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Yesterday's News

Yesterday's News: Why Canada's Daily Newspapers are Failing Us
John Miller
Fernwood Publishing

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 trend.

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.


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Tracking the News that Wasn't
News Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
"Objectivity" and Democracy are not Compatible
Looking at the impact of investigative journalism
All the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Duping the Public
Index of Book Reviews


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