Will more digging save the media biz?

Media heavyweights including Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank and Real News Network founder Paul Jay gathered recently to debate the continuing role of investigative reporters. Melissa Wilson was there.

With cutbacks and layoffs threatening even the strongest news outlets, reporters, editors and bloggers alike are all thinking about one thing: the Holy Grail, the thing that will “save” mainstream media from ruin. While many focus on the move to the web, the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR) is suggesting an alternate saviour: an increase in investigative reporting. 

Last Wednesday, Aug.5th, the CCIR hosted a panel discussion in Toronto that began with three questions: Is the mainstream media dying? Can investigative reporting save it? And should it? The panel featured industry heavyweights John Cruickshank, Paul Jay, Bruce Livesey and Bob Culbert and was hosted by the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay.  

The panelists generally agreed that the mainstream media is not dying. Bilbo Poynter, executive director of the CCIR, said after the panel that they were “meaning to be a bit provocative. We don’t think that mainstream media is necessarily on its deathbed, but it’s certainly ailing.” 

Each panelist had his own take on the state of the media, however. Cruickshank, publisher of The Toronto Star, suggested the hard times are a result of a recent focus on the economic side of producing the news. He cited the loss of classified ad sales as a major blow to metropolitan newspapers like the Star, noting that classifieds used to represent about 35% of a paper’s ad revenue and now they are “gone forever.”

Cruickshank stressed that if print publications are to survive, they must be willing to adapt and to “convert from newspaper companies to news companies.”

On the other side of the argument, Paul Jay, creator of The Real News Network, said “it’s only the repetition of daily news that has a real, lasting effect.” Unfortunately, he added, long-form pieces of journalism, including investigative reporting, are often read and discarded.  

The solution, according to Bob Culbert, is to re-saturate the media with investigative reporting and create a healthy balance between that and daily news reporting. “There’s far too much news and not enough current affairs [coming out of the mainstream media],” Culbert, a 40-year journalism veteran, said. He questioned why there are only two current affairs shows on CBC when there used to be eight or nine. “News is an easier sell to an audience…it takes real courage to do current affairs reporting.”

All of these shifts have led to a “decline of public engagement in the news itself,” according to Cruickshank.  

“People don’t feel the media belongs to them anymore,” agreed Jay. “If we want engagement, it’s up to us … it’s not the audience’s fault if they’ve lost interest.” 

According to Bruce Livesey, a CBC producer, what we’re seeing in the media today is a “self-inflicted wound.” Part of the crisis, he said, is that the mainstream media has somewhat discredited itself. As an example, he cited the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the pretense of searching out weapons of mass destruction. The media did little to investigate this claim, which is now known to be false. Unsatisfied by a number of such events, he said, the public eventually started to tune out the media.

Jay thinks it’s during critical moments in history like the invasion of Iraq, or the events of 9/11, when the public hungers the most for investigative news. “That’s when the whole society really wants to know what’s going on.” And yet, it seems that’s where investigative reporting sometimes falls short.

Poynter believes that investigative reporting is crucial to the continuing health of the mainstream media.”I suppose our stake in the argument is that we need to have more outlets and more sources of investigative reporting. There are less and less of these and less security for the ones that still function, whether they be at a newspaper or a public broadcaster.”  

And for the future? “Investigative reporting isn’t something the media has ever found they could go without for very long,” said Poynter. “There should be a healthy, independent investigative source of news in this country and we think there is room for more.”

Melissa Wilson is a freelance writer and former intern at This Magazine who is gearing up to complete her fourth and final year at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. She is based in Toronto.