With another 24 Ontario newspapers shuttering, local news continues its nose dive — a reality that faculty at Western University's journalism and communications program are well aware of.
On Nov. 27, Canadian media conglomerates Postmedia Network Inc. and Torstar Corporation announced a deal that will close 24 Ontario newspapers by mid-January. In total, nearly 300 people will lose their jobs. Postmedia CEO, Paul Godfrey, said most of the papers no longer have viable business models.
And the deal isn't an anomaly. As Western University associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Romayne Smith Fullerton said, the closures are no surprise.
“Postmedia has been in a death spiral, and newspapers everywhere have been doing a death spiral for quite some time now,” Fullerton said.
As Canadian papers continue to shut down, journalism programs — and their students — are adapting. In 2015, Western's master of arts in journalism transformed into the master of media in journalism and communication, a shift that put less weight on traditional journalism training and introduced public relations curriculum.
A changing workforce
According to a Public Policy Forum finding, Canada has lost a third of its journalists over the last six years alone. Mark Rayner, the director of Western's MMJC program, said the program's transformation two years ago acknowledged Canada's changing media industry.
"Certainly, the changing market had an impact on how we thought about the curriculum," Rayner said. "It would be foolish not to do that and, frankly, irresponsible. You have to train people for jobs that actually exist."
In 2014, public relations specialists outnumbered journalists four to one in Canada. Rayner said most students who enroll at Western are aware of industry trends.
Percy Sherwood, a graduate student in Western’s MMJC program, said going into journalism is a risk.
"In one sense, it’s kind of absurd that I’m in a journalism program. The industry has completely melted down," he said. However, Sherwood is realistic. He said he's preparing for work freelancing for online audiences.
"You’re going to do everything from video editing, to writing, and it’s going to be all on the web," Sherwood said.
The push for public funding
As students prepare for an uncertain job market, others are petitioning the government to step in and save local papers. Although it makes sense to follow audiences online, Smith Fullerton said digital advertising revenue alone hasn't proven it can sustain a newsroom. She said the 85 per cent of the revenue newspapers used to make from print advertising isn't transferable to digital ad sales.
"That’s all been hijacked by Google and Facebook, so virtually everybody gets their news from Facebook, and that means that the digital advertising component isn’t paying mainstream news anymore," she said.
With a broken funding model, some Canadians are arguing journalism isn't just a business, it's a public good. Fullerton said the news industry has an obligation to its citizens to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.
In January 2017, Edward Greenspon, president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, spearheaded a white paper called "The Shattered Mirror," recommending the government help Canadian newspapers and “level the playing field among platforms.”
The paper offered 12 recommendations to ensure the news media's continued operation and function as a watchdog.
“It quickly became obvious to me that, amid today’s commotion of news and pseudo-news, we still need people who go to work every day to sort the consequential from the ephemeral and, yes, fact from fiction,” Greenspan wrote in the report.
However, in October, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly shut down the idea, saying the federal government does not plan “to bail out industry models that are no longer viable.”
April Lindgren, associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, said the result of the shut downs is a lack of opportunity for community members from small towns to engage with their local politics.
“It’s definitely not good for the communities that are losing these newspapers,” Lindgren said. “I think it’s important for people to understand what it means if they are losing access to another voice that provides local journalism.”
However, Rayner said students are still applying to the MMJC program despite layoffs and shutdowns, and it's had steady enrolment since it started in 2015.
"I think a lot of students get into the program thinking that they might be on the cusp of whatever happens next, because something has to happen next."
For Sherwood, journalism is still worthwhile despite the industry's current difficulties.
“I think what you’ll see happen with this trend is that you have ... a lack of critical discourse,” Sherwood said. “What you might see is politicians getting away with more things, and no one to hold them accountable. ... It’s extremely important to keep our officials in check."