‘Keep the canary alive in the coal mine’

It was brutal this week. Our economy, already suffering a nauseating number of unemployed, seems to be developing the same horrible momentum of the COVID 19 infection rate. The difference is most of us will get through the pandemic, not all of us will survive the economic contagion.

News 24’s announcement of newspaper and magazine closures and the cannibalisation of other editorial functions provoked the typical clamour of digital distress. But all those beating their breasts should be ashamed of themselves. Their messages of condolence should stick in their craw.

Nothing will happen, this is social media after all: next week will roll around with a new outrage on the diary to virtue signal. Our media is in dire shape. The Coronavirus just took it and gave it a very hard shake. This is not a reset, it’s a culling of the weak in the herd, but there’s no guarantee who will make it to the waterhole – or if there’ll even be water if they get there.

We can blame rapacious owners draining papers for profit or reframing news in their own image and likeness, but the true villains are the readers themselves. The crisis we are living in now began decades before, when people stopped reading papers – and certainly paying for them.

As the eyeballs diminished, so too did the advertisers until all that was left was the flotsam and jetsam of legal notices published under duress – and the odd, sad sex worker. Far too many readers stopped buying papers because they didn’t like how their echo chambers were being disrupted – they didn’t like the bad news, or the stories about people who didn’t look like them and certainly didn’t think like them.

Many gleefully reported how they could get their news for free from overseas TV channels or from social media, little understanding that overseas TV only ever broadcast local stories when it’s 5-to-catastrophe while social media is a toxic stew of fake news, fuckery and fantasy with lashings of character assassination and confirmation bias.

Legacy media were often their own worst enemies, allowing consultants to lead fearful print editors and managers by the nose, evangelising the gospel of clicks,  shovelling the news you’d pay for in print onto sites for free, squirming in delight when content went viral or was ‘curated’ by competitors conveniently forgetting that Facebook likes and retweets pay neither salaries nor the water and lights.

They blithely ignored the fact that people won’t pay for papers if they can get news for free on their cell phones. The readers didn’t care, living large on the flush of the info-demic.

Well that’s all changing. Another 500 journalists are about to find themselves on the streets, next to the thousands of has-beens trying to flip burgers, peddle insurance or re-write press releases.

It doesn’t have to get any worse. Buy your local paper while you still can, engage with the editors. Hold them to account. Make your newspaper once again, as Arthur Miller famously said, a nation talking to itself. Keep the canary alive in the coal mine. It really isn’t that difficult.

Originally published on 11 July 2020 in the Saturday Star