Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2017
3 MINUTE READ
“Inside the black hole of the new media universe, space collapses to a singularity.”
- Walter Kirn, “A Grim Fairy Tale,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2017
I became a The Globe and Mail customer when I was 16 years old, growing up in Windsor, Ontario. I did it to assert my individuality as the oldest of six children and my budding independence as the son of a diehard Detroit Free Press reader. Our breakfast routine was for my father and me to sit at opposite ends of the table, each shielded by our respective mastheads as we munched on our Cheerios in silence.
I’m still a The Globe and Mail customer almost 50 years later. One of my fondest routines has always been to read it on the subway commute to work. I realize this is an entirely anachronistic habit and that I am one of the last humans to engage in it. I’m so old school I still read the paper by folding it in half vertically to keep it out of my neighbour’s face.
A couple of weeks ago, I opened my morning paper and saw a front page fold-over bearing the headline “Journalism Matters” and a message from Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley about the importance of an independent press (see above). It is an important message at a time when trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low, fake news has spread like a virus, and ad revenues for print are being rapidly devoured by digital. It was a cri de coeur for the form of the newspaper and its role as a defender of democracy. It was also a sign of how shaky the foundations of journalism—and with it, democracy itself—have become. It would have been unimaginable to run a campaign like this 20 years ago.
The biggest news in the news today is the news itself. The financial reports of the surviving dailies look as shell-pocked as no-man’s land after the battle of Ypres. Declining revenues, layoffs and plant closures are eating away at balance sheets and threatening operational viability just as surely as Google’s share price continues its meteoric rise.
There was a time, as writer Alain de Botton has lamented in his 2014 book The News: A User’s Manual, when news stories achieved power “by being delivered under the aegis of brands”. In other words, when mastheads like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Le Monde commanded enough respect to make a reader think twice about questioning either the quality or veracity of the content. Those days are gone. Hence the Globe and Mailcampaign.
In the current issue of Harper’s magazine, writer Walter Kirn talks about how the explosion of online news and opinion has completely reshaped both the journalistic and the political landscape so that “the distance from what was formerly the centre to what had long constituted the fringes of opinion and analysis has shrunk to no distance at all.” The prestige once enjoyed by the leading brands of the news world is now regarded by many as an elitist conceit. Any trust these brands might have once commanded is as worthless as a personal cheque in a Las Vegas casino.
That may explain why, when I posted a reference to the Globe campaign on Linkedin the day I saw that fold-over and lamented on the sorry state of both the news in general and one of my favourite brands, The Globe and Mail, in particular, some of the comments accused me of being an elitist. Never did I think I would see the day when the simple act of reading a newspaper would “brand” me as part of the establishment.
Alain de Botton says that the news is the disillusioned progeny of the Enlightenment. If that is so, then, like everything else bequeathed to us by the likes of Descartes, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Locke, Newton and Adam Smith, journalistic integrity and informed analysis are just yesterday’s news, and no brand in this space is safe. wn