on in their departments only when they become embarrassing headlines.
Nor do these trends seem much affected by governments’ partisan stripe. In Ottawa, the opposition leader’s relationship with news organizations is tense at best and sometimes worse than that. And as with the Trudeau cabinet, the Conservative caucus apparently has problems with its internal communications.
So far I’ve been engaging in two kinds of shop talk, sharing the complaints of the media bubble and of the Ottawa bubble in turn. But you don’t have to live in Ottawa to feel some of what I’m describing.
A sense that modern communications doesn’t communicate. That it’s massively unidirectional: it’s a mechanism for sending message but not for hearing people. That even as the number of people employed in “public relations” skyrockets, our public relations — the extent to which we get along and feel heard and understood, the health of our democratic life — stagnates or collapses.
I’ve been thinking about all this so much that it’s probably time to share some of my thoughts with you. This is the first in a series of connected essays that will stretch across the next several days in this newsletter. I’m calling it The End of Media.
The last word in that title is precisely chosen. I know this will sound like navel-gazing. But I think the decline in news organizations’ fortunes and the decline in the quality of our democratic life are connected.
It’s not a causal link. I don’t think our democratic life is unsatisfying because Big Media has been cast out from the heavens. And I certainly don’t think the remedy for our ills is to support absolutely any harebrained policy that would put the largest and oldest news organizations on life support. Surely by now it’s becoming obvious that such policies are futile. I’ve believed for years that they’d be wrong-headed even if they worked.
Rather, I think the decline in our industrial communications and the decline in our democratic give-and-take are two effects of a third cause, which of course is the rise of the internet and social media. You used to need people like me to tell you what was going on. Now you don’t.
Economists have a word for this sort of change: disintermediation, the removal of intermediaries. Or of media. The elimination of gatekeepers, to borrow a loaded term. As the tech-bro philosopher Balaji Srinivasan wrote in an odd little book that finally gave me a word for what I’ve been observing all my adult life:
“[T]he internet connects people peer-to-peer. It disintermediates. In doing this it removes the middleman, the mediator, the moderator, and the mediocrity. Of course, each of these words has a different connotation. People are happy to see the middleman and mediocrity go, but they don’t necessarily want to see the moderator and mediator disappear. Nevertheless, at least at first, when the internet enters an arena, once the Network Leviathan rears its head, this is what happens. Nodes that had never met before, could never have met before, now connect peer-to-peer.”
My goal over the next several posts will be to examine what happens to our communications, and therefore to our polity, when everyone can communicate for themselves. But first it’s worth remembering what it used to be like, before the media were disintermediated, when the gatekeepers still had gates to keep.
The main point of this stroll down memory lane will be to point out that the pre-internet era was an aberration too, a genuinely odd confluence of forces that turbo-charged big news organizations’ ability to dominate democratic conversations.
It couldn’t last. I’m not sure we’d go back if we could. It can’t be replicated with simplistic policy band-aids. And if our leaders were honest with themselves, they would admit they wouldn’t go back if they could.
Seven of my last 10 posts were free to all subscribers. This one, and the others in this series, will be paywalled, for a couple of reasons. First, because I want to reassure my paying subscribers that they were in fact paying for a higher tier of access and content. Second, because I’m putting everything I know into this series, and I’m here to tell you, it feels like work. I’m grateful for everyone’s attention and support. You make me want to do my best work. Two-thirds of the words in this 3,000-word post lie below this paywall.
Life at the corner of Knowledge and Commerce
When I started working at the Montreal Gazette in a previous century, for many Montreal families the largest physical object that would enter their homes in most weeks was the Saturday edition of The Gazette or La Presse.
The weekend editions of big newspapers were physically imposing objects, a few pounds in weight, hundreds of pages thick. This was only partly because we were publishing more news back then, though we certainly were. The Gazette had three journalists in Ottawa and two in Quebec City, full-time day-shift and night-shift police reporters, reporters assigned full-time to the city’s courthouse. Regional bureaus in Laval, the South Shore and the West Island. Staff writers to cover dance, classical music, food and theatre. A fashion editor who reasonably expected to be in Paris every year for Fashion Week. A books editor, a cars columnist, a large team of photographers. One of the best-loved writers on staff, a guy I miss, devoted his days to writing reviews of movies, mostly from Hollywood, on what then seemed the reasonable assumption that Montrealers’ reactions to the latest from Joe Pesci or Whoopi Goldberg would be distinctive enough that it was worthwhile keeping a local film critic on staff.
But it wasn’t the news that made the paper heavy. It was the ads. Five or six or eight sections’ worth, plus glossy magazine-style flyers that would drop out onto the floor. Dozens or hundreds of ads every day for car dealerships, restaurants, music venues. And of course the classified ads. If you lived in Montreal and you needed to sell a futon or a used treadmill, if you needed customers for your music lessons or your moving company, you didn’t have a lot of options. You could photocopy a sheet of paper with the particulars and staple it to a telephone pole. You could stand up and make a little announcement in church or at school. But dollar for dollar, the best way to spread the word was to pay a few dollars a line for a tiny ad in the local newspaper.
We ran countless thousands of those ads every week. The people who sold them occupied an entire floor of our building. That was as much space as the reporters and editors and photographers got on our own floor. Which frankly made us the prima donnas because the ad department contributed much more to the paper’s bottom line than we did. The first thing I did when I moved to Montreal and crashed on a friend’s living-room floor was to buy a Gazette and start combing the classifieds for a cheap apartment. Multiply that behaviour by an entire city, every day for many decades.
I belabour this lost world because I want to emphasize that Old Media didn’t have just one market cornered, but two. We had near-monopoly access to the corridors of power, culture and sport at the same time as we offered near-monopoly access to a bunch of valuable markets. Old Media was parked for more than a century at the crossroads between Knowledge and Commerce.
In fact our privileged space at the centre of so many commercial transactions made our central role in informing the population possible. This was drummed into my head as a cub reporter. Ads paid about 80% of a newspaper’s revenues. Circulation — revenue from newsstand or subscription sales of the finished product — covered 10% or so, approximately the cost of transporting the product to each reader. So the 50 cents you paid for a Gazette covered nothing more than the cost of getting it from 250 St. Antoine St. W. to your front door, more or less. The cost of making the entire newspaper was covered by ads. Or so we were told, and I believe it was close enough to true.
This is worth emphasizing because now that we’re emerging from a 20-year period during which people came to expect that news should be free, there’s been a tentative, partial return to the notion that consumers should “pay the cost of journalism.” I’m grateful for that. In a low-overhead shop like this newsletter, that belief covers my costs and allows me to make a living. But even if readers pay the cost of journalism that won’t take us back to the grand old days of Old Media, because back then, readers never came close to covering the cost of journalism. The ad department supercharged newsroom budgets, the way the exoskeletal power loader supercharged Sigourney Weaver’s fighting ability in the last reel of James Cameron’s Aliens:
Which meant we could hold our own in a fight. The people in the corridors of power governed themselves accordingly. Journalists weren’t just the only thing standing between newsmakers and the public, we were often their only conduit to the public.
Consider the plot of Steven Spielberg’s 2017 movie The Post. A military-industrial complex guy named Daniel Ellsberg had some secret reports about how the Vietnam war was a disaster fuelled by lies. He wanted millions to know what he knew. So he gave the reports to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration went to court to block the Times from publishing stories about the reports, Ellsberg went to the distinctly second-tier Washington Post and tried again. I dearly love The Post, but basically it’s a story about intermediation. About gatekeepers, if you like. Today Ellsberg would be on Substack or Telegram. He’d follow the example of the anonymous smartass who posted the entire movie The Flash on Twitter over the weekend. He wouldn’t need any help from Tom Hanks.
The thing is, basically right up until the arrival of iPhones in 2007, the people with real power didn’t have a lot more options than Daniel Ellsberg did for getting their stories out. Why did politicians use to hold more news conferences? It had nothing to do with some long-lost sense of civic obligation. It was because they didn’t have Twitter.
A former boss of mine was once the Ottawa correspondent for the Windsor Star. Paul Martin Sr., the father of the other Paul Martin, was a senator in those days, a former senior cabinet minister. He used to call the Star man on Fridays to chat. One day the Star man apologized: deadline time, no time to chat, Sir. The paper’s publisher called him 10 minutes later. “When Paul Martin wants to talk,” the publisher told the young reporter, “the Windsor Star takes the call.”
I always heard this as a story about the older Paul Martin’s clout. But of course it’s also a story about its limits: if the kid wouldn’t pick up the phone, Martin couldn’t get his wisdom out to the folks back home.
The upshot was that, in the days before media were disintermediated, there was a close and intense relationship between the people who ran government and the people who covered them. From a distance, it’s possible both to marvel at the access our ink-stained ancestors had, and to agree it was probably way too cozy. Former Maclean’s editor Robert Lewis retold this anecdote last week about former Globe and Maclean’s managing editor Geoffrey Stevens, who died this month:
“Government ministers gave reporters same-day access. ‘You’d call in the morning,’ according to Stevens, ‘and ask if you could see the minister after Question Period. The answer usually was, “Sure, come on up.” And you could sit down and talk about policy. Often they would bring in a deputy minister or another official.’ Stevens said there was ‘less a sense of hostility between reporters and the politicians, a sense that we are all in this together.’”
I want to make it clear here I’m not describing a lost utopia. Reporters always hold up a distorting lens, simply by dint of being human. The more powerful the lens the more odious the distortions. I think it’s entirely healthy for reporters to be reminded that they’re not “all in this together” with politicians, except insofar as we’re all citizens.
But for a minute, instead of thinking about what it was like to be the audience or the journalists, think about what it was like to be the politicians.
In that long-lost era, politicians understood that they almost never had total control over their message. They stood a high likelihood of being rebutted, contradicted, measured against the facts or against competing claims — right from the outset, by the very people who were bringing their message to the public. Call up that bastard so-and-so from the Star, I need to get into tomorrow’s paper. “The prime minister claims he’s out of options, but this is the fourth time this month he’s reversed himself...”
Which meant a central objective of political communication — persuasion — was never optional. Politicians had to make an argument from the outset. Even if they were lucky and smart, they’d be lucky to win even half the story they were in. The rest, the contradiction and the skeptical tones and the quotes from your political opponents calling you a bum, well, that was just the cost of doing business. Politicians would be in damage control from day one, and they didn’t really have time to resent it because they’d have to do it again tomorrow. On most days they had no hope of getting clean, unfiltered message out.
I daresay that in hindsight, that kind of constant incoming rhetorical flak inspired an elevated level of realism in political communications. It was harder to make a ridiculous claim if you needed a near-stranger to bring it to Canadians on your behalf. It was harder to ignore an obvious rebuttal if you knew that rebuttal would appear in print next to your own argument. It was less tempting to say things that only your diehard supporters would be glad to hear, if you knew your diehard supporters would be only a fraction of a story’s audience.
Sure, in that highly-filtered age, the risk of a misstep was high.
The photo at the top of this post depicts the Globe and Mail’s editor William Thorsell and publisher Roy Megarry in 1990, the night an ambitious redesign of the paper went to press. Thorsell had persuaded Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who liked him, to give the paper an exclusive interview on the major subject of the day, the so-called Meech Lake constitutional amendments. Ratification of the amendments had been difficult and still wasn’t assured. Mulroney started regaling the Globe reporters who’d been sent to interview him — Susan Delacourt, Graham Fraser and Jeffrey Simpson — with tales of the tactics he’d used to persuade the recalcitrant provincial governments. He used the phrase “roll the dice.” A day later, that was all anyone was talking about. That nasty so-and-so, gambling with the fate of the country. The amendments collapsed, and we entered a national-unity crisis that lasted for years.
The point I want to make is that Mulroney didn’t really have a lot of choices. If he wanted the country to know what he thought about his highest-stakes project, he could talk to Skeptical Reporters A, B and C from the Globe, or Skeptical Reporters D and E from La Presse, or Skeptical Anchor F from the CBC…
There was no clean conduit to the public. There was no alternative to constant persuasion in an imperfect environment. By today’s standards, the era was characterized by a conspicuous fatalism and, again, considerable realism.
A couple of decades later, quite suddenly, that changed. Within a few years, beginning around 2007, most of the population acquired smartphones and social-media accounts. The number of possible pathways for misunderstanding, attack and hyperbole grew exponentially.
But there were also, at last, multiple options for accomplishing something earlier generations of political leaders could only dream of. At last, it seemed possible to say only what you wanted to say, and nothing more. And to deliver that clean message directly to your supporters. Only to your supporters, if you wanted.
And of course, the near-monopoly on commerce that had accompanied and fuelled Old Media’s near-monopoly on discourse was collapsing at the same time.
Quite quickly, political reporters in Ottawa lost their long-held and jealously protected status as the amplifiers and tormentors of the political class. Soon after, they began losing their jobs. The Great Disintermediation had begun.
What happened next is another story.