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No Easy Solutions for Journalism’s WoesNo Easy Solutions for Journalism’s Woes

No Easy Solutions for Journalism’s Woes

Cardus’ Daniel Proussalidis marks National Newspaper week by speaking with independent journalist Jen Gerson on what the future holds for newsgathering in Canada.

Daniel Proussalidis
4 minute read

Canada needs journalists – such is the theme of the 80th annual National Newspaper Week, which began Sunday. It’s tough to argue with the claim, frankly. Of course, Canada needs journalists who are free to uncover, discover, and convey news from our neighbourhoods on up to the international level. Canada also needs commentators who are free to provide their point of view or analysis of that news. All countries do.

So, while newspapers can (and should) make the case for their continued existence, we need to ask a broader question: How we can have good journalists and what media outlets will carry their work?

Some, seem to have found an answer in journalism freed from the strictures of big media companies.

Jen Gerson, who left regular employment as a National Post reporter to strike out on her own in 2018, is one such person.

“This is something that I find so funny is that a lot of people who are in mainstream media look at what I’m doing and go, ‘Oh, you’re taking such a risk. You’re out on a limb. What are you doing?’” Gerson tells Cardus’s podcast The Long Way. “I’m looking at them and saying, ‘You know, you’re two weeks from a layoff notice. Who’s taking risks?’”

She’s not wrong.

Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs in 2020. And the year, with all its economic troubles, isn’t done yet.

“There is no such thing as a secure position in media,” says Gerson. “Just because you have a pension plan and benefits and a business card, doesn’t protect you. All of these industries are going down. We don’t know which ones are going to survive in 10 years or even two.”

Now, Gerson has started her own outlet called The Line. The site describes itself as “an outlet for engaging, irreverent writing” from Canadian newspaper and magazine writers who are free from “institutional cultures enforcing a state of stifling conformity.”

So, Gerson – who admits it would be challenging for her to be “governable” in a newsroom – is enjoying her independence.

“I say what I think, but I still believe in the dictates of journalism,” she says. “I still believe in rigour. I still believe in holding even my own beliefs to scrutiny as much as possible.”

While objectivity is out of reach, given how subjective we all are as individuals, balance and fairness are not. As an example, Gerson offers her approach toward people with whom she may deeply disagree.

“If I'm going to talk someone who is a deeply conservative, deeply religious person who believes that abortion is fundamentally killing babies, then I have to represent that person's views fairly,” she tells The Long Way. “I can't say this person wants to turn the world into a Handmaid's Tale dystopian nightmare because that's just not true, right? That's not accurate to the viewpoints. And that requires a degree of empathy that I think is fundamental to the world of journalism.”

Gerson essentially connects empathy to fairness and accuracy – key concepts in journalism. So, it’s not surprising that she also rejects a very different approach to journalism we often see in Canada and elsewhere: trying to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

“I think that that is basically an activist mantra, right?” she says. “I mean, if your job is to be hard on rich people and easy on the poor, that's not really telling the truth necessarily in all times, right? My ideal here is to speak what I think is true and if I'm sort of filtering that through what is at its heart a progressive activist mantra, then that's limiting my ability to speak that truth.”

Gerson also points to a different facet of media freedom that she now enjoys by being working away from a mainstream outlet.

“I think there's been a dramatic narrowing of what is acceptable to be talked about in mainstream media and I think that it's been happening over time and then it accelerated as a result of COVID,” says Gerson.

She points to media finances as a major factor in this phenomenon.

“You’re only as free as your ability to pay the rent,” she adds. “And you're only as free to say what you think as long as you can drop a client and afford to do that because your integrity matters more. The second you don't have enough money in the bank to do these things, you're stuck. And I think that that unfortunately is a decision that a lot of media outlets are in right now. They just don't have the luxury of getting into too much trouble. They don't have the luxury of risking a potential social media backlash.”

But Gerson doesn’t see non-mainstream media as a perfect solution to the problem. Every journalism model has its drawbacks.

“You know, you're always going to be beholden to the group of people who cut the cheque,” she says. “So, who do you imagine is going to cut the cheque if you try a different model? You know, government-funded journalism has problems. Crowdsourced journalism, which is sort of what I'm engaged with, has problems. Advertising-driven journalism has problems. And the algorithmically derived information bubbles that we've created also is deeply problematic. This strikes me as a problem without an easy solution, and probably a problem with half a dozen solutions.”

So, yes, Canada needs journalists, as the folks behind National Newspaper Week would remind us.

The difficult bit is figuring out how to get and keep those journalists freely working and gainfully employed.

The problem isn’t totally new.

But the solutions, when we find them, will be.

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