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Market Squared: We are not a news desert

The Guelph Mercury is gone and not forgotten, but that's not a crisis. It's an opportunity
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The atmosphere was a bit like an Irish Wake — a lot of smiles, laughs, memories — but also a terrible sense that something truly unique and important was gone.

Of course, I’m talking about the book launch this past Saturday for Guelph Mercury Rising, a volume that former staff members of the paper put together as a way they could both come to peace with the sudden closure of Guelph’s daily, and to publish something together one more time. 

Truly, even though it’s been a year and a half later, the closure of the Mercury still sings. Though a bigger Guelph [Mercury] Tribune, the arrival of GuelphToday, and my own efforts at Guelph Politico have tried to fill its shoes — and I think we’ve done an admirable job — there’s no denying that the city lost an important, unifying platform.

You may have loved the Mercury, you may have hated it, but it was the baseline for the city, a way to confirm that we are where we think we are. 

In the spirit of holding two things in your head at the same time, there was another thread to the speeches at the book launch. In our grief for the Mercury, it seems, that the news gods hath forsaken us. No twice-weekly paper, no website, and no borderline smug city council live-tweeter/podcaster is going to be able to fill that void. 

Let’s be candid, there are resources that a daily newspaper has that other media sources don’t. Patience is one, investment in long-form storytelling and research.

Not a lot of investigative reporting happens at sites like Vox.com and Buzzfeed, their speciality is the quick hit, info-dumps and catchy headlines that make you want to click on them. The value of a newspaper article is only found in the reading, and only by the one reading it. 

And what about these blogs?! These blogs and websites that literally anyone can create, and don’t get us started about social media! That was another undercurrent at the book launch, and you know what, the talk wasn’t entirely wrong. We rely on these sources for information, but the public has become very aware that it’s easy for the right people with the wrong intention to start touting themselves as a source of information.

But you know what? That’s always been the case. 

Our view of the newspaper as the arbiter of objectivity and righteous fact is a modern invention, and not coincidentally one that came after Watergate and the definitive reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that lead to the fall of Richard Nixon. 

Looking back even further to the 19th Century, in a day and age when the only source of current events was a newspaper, anyone with an idea and access to a printing press could make their own paper or pamphlet.

Multiple newspapers, with a myriad of points of view, published information and editorials according to the whim of its publisher, who usually had political and economic goals they were hoping to persuade the public to believe in.

Looking at things honestly, the online media Wild West of blogs, podcasts, vidcasts, and Facebook have more in common with the glory days of print journalism than the media landscape as it was in the 80s and 90s. There’s something more democratic about that. Something more dangerous, yes, but there’s also tremendous opportunity for discussion and the sharing of information, not to mention the promotion of issues that might not typically make the front page (or the back page for that matter). 

What’s required now is media literacy. How do you identify bias? How can you trust the information a website or social media feed is giving you? How do they back-up their information? How do they react when they need to correct something? Why is one site saying one thing, and 10 other sites are saying something else on the same issue? 

For instance, Gerry Barker of Guelph Speaks has in the past called me a “friendly blogger.” What he means is I don’t use my platform to yell and scream at city council and staff for not doing what I want. And yes, I am non-combative. My goal isn’t to be combative, it’s to get information, and generally speaking it's easier to get flies with honey than vinegar as the old saying goes. Not that the people at City Hall are insects, of course!

Do I have biases when writing the news for Guelph Politico? Yes. I believe things like more transit is good. More transparency and information are good. More protest and advocacy are good. I think that’s a pretty good mission statement to build a news and political site on, and I think the things I post to Politico, be they written, video, or audio, represent those ideals.

Except maybe the Creepy Clown on campus thing from last fall. That was weird for the sake of weird. 

In any event, I stand by the idea that Guelph has enough stories for several new media endeavours, and although we like the idea of a paper of record, there was, frankly, always more going on in a day than space on the page to cover it, or enough hours in a reporter’s day. 

The next great problem with media isn’t going to be what replaces the newspaper, it’s how will these media outlets pay for themselves. Despite the refrain “print is dead”, what’s killing papers isn’t the Internet or a lack of readers, it's the bottom line. Where does the money come from for future media enterprises? The spirit is willing, but the flesh needs a place to sleep, food to eat, and coffee.

Lots of coffee. 

Now part of that is a change in attitude on the part of the reader too. One of the most ignorant things I read after the announcement of the Mercury’s closure was someone on Facebook saying, “I get my news from my phone anyway.”

Sure. Phoney McPhoneface: beat reporter. He’s going to all the places you won’t because news is made by your phone and not the guy sitting in the eight-hour city council meeting. You know, the human. 

I guess the message here is that this era of media puts the onus on the news consumer to be more than passive participants of the media they’re given. We’re asking you to make judgments about your news sources, their quality, and their biases. We’re asking you to make monetary investments because nothing worthwhile is ever truly free. And we’re asking for participation. Giving you the news is one thing, but know where there might be news that matters that we don’t know about. Reporters too can be overwhelmed by what’s out there in trying to decide what’s newsworthy. 

As for the Guelph Mercury, it was an institution. It had 149 years of recording the first draft of Guelph’s history as it happened, and I think we still only barely appreciate what was, in fact, lost by its closure.

Having said that though, Guelph is far from a news desert. The truth is out there, and some of us are still chasing it from our sullied Internet perch.



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