Are Newspapers truly in decline?




                  by Kenneth Bagnell 


 “When I sit down in solitude to the labours of my profession, the only questions I ask myself are: What is right? What is just? What is for the public good? – Joseph Howe, 19th Century Journalist. 



       Our country has known many a crisis, and it has now come face to face with another: the newspaper industry. The Globe & Mail, where I once was a magazine editor then daily columnist, is, according to talk, declining radically in distribution numbers and increasing in reader cost. The same applies to The Toronto Star where I was once an editorial writer. The current publisher, John Honderich, son of Beland under whom I honestly labored, has the courage to tell it as it truly is, not just concerning his daily Star, but most newspapers in Canada. Here are a few of his honorable open references:

         “Reporters are being laid off in droves, many smaller communities are now ‘news deserts’ with no local newspaper, and the amount of serious investigative journalism is declining sharply. If you believe as I do, that a vigorous, investigative press is essential for a strong democracy, we should all be very concerned….” It’s natural, given its long historic place in our lives, to assume it’s always there, and the price is low and the newspaper boy doesn’t expect much and so on. But here’s a single vivid fact: when Barbara and I came from the Maritimes to Toronto in 1961, the price of a daily paper say, The Star or The Telegram, was less than a quarter. Back in the mid-1950s, it was five cents a copy and before that it actually sold for three cents a copy except for a costly ten cents on Saturday.  How deep we had to dig in the pocket back then! Today? Come on, come on! Open your wallet: after all it’s only reaching three dollars. That, I’m sorry, is today.

       The most concerned and committed is the board chairman of The Star, John Honderich, son of his strong willed father, Beland, who served with a keen mind and a very strong hand for almost a half century. His son John followed him and has been at the helm for almost that long. A few weeks ago he released a highly worrisome document, published in The Star, then picked up by other papers in many provinces. From its very beginning he paints a dark and worrisome scenario for all who are editors and journalists in a vocation that is, to him, very uncertain. He’s highly candid: “Canada,” he began, “is facing a crisis of quality journalism.”

    Around the same time, The Star Editorial Board, on which I served in Beland’s era, is concerned enough to publish its own concern, titled on January 26, “Crisis in news media is also a crisis for democracy…” Its first sentence was as dark and alarming as it can be: “Journalism in Canada is in a crisis. That much is clear from the past few years of plummeting ad revenues, sweeping staff cuts and a collapse of local news coverage in many parts of the country.” The basic fact is deeply disconcerting: The crisis is evident in one single fact: every year the papers’ circulation declines in double digits and beyond that is a reduction of one third of the media jobs. Moreover that has been the trend for a full six years: reduction, reduction, reduction.  The report called The Shattered Mirror, has bannered a heading it most certainly hated doing: “Established news organizations have been left gasping, while digital alternatives have failed to develop journalistic mass, especially in local news.” News, it’s been said, is as vital to democracy as “clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health”

    The man who is closest to the issue and highly informed is a former senior Globe& Mail journalist, Edward Greenspon, now President of The Public Policy Forum which benefits from his insight on the challenging barriers to overcome. (Mind you, it’s not only a Canadian matter. I am a subscriber to the highly respected American Pew Research Center and I noticed three years ago that the US faced a similar adversity making it public on December 23, 2008: “The internet, which emerged this year as a leading source for campaign news, has now surpassed all other media except television as an outlet for national and international news.”)

     The problem – and it is beyond gigantic – is not about to be taken on the whole with seriousness by our own federal government. (It did, for some years, contribute $2 million a year to Macleans and, as I understand, other publications, but not to daily papers.) The Star’s Chair John Honderich, said in late January, that Ottawa did have a federal “Periodical Fund” out of which the gift to Macleans and other magazines is provided this slight endowment – but as for dailies, not yet. Perhaps it is guided in support by other countries who do the same: nothing. According to Mr. Honderich, who is very informed on what is a serious situation,         and can provide a number of papers looking to officialdom for financial support and which don’t get it: New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, South Africa and Israel along with The European Union itself. Apparently Australia is actually examining the possibility of support, at least for its major papers. Honderich listed this and, as he does with ten other aspects that matter, he adds wearily over each: “The result? Nothing to date.” Or else “The result? Idea rejected….” It’s not much fun.

   Mr. Honderich has a very interesting wry, maybe weary response to every hope he has in mind for government aid. Here are a few: “Copyright protection for papers? The result? Nothing to date.” Then the “Canadian Periodical Fund. The result? Idea rejected.” And after that it’s “CP and local journalism. The result? Nothing to date.” And then John intelligently wonders if it might help newspapers as the CBC was helped with 675 million from Ottawa over five years. How does that suit him? After all, the heritage committee proposed it. Ah…. no! “Idea rejected.” Next thing John and I will both be rejected.  John, I’m so sorry…. truly… now you’ve got my tears starting….






  1. Gary Cralle
    Feb 14, 2018

    We all know every organization needs resources to survive. I identify a primary problem being the Canadian tax structure which collects no tax from offshore giants like Google and Facebook while unfairly doing so from Canadian publications. Additionally, Google and Facebook pay nothing to create any content but instead appropriate anything and everything that is created and leverage this content to further increase their revenue. At the very least, the federal government should collect tax from offshore giants as they extract advertising dollars from our economy. That money could be used to strengthen Canadian voices because not only democracy but our very culture is being lost as well.

  2. m Rutherford
    Feb 14, 2018

    Very pertinent and necessary column. I don’t think many of us have realized how bad it has become. But what to do? As an individual I still support the G & M, but I’m not enjoying it half as much today with the cutbacks. And yet I will not go on line. I like to feel and see my paper. The decline in investigative journalists is particularly worrisome. Anyway, continue the thoughtful columns.

  3. John Ducyck
    Feb 14, 2018

    The CBC has an advantage that others don’t have. I read my news on the internet. CBC is free every day. If I look at some other newspaper websites, I get only a few free articles; then I have to subscribe – which I don’t bother doing when I can read it all free on the CBC website. I’d be happy if the CBC was on the same footing as other news sources. It doesn’t seem right that one news source has this advantage. We need multiple news sources and multiple perspectives in a democracy, not just one that is government supported.
    Thanks and blessings!

  4. Greg Thompson
    Feb 14, 2018

    It’s a sad reality but I fear the die is cast. I still get the Globe when home but the rest of the time I read on-line. The papers in printed form cost so much they are becoming an unattractive proposition.

  5. Ellen K
    Feb 17, 2018

    This is very unfortunate and sad but “things are a changing” whether we like it or not. Same for the E-books we now read instead of the actual book. How difficult it must be for all those highly intelligent, wonderful individuals who are losing their jobs. However, the amazing younger generation sees the world differently, as we did when we were “the younger generation”

  6. Don Gillies
    Feb 17, 2018

    A heartfelt “lament” much in the spirit of the O.T. greater prophets. I too am worried about what it signals and signifies.

  7. Jim Hickman
    Feb 17, 2018

    I read a New Yorker magazine piece about a decade ago, which focused on a conference of top media players like Rupert Murdoch who were studying the future of newspapers. Even back then, there was mordant discussion about the survival of the daily newspaper. In fact, the attendees at this conference estimated that the last daily print newspapers would be gone by 2021. Currently, in the U.S., Seattle and San Francisco haven’t had daily papers for three years. And, more recently, Postmedia and Metroland exchanged community newspapers so that 36 of them could be shuttered — and the rest existing without competition in their areas. Unfortunately, the online version of most dailies doesn’t generated the kind of revenue required for sustainability. That’s where we stand now.
    When I look at younger people — including our daughter Zoe, a highly educated 27-year-old — I see that they’ve never read a newspaper. They don’t even get news from TV or radio anymore. Their source is social media, where “fake” news and rumours exist with the real story.
    It’s a fast-changing world. One would hope that, in the future, quality journalism — a pillar of any democracy — exists in one form or another.

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