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Papyrus to Tweeting: the once and future cartography of the news room

July 15, 2009 - Ray Pennings

The landscape of news media has changed so rapidly over the course of the last hundred years it is only with acknowledged generalization we can talk about the traditional newsroom. But even in the midst of this change we can recognize important contemporary shifts: institutions are being replaced by aggregators, footloose entrepreneurs are operating in real-time across the globe and print-scale information—for millennia the mainstay of human-kind—is being outpaced by the digital revolution. From papyrus to printing blocks to tweeting, we are witnessing a revolution in our news institutions.

This issue of Cardus Policy in Public (CPIP) puts some of Canada’s foremost news media editors and journalists onto this topic. In his book review, former newspaper executive and Reader’s Digest editor Peter Stockland points out how dated the question of institutional vitality seems in the context of “anachronistic information gatekeepers in the nation’s emptying newsrooms.”  However, as Mr. Stockland would seemingly agree, the demise of an institution once considered essential to democracy ought not to be celebrated without at least a reflective tear.

In our main feature, Cardus Senior Fellow and former newspaper executive Peter Menzies outlines how alternative media forms are as transforming to our public discourse as was the invention of the printing press only centuries ago. To Menzies, this rings some alarm bells: the erosion of journalism standards is lessening public trust, and encouraging an emergent form of tribalism in which individuals consume only media forms that reinforce narrow identities—all of which lessen the caliber of our public conversation.

We publish two responses to Menzies’ musings.  Stephen Kimber, a Halifax author and journalism professor, disputes  Menzies’ main conclusion.  While admitting that the example of alternate media cited, live-blogging, may showcase the “sausage-making aspects of journalism,”  Kimber suggests that the transparency inherent in this new form of journalism creates a new common ground or social meeting place. In a similar vein, Cardus Director of Operations Milton Friesen highlights how new media provides an opportunity for broad-based participation and interaction which is creating a new form of institution.  This new kind of institution needs to be understood, and like the old institutions, it provides opportunity for  building or destroying, oppression or empathy.

All of our contributors agree that there is a radical change underway in the manner we gather, distribute, and process news in the early twenty-first century.  The process of news has always been a messy one, with biases, agendas and subjectivity impacting what it is that we learn (or don’t learn) from our preferred sources.  It is now a messier one, in that the emerging media is much more individual than institutional and does not have the inherent checks and balances once associated with journalism.  However, as Stockland’s review of Through a Lens Darkly points out, such checks and balances were hardly foolproof and in fact, could be argued to have at times contributed to rather than resolved social confusion.

This edition of CPIP is closed out by our regular Think Tank Index.  We include this to draw attention to the thoughtful and varied voices that constitute public discourse in Canada today.  It may seem oddly self-serving to observe that the rise of the think-tank as an institution of influence in Canada may correlate somehow to the decline of media institutions and that the journal you are now reading (many on-line) is a consequence of the trend described in its pages, but there is likely a connection.  New forums for conversation are emerging and we believe that being inclusive in engaging various perspectives is a healthy way for that conversation to continue.

The aim of Cardus Policy in Public is to engage in this conversation within the context of our mission of renewing Canada’s social architecture.  We are convinced that our social institutions and the relationships between them are radically changing.  The institutions which collectively compose the media sector form an important part of that architecture, and we trust that these pages will provoke you to rethink those changes which are taking place before our eyes. 

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. July 2009: The Blogosphere
    CPIP - The Blogosphere

    In this issue of CPiP we ask about the transformation of media across the spectrum. Has instantaneous information made old fashioned journalism a fad of the past, or are old methods proving more reliable in the long-haul than 24/7 reporting?

    Download the PDF.