Who will tell us what we “need to know?”

In the vast virtual library of scientific studies surely there must be one that looked at the compelling “need to know” instinct of human beings to gather information about the state of their territorial surroundings on a regular basis:

What if anything has changed overnight? Is there an ongoing threat to the safety of the family or community that must first be dealt with before we can get on with the day as usual? Are there storm clouds on the horizon?

Such a study might conclude that humans are basically no different in that respect than other animals, that “the need to know” is a primal, survival instinct.

Aussie, the gentle, good-natured yellow Lab who also lives here, regards my rural home as his territory too. He goes out in the morning on his investigative tour of the property. That’s his routine. I have mine: I go on the computer to my favourite on-line news headline source and digitally take a territorial look at the state of my global village, as Marshall McLuhan called it. More than 50 years ago the late, great Canadian media philosopher predicted the technological revolution that has led to the immediate dissemination of information and instantaneous social communication.

So there in a virtual nutshell, I submit, is both the reason why newspapers gradually grew and thrived in the age of print, and why they’re now in decline.

From the printing press in the 16th Century, books that explored new political philosophies, revolutionary pamphlets, and modern newspapers, print media have long had a symbiotic relationship with democracy. As they helped the downtrodden masses awaken to the idea they and not just the “ruling class” had a right to govern, their right-to-know and need-to-know horizons expanded as part of a growing engagement in the democratic process. Newspapers arose to fill that demand and need.

Yes, it was at times a flawed process, as power-hungry “yellow journalism” publishers exploited the naïve gullibility and pandered to the lowest common attitudes of readers. But at their best newspapers have been in the forefront of social and political change for the better, steadfast in their pursuit of the public’s right to know, and dedicated to a high standard of professionalism.

That last point brings to mind the 28 people, including all eight members of the editorial staff, who lost their jobs this week at the Guelph Mercury. When they were told by the newspaper`s Metroland owners they didn`t have to work through the rest of the week, they decided as a group to do the best job they possibly could to put the Mercury’s last editions, “to bed,” as we say, right up to the end, Friday.

As one laid-off staffer said, journalism – and by extension, the newspaper you work for – is more than a job: it’s family, and the work involved is part of who you are.

I certainly felt that way when I was a staff reporter for this newspaper. And I know my news-room colleagues felt the same way.

We were proud to work for The Sun Times. Circulation was growing.  At one point, as I recall, it almost reached 25,000. That was quite an achievement for a small daily based in a city with a total population of 21,000. It reflected the extent to which the paper was regional, covering events and important and often controversial issues of interest to people throughout the Grey-Bruce area. It remains the only daily newspaper north of Kitchener-Waterloo.

By the end of the 1990s the bottom-line attitude began to dominate just about everything in our society, from government to newspapers. Cost-cutting, lay-offs, and maximizing of profits became the order of the day. It did a lot of damage to local news media coverage in this small-town, rural area, and no doubt in similar areas across the country; then came the digital age to complicate things even more, but now also for big-city newspapers and other mainstream news media.

My maternal great, grandfather, so I’m told, used to lay out his copy of the old Toronto Telegram on the dining room table and read it, page by page, word by word, for hours in the evening. It was his politically-conservative bible, as it were, reflecting his views, satisfying his “need to know,” and helping him pass the time. “The Tely,” once the largest circulation paper in Toronto, folded in 1971, indirectly giving birth to the Toronto Sun

Newspapers survived television and TV news coverage. They may yet survive the digital age, even in print form as an adjunct to digital editions. The digital news media strikes me as a morass, a virtual swamp with much garbage floating around, hard to navigate and find one’s way through to places that make sense.

It has a lot of growing up to do.

Meanwhile, this is very much a world we urgently need to make sense of, that we “need to know” about more than ever.

These are indeed troubled times for newspapers and, as Allan Fotheringham used to say affectionately, the “ink-stained wretches” who work or used to work for them.

The shutdown of the Guelph Mercury print edition and the lay-off of the Mercury’s front-line  staff – with no indication who was going to produce a digital edition – followed lay-offs at Post Media, the Toronto Star, and the demise of the weekday print edition of Quebec’s major French-language newspaper, LaPresse.

There are bound to be more, I almost hate to say; but there it is. The question now seems to be, where will the axe strike next? I hope not closer to home. That would be a terrible blow.

Meanwhile, I wonder how many people appreciate how much newspapers have done to improve and maintain the quality of the life we live in this country; and how many care about who’s going to do that job in the future.

Originally published in The Sun Times in January, 2016

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