Yesterday's News: Why Canada's Daily Newspapers are Failing Us
Reviewed by Rachel Kramer
John Miller's title poses the question, and Richard Slye's cover
design provides a key point of the complex answer. One skyscraper,
cloaked in the banners of five of Canada's most popular dailies,
cups a hand over its ear to better hear the open mouth of the skyscraper
holding a fist-full of (American) money. At ground level a confused
crowd doesn't know which way to turn.
Yesterday's News: Why Canada's Daily Newspapers are Failing
Us illuminates the decline of print journalism, suggests reasons
for this decline and proposes solutions to reverse this downward
John Miller has been in the newspaper business for forty years.
Now a professor of newspaper journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University
in Toronto (a program he formerly headed), Miller has worked as
a reporter and editor for over twenty years, including five as deputy
managing editor of the Toronto Star.
He fondly recalls when newspapers sold one copy for every household
in Canada, back when he was a boy delivering the Ottawa Journal
door-to-door on his bicycle in the mid-1950s. Now, he reports, newspaper
sales cover barely half of Canada's households.
While Miller acknowledges the competition dailies face from radio,
television and Internet news sources, he identifies the "new
corporate ethos, which puts short-term profit ahead of long-term
thinking and which substitutes marketing hype and new technology
for editorial renewal" as the main threat to print journalism
today. Chapter One attempts to explain this trend.
Chapter Two argues the need for firm, unbiased press councils informed
by public opinion, using a plethora of disconcerting examples of
abuses of press freedom -- from careless reporting, to hatemongering.
(Amusing and problematic at the same time is the findings of the
1997 Gallup Poll regarding the perceived honesty and ethical standards
of people in a variety of professions, where journalists were tied
with business executives, "who have a net honesty and ethics
rating of only slightly above zero.")
After Chapter One argues that the integrity of print journalism
is being threatened by the takeover of community papers by profit-oriented
corporations, and Chapter Two asserts that "The Arrogant, Imperial
Press" is in dire need of a watchdog to prevent abuses of press
freedom, the reader is well-primed for Chapter Three: Black, Inc.
That Miller feels Conrad Black has and will continue to abuse and
degrade the press is clear. He supports the suggestion that Black
could harness the power of his overwhelming press stables to promote
his own personal agenda with clear examples of exactly that.
Chapter Four gives a detailed, insider's account of Black Saturday,
"mass firing of loyal and blameless workers", that followed
the takeover of Regina's Leader-Post, and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
by Black from the Sifton family which had owned the papers for three
generations. Apparently the Chapter's name, "Drowning the Kittens"
is a phrase attributed to Black himself, describing his "marching
orders at Britain's Daily Telegraph when he took it over in 1986."
In Chapter Five (whose clever title, Freedom of the Press: 2(b)
or not 2(b) refers to the section of the constitution that gives
protection to various "fundamental" freedoms) Miller boldly
suggests, "The limits of our freedom of expression are largely
defined by the battles that the mass media fight on our behalf."
Defending the right to fight is the thrust of the chapter.
Chapter Six: Out of Touch rounds out the first part of the book
by highlighting the dangers that arise when newsroom staff fail
to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
Part Two of this book is entitled Solutions. It chronicles Miller's
return to the kind of newspaper he remembers from his youth. A locally
owned, modestly designed, community paper with Social Notes and
"lots of pictures of people looking straight at the camera,
in the trusting way they always do when you take family snapshots."
Solutions shares the endearing experience of reporting in Pontiac
County, Quebec, for the Equity. Finally, Miller draws from this
experience to suggest ways to save the dailies from disaster.
Rachel Kramer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
Published in Sources,
Number 43, Winter, 1999.
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)
Ten Censored Stories of 1988
Ten Censored Stories of 1989
and Dissent: The Press and Politics of Peace in Canada
Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, and the Gulf War
the News that Wasn't
Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
and Democracy are not Compatible
at the impact of investigative journalism
the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Index of Book
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