Editorial from Martin Forgues, freelance journalist


« Journalism is dead ». An assertion that keeps circulating around and is slowly becoming the main reason why journalism students either desert their programs or embrace a much more lucrative publics relations career.

But it’s unfair to assume, if not outrageously dangerous, that journalism as a whole has in fact met its demise. If anything, I believe it’s ripe for a little revolution that even involves returning to its roots.

Yes, journalism jobs are increasingly more scarce and precarious, there’s no denying it. Countless editorials and columns have been written over the past decade about how an economic paradigm shift in the printing business is killing newspapers and magazines, about how the internet and social media mean that businesses can now advertise directly to their customers and don’t need radio and TV stations to gulp their marketing budgets. About how new online publishing is, thus posing the question as to how it can become a moneymaking powerhouse. About how to preserve and profit from intellectual property in the face of increasingly rampant piracy and the emergence of the “copyleft” movement.

But all these economic and business points aside, there lurks another threat to journalism and the media: an increasing loss of public credibility. A perception that journalism, which in the past embodied a duty to defend truth in the face of lies and to strengthen the public’s ability to make informed choices, is now an integral part of the very system it’s supposed to question.

Both these threat work in a very symbiotic way. Precarious working conditions in an economically weakening and increasingly fragile industry mean less resources for, as an example, deep investigative work. Less time for analyzing the contents of a new government policy. The round-the-clock news cycle creating the need for constantly fresh content means that journalists must resort to basically copy and paste press releases without much questioning, leading to a public perception that they’re just information conveyor belts.

Shrinking budgets also mean shrinking newsrooms leading to increased workloads for already burdened staff journalists and to resorting to freelance work. In Quebec, 85% of magazine content is provided by freelancers, and is an increasing part of newspapers’ content as well. However, working conditions and outrageous intellectual property contract clauses make most freelance journalists part of the working poor class, forcing them to take in several mandates to make ends meets and prevent them from reselling their material to several media, thus impacting negatively on work quality.

Journalism isn’t dead, but it’s not very healthy either. And it’s fair to assume that if journalism catches the flu, democracy will start coughing and shivering too.

The remedy might come in the form of a little revolution. It’s already started in the form of hyperlocal media and cooperative journalism which cover “grassroots” stories that closely impact of their respective communties’ daily lives. Journalism co-ops such as Media Co-op outlets regroup in collectives and share content with each other. New media initiatives such as Nouveau Projet, a bi-annual magazine based in Montreal, took a bet on long-form stories, analyses and commentary, à la Monocle, and is currently doing great, having resorted to crowdfunding to gain start-up capital. The aforementioned financing method also means more resources to industrious freelancers who wish to tackle more ambitious projects. Those examples could – and should – shake out the crumbling Big Media into jumping on this bandwagon.

This, combined with a need for journalism to go back to what it used to do great – comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, to paraphrase muckraker Findlay Peter Dunne – could give it its much-needed Phoenix wings.