For Whom The Bell Tolls

It was John Donne who close to 400 years ago penned  “no man is an island, entire of its self; every man is part of the continent, part of the main….”, and suggested that when we hear a church bell toll for a death in the community “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

It was the first thought springing to mind a few days ago when an old colleague Roger Stonebanks e-mailed a story from The Guardian with a headline reading in part “the death knell of Journalism.”

The story under Roy Greenslade’s byline opened with a quote from a memo Issued by Britain’s largest regional newspaper publisher, Trinity Mirror, to staff members in Birmingham and Coventry: “The days are long gone when we could afford to be a paper of record and dutifully report everything that happened on our patch.”

Greenslade: “That is not a spoof….It is an abject admission that the newspaper is no longer able to fulfill it journalistic mission to provide comprehensive coverage in two major British cities.”

Trinity Mirror’s internal memo claimed the job cuts (25, mostly editorial, in each city) would not reduce the quality or quantity of local coverage because digital tools would enable fewer staff to do the same work.

Greenslade: “Just the opposite is the case. The cuts reveal a truth that Trinity Mirror (and other publishers) have previously denied; they are all about private profit and not about public interest.”

The Guardian and Greenslade do not decry the digital revolution and the many benefits it has brought: “The digital revolution enables us to be free of restrictions. But mainstream media is engaged in a counter revolution. It is perverting the ethos of that revolution because it views the online world through the prism of profit and not public benefit.

“It makes much of using digital tools, but that’s a façade to enable staff reductions. Labour-intensive journalism is not required. Just bang it out quickly as possible…..and move on to the next ‘story’ about a cat with two tails.”

If the tolling of a newspapers’ death bell sounds familiar to my home town readers in Victoria B.C. Canada, it’s because they have been living with its mournful sounds for several decades now. Maybe they have grown so familiar that it is now just a background chime, and of little concern.

Or maybe, hopefully, it will remind us all of the days when reporters like the one who sparked this piece were assigned to and responsible for specific “beats.” Local readers will remember when Roger covered Saanich, or when he patrolled the “labour” beat or from his years covering “the courts” from Magistrates to Supreme.

Those were the days when our daily newspaper really covered the city – and beyond. One reporter for each municipality, one for Capital Regional District, two for the provincial government when in session. One for maritime news, naval and commercial with “stringers” up-island and two or three columnists tossed in to stir the mix.

In Victoria the Times and the Colonist were newspapers “of record”, and so was the amalgamated Times-Colonist. On the lower mainland and throughout the province the Vancouver Sun and Province held sway though most communities were proudly served by smaller newspaper owned by local publishers and editors who believed providing comprehensive community news a duty.

Alas, no longer. The men in suits took over. Small newspapers were bought and controlled by boardrooms in Toronto or other far from local places; increasing annual profits each year became more important than serving the communities that had made founding publishers comfortably profitable.

New owner-publishers wanted to know how much they could take, not how much they could give. A local name would remain on the editorial page masthead – but control would be remote.

The Times-Colonist, my own newspaper home for half a century, no longer carries its publisher’s name on its editorial page masthead. Maybe one day the editor-in-chief could write a piece telling us why. In the same community service piece he could also explain why he can’t hire enough staff to responsibly cover the community he is supposed to serve, but can assign current staff writers to spend time and effort writing comfort prose for a glossy magazine insert.

The glossy looks smart. But adds nothing to “meat and potatoes” news. In reality it’s just another peal of John Donne’s bell for a death in the community.  We don’t need to ask for whom it tolls.

References: http://holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2015/news/daily-no-longer-its-city’s-paper-of-record/ and http://theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/jun/10/one-trinity/

One comment

  1. As a victim of newspaper concentration I found this article somewhat moving Jim. I was squeezed out of the game by Conrad Black two decades ago but managed to apply my editing and writing skills to other pursuits and make a living.

    I am by no means a Marxist (although I may vote for the NDP this fall) but the old-fashioned notion that the purpose of a business was not only to provide wealth for the owners but service and jobs to a community seems to have disappeared.

    In fact, the traditional exercise of granting a group of investors a company charter was solely in recognition of their promise to create jobs and serve the community.

    That social contract has been corrupted and sacrificed to profiteering. Alas, newspapers have been a principal casualty.

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