“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” — A.J.Liebling
I wouldn’t be surprised if you think that quote, which was written in 1960, seems a little bit outdated. Freedom of the press appears to be overshadowed by our expanded freedom to information — you’re always just a Google search away from other sides to the story. Furthermore, the great liberating force of the internet promises that everyone has the opportunity to tell their own story.
However, the question of who owns a press is still absolutely relevant, though a revision from “press” to something more open-ended, like “media outlet,” might be necessary. While we can get our information elsewhere, the big media outlets have a large dedicated readership, as well as the resources and authority a wee little freelancer or a blogger might not have, and we still count on those outlets to offer the kind of investigative journalism that holds those in power accountable.
Journalism becomes compromised, corrupted, when it’s floundering to survive. Currently, pressures like plummeting ad revenue and the ongoing recession have significantly impacted the ability that media outlets have to offer that journalism. As business falters, newspapers must routinely endure cuts to staff and editorial content, and original, informative content gets choked out by more ads — and sometimes questionable content.
When the situation is dire, publishers might begin to think twice about integrity, and even turn journalistic content into advertisements themselves. “Advertorials,” or native advertisements, are advertisements designed to appear like articles. Advertorials risk misleading readers into believing that a message vetted by a paying ad buyer is an authentic article by a reputable writer.
And when those advertorials appear to address important questions of public policy— like, say, pipelines — from a journalistic point-of-view, they’re downright irresponsible.
The Globe and Mail is popular enough to get called out when its editorial content becomes compromised, like when J-Source, the Albatross, and Canadaland report that Globe management wants its journalists to publish “branded content.”
The Vancouver Sun is popular enough to get called out as passing advertisement for journalism by DeSmog Canada when articles lauding then-Northern Gateway executive vice-president Janet Holder as “the perfect lead on Northern Gateway.” The article was later taken offline.
So who calls out papers like the Abbotsford News if they do something similar?
The question of staying afloat is a significant one for media outlets all over the English-speaking world, but it’s especially problematic for local newspapers. Smaller presses can’t absorb economic blows the way larger publications can.
One might argue that yes, local papers cannot take strong economic blows, but they’re small, and therefore nimble. Fair enough. But local publications haven’t really played to that strength. They take obvious steps into the 21st century with websites and multimedia content, but the business model is still media buy-outs and mergers, cuts, and ads. There is no space for the innovation required for a new generation of consumers.
In the end, the question of the freedom of the press remains vitally important. The Cascade’s pretty damn lucky to have a student levy — because of it, we won’t die if we don’t sell any ad space in this issue, and for as long as students continue to fund us, we can operate autonomously from UFV, the Student Union Society, or ad-buyers. Other papers are not so lucky, and their coverage is compromised if they’re covering an event put on by the company that helped keep them afloat and took out a full-page ad.
When Abby News refused to give an ad to the Vancouver Humane Society over the summer, which happened to criticize an event that Abby News was sponsoring, they refused to provide an explanation. When the Vancouver Sun called, they refused to respond.
A question of free speech is asked: no one answers, and Liebling’s point still stands.