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No News Is Bad News: rethinking news for the next generation

Last Updated Sep 24, 2016 at 1:41 pm PDT

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Summary

Millennials have the least confidence in conventional news media: research

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Recent studies have found, of any generation, millennials have the least confidence in conventional news media. The author of a new book says that should serve as a big red flag to anyone working in traditional journalism.

In No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse and What Comes Next, former Vancouver Sun reporter Ian Gill looks at what he calls the smoking ruins of our media landscape and how we can rebuild it for the future.

He says this first step is admitting there is a problem.

“Recognizing that especially younger people just aren’t reading newspapers much anymore,” he explains. “Virtually no kid I know watches what you would think of as destination television. You turn on the TV at 10 o’clock at night to watch Peter Mansbridge, well, no-one does that anymore.”

Gill admits he could be accused painting a rather bleak picture of the Canadian media landscape in the first half of the book, but he is also quick to point out there is the possibility to do some very interesting things, especially online, by embracing digital and independent platforms.

He also feels we can engage younger generations by rethinking what news is and the purpose it serves.

“People are tired of journalism only telling them what’s wrong with the world,” Gill says. “I think there is a way to, basically, help make sense of our world, help illuminate where problems are being solved and bring those stories back to Canada, and actually export stories from Canada about what we’re doing well. We should be telling those stories and sharing them widely.”

We spoke at length with Gill earlier this week. Here is a transcript of that conversation:

What motivated you to write the book?

“Well, I’m a former journalist, I’ve never lost my passion for journalism and, last year, I was lucky enough to have a fellowship with a foundation in Montreal and they earned part of their fortune back in the old days of the Montreal Star and one of the things that I said to them when I started the fellowship is, ‘Have you noticed that our media are collapsing around us and isn’t that an issue of public importance that would interest the foundation?’ And they said, ‘Yes, go find out more.’ So, that’s what I spent last year doing.”

How important is it to have a vibrant media sphere to a democracy and what state do you think ours is in right now?

“Democracy by world standards is in a reasonable state, I think you’d have to say. So, you know, without being rude about it, I guess I’m writing about what it, in some people’s view, a sort of first-world problem. But, I think, firstly democracy isn’t guaranteed. The vibrancy and the accountability of any democracy is always a function of who’s in power and who is telling truth to power — and also telling possibility to power. I think about what we could be doing with our country as opposed to just what people are doing with it. So, there’s an inextricable link between a vibrant democracy and vibrant media and I’d have to say that our democracy is doing better than our media! So, there is the seeds of something very dangerous in there, I think, because we’ve seen dramatic declines in the number of newspapers, for instance, in the quality of newspapers, in the reach of broadcasters, and, frankly, in the number of journalists even practicing the trade. Thousands of journalists have gone missing in action over the last 10 or 15 years and that hurts.”

So, there’s an inextricable link between a vibrant democracy and vibrant media and I’d have to say that our democracy is doing better than our media! So, there is the seeds of something very dangerous in there, I think, because we’ve seen dramatic declines in the number of newspapers, for instance, in the quality of newspapers, in the reach of broadcasters, and, frankly, in the number of journalists even practicing the trade. Thousands of journalists have gone missing in action over the last 10 or 15 years and that hurts.”

Now there is a lot of talk these days, mainly from our Trudeau government, that Canada is “back” yet you sort of lay out that the state of the media would suggest that that is not exactly the case, that it’s not enough to be “back,” but we also must move forward.

“Right, right. I think we’ve kind of missed the wave of media innovation that has occurred in many other jurisdictions around the world. In Europe, in particular, I think they’re way ahead of us in terms of recognizing that especially younger people just aren’t reading newspapers much anymore, virtually no kid I know watches what you would think of as destination television: you turn on the TV at 10 o’clock at night to watch Peter Mansbridge, well, no-one does that anymore. So, we’ve been very much behind the curve on that. Radio has survived a bit better than most media have but it’s got its challenges [too] and people are desperate, I think, for good content. I don’t think that the Canadian has gotten that much more stupid. Certainly, we don’t seem to have become as stupid as the American public, but we could go that way very easily if we do not have access to quality discourse about the state of our nation. And increasingly we don’t have that.”

Radio has survived a bit better than most media have but it’s got its challenges [too] and people are desperate, I think, for good content. I don’t think that the Canadian has gotten that much more stupid. Certainly, we don’t seem to have become as stupid as the American public, but we could go that way very easily if we do not have access to quality discourse about the state of our nation. And increasingly we don’t have that.”

Now, you’ve identified some of the legacy media there. What role do you see in digital media filling that void?

“Well, I think that digital media opens up so many interesting new channels and so much agility in terms of design and responsiveness to technology. So, I actually think there is a great deal of hope out there. I could be accused in the first half of my book of painting a rather ruinous picture of the Canadian media landscape. But, out the smoking ruins, if you will, there is the possibility to do some very, very interesting things. We don’t have to invent new technologies in Canada, although I’d encourage the fact that we could.

I think where our strength can be is in re-imagining the role of journalism in a democracy. Yeah, we have the luxury of having a relatively stable country in a relatively prosperous economy so I think we could make a huge contribution to the world in rethinking the very role of journalism in our lives and actually reshaping how journalism gets done. I spend some time in the book talking about solutions journalism. People are tired of journalism only telling them what’s wrong with the world and it’s very dispiriting to people and actually depressing and it drives them away from journalism. I think there is a way to, basically, help make sense of our world, help illuminate where problems are being solved in other jurisdictions, and bring those stories back to Canada, and actually export stories from Canada about what we’re doing well about things like housing refugees for instance or some of the other things that we do uniquely well in Canada, we should be telling those stories and sharing them widely.”

Is this the kind of thing that we could do to re-engage those 15 to 25-year-olds who have the least confidence of any one generation in the media?

“Well, it’s true that the media are not trusted generally in society and the existing media are trusted least of all by the so-called millennials. But, remember, those millennials are getting old enough now to be creating content of their own and even designing products of their own. I’ve just joined a company called Discourse Media which is run by people in their twenties and thirties who are fed up with the journalism that they’re getting so they’ve decided to go and invent journalism of their own. I think there is huge possibility in companies like Discourse Media, who are saying, ‘look, we’re sick of old white guys telling what we should read and when we should read it and what’s important in the world. We have our own ideas and we’re prepared to take risks and go out and actually express those ideas in ways that make sense to us.’ That’s a very, very positive sign.”

You can find No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse and What Comes Next in stores and online now.