I was shocked—at first—to pick up last Friday’s (Oct 7) Echo and see that a little less than half the paper was simply a sponsored list of employees of Comox Valley fire departments. I mean it has been both painful and—yet– fascinating to see the Comox Valley Echo dying out so slowly with its ever shrinking circulation, news and advertising content. The scant pages of Friday’s paper seemed more like a news flash with a few ads thrown in for appearance sake—hardly the kind of “newspaper” that anchors an office, staff, printing costs, distribution network, community. It seemed to me that–except for the innovative idea of a list of sponsored firefighter names—this could have been the collector’s edition of the last printing of the Comox Valley Echo. I have been wondering why on Earth Black Press keeps two weekly newspapers going in the Comox Valley with virtually the same news content but with ever shrinking ad space for one.
Now The Echo has hit on a gold mine: abandon the idea of flyer/promotion type ad sales and just print pages and pages of sponsored names of Comox Valley employees! It could keep The Echo going for some time yet. Imagine: next comes sponsored lists of healthcare workers, then highways maintenance, then hospitality services like waitresses, waiters, cooks, then—oh! Supermarket employees who make such interesting displays of mounds of apples, broccoli, carrots then farmers etc. Who knows maybe it could go on for long enough to credibly get back to an updated list of firefighters and the list could roll on forever updating. Just as I was mulling this over and imagining a whole new dimension to “community news” this disturbing image crossed my mind; an image of an ancient, nearly extinct, Mesozoic dinosaur finding a swamp of delicious ferns that could sustain its body and hopes– that the age passing might yet support another generation or two of giant reptiles.
I thought about the image of the dinosaur and the latest edition of The Echo and I wondered if sponsored lists of names could sustain The Echo—and other community print news–with their offices staff and printing costs—for a time yet in the face of instant–all encompassing news, comprehensive digital searches of best buys, looming internet based buy and deliver. Or is this list of sponsored names just like the last verdant swamp of the passing age of giant dinosaurs—the last supper?
What would life/news in the Comox Valley be like without The Echo? Not rhetorical! I am very interested in what you think the Valley would be like without The Echo? I know many people—mostly community activists—who would miss The Echo greatly. Despite being owned by the same Black Press as The Record—the only other widely distributed weekly print news in the valley– and despite the rocky patch The Echo went through some time ago where its “news” seemed entirely bent away from anything like objective or certainly representative reporting in favour of a very narrow ideological agenda, The Echo is, today, widely recognized as much more balanced and community orientated than The Record which seems only reluctantly interested in local issues not pushed by extreme right wing columnists like Tom Fletcher with their agenda of dismantling the common good. Despite being owned by the same corporate interests—The Echo and The Record do—kind of—balance each other and perhaps the limited, but real, competition restrains how far right The Record can go.
Actually I can’t help but wonder if the ever shrinking pages of The Echo are not simply the foreshadowing of the end of print news generally. What do you think? Do you see any reason for yourself or generally for the news about what is going on around us to come at the expense of tones of paper—vast greenhouse storing forests, at the expense of news that due to its cost of production comes to us filtered through the interests of corporate elites, that comes with pages and pages of advertising of no interest to us and though sometimes recycled away from all the other transient garbage foisted on us? At one time we paid for newspapers thus assigning some value, some vested interest, in the content. Now it comes free to the door like every other piece of junk mail that shows up in the mailbox trying, so desperately, to get us to spend and waste more than we would if we simply bought according to our innate needs.
The one good thing about widely distributed print news is that, though it is only an advertising inspired surrogate for real news, paper doesn’t track every time you hesitate over an image and immediately send off a report to its corporate masters about the kinds of things you are reading/thinking about. I did an interesting thing a couple of days ago: I cleared all the cookies (information bits that governments and corporations store on your computer in order to, ostensively, serve you better—but really to simply spy on every click/hesitation/read you make for corporate and government “intelligence”). Then, having cleared the cookies file, I opened my Firefox browser and went to one internet news site and read one article. Then I went back to the cookies file and—low and behold—there was a list of well over a dozen corporate spies that were storing their collected info about me on my computer. Many of the cookies begin with ad…. which is a clear indication that they are simply commercial spies. That didn’t include the corporate spying that Adobe “allows” in a different file as not theirs but some corporate/govt “third party” identity that gains access to your computer through Adobe. And it didn’t include the spy reports that went immediately to an internet auction where my click/hesitation could be sold to the highest bidder leading to a new stream of advertising attached to my current internet surfing.
The thing about all this crisis in print news is that it also presents an opportunity to ask what is being lost that we can gladly do without and could possibly be gained from taking time to assess what it is that print media has supplied that we want/need to retain, and how is it we actually do want to learn current information—including availability/price of desired/needed goods– about our communities/ world. Do we really need to tie information to advertising or is this the time to rethink news? Could good/meaningful journalism be the paid for in other ways than through advertising revenue—applicable to both print and web news? Again this isn’t rhetorical—I am asking what you think on this incredibly important issue of our times. Would you pay for good, fair, comprehensive news? For instance, I do donate to several news sources that provide me with information that actually does try to live up to the once sterling rule of news: to speak truth to power. But I also find that at times I am just sick of sitting in front of the computer clicking away hoping for a burst of news that is—to paraphrase from Kenny Rogers—‘so high and wild I never need to click another’—atleast for a while.
With all the internet search capability surely we don’t need print to tell us where to find a deal we are looking for. I don’t know if it exists but—really—we could just type in the weekly grocery list and click search Comox Valley and viola the list is ready to print (or being a dinosaur myself, I forgot that there is—for most people—no need to print a list as you can simply carry it on your iphone –it will even direct you to the most efficient path to the next store and through the grocery aisles!) To me there seems no logical, necessary or desirable reason to tie community information to mountains of wasted paper. Why should I receive 8 pages of real estate advertising when I am not and won’t soon be looking for a new home—I like the one I have, very much. And I am not looking for a car nor boat nor fishing tackle etc. I don’t need/ want my news to be sponsored by escort services nor toilet paper for that matter.
In my view (still interested in yours as well) news could/even should be the territory of community based nonprofit groups much like Tidechange or small/independent businesses that sell good journalism rather than advertising. Personally I think there is a role for print news as I try to avoid hours in front of a computer screen and I enjoy, greatly, sitting by the fire browsing for a fascinating/informative read. Maybe there is room for a hybrid where a “paper” is simply the shell of in-depth articles with the URL for those who want to get the full story online. Perhaps such a hybrid could also be an ownership hybrid where independent journalists/non profit and even for profit groups are paid based on contributions/donations/subscriptions they bring into the paper. I even think that there is a role for governments to fund some of the costs of good journalism/community news based on the recommendations of independent local, regional and nationally elected boards of journalistic excellence—kind of a democracy of journalism where good journalism is encouraged democratically. Such an arrangement would certainly be a major blow to what now passes as media but—in reality—is simply propaganda for corporate interests and duplicitous state sponsored disinformation drumming up support for never ending wars on people, our environment and our common good.
Next week I will try to sort through the quagmire that is community life in Union Bay. I would be delighted to hear from anyone with ideas/information about that.
After that I want to look at what Bill McKibben has called “The Age of Missing Information”—what is the internet information hegemony doing to our lives and our perceptions.