Gwynne Dyer: historian, writer, journalist and man with a sardonic voice that seems to beckon brandy and a pipe while lulling you with years of compelling, observational wisdom. Vue had the opportunity to sit with Dyer for a candid and surprisingly humorous conversation on the state of journalism around the world—sans the brandy and pipe.
VUE WEEKLY: Let’s start with a quote from editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger: “I think we have to face up to the prospect that for the first time since the Enlightenment, you are going to have major cities in the UK and western democracies without any kind of a verifiable source of news. That hasn’t happened for 200 to 300 years, and I think it is going to have very profound implications.” I find this statement terrifying. But it seems with Postmedia owning all Southam and Sun chains, everything but The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, this certainly has happened in Canada. So how do you have a democracy without opposing news voices?
GWYNNE DYER: I wouldn’t say 200 to 300 years ago; journalism was a fairly banned activity at that time. But we certainly have had 100 years. And it is really coming to an end. The kinds of “journals of record” that we used to have several of, that would check upon each others’ veracity, are down to a very paltry few.
I’m not declaring global disaster, because it was never really that wonderful to begin with. … You only have two verifiable, reliable sources of news in print in New York, then there is broadcast media of varying reliability. You can also look at the Washington Post and look at the [New York] Times and The Guardian [online]—those websites have millions of hits a day. So maybe, partly what’s happening is that the area has expanded, but the number of verifiable sources has not. You now have access to at least as many [sources] as you had at the height of the newspaper era, but they are not all [local]. For local news, you are actually up a tree.
VW: The foundations of the traditional business model are crumbling due to changes in the scale and character of news consumption: free sheets, the Internet news consumption and the global recession has created a perfect storm.
GD: The timing was amazing, but actually the perfect storm for newspapers hit earlier. They were already staggering; less so in Canada, interestingly enough. And what happened in the US had nothing to do with digital/the web. They think it did, but actually it had to do with the frenzy of so-called vertical integration that happened in the ’90s.
VW: Vertical integration?
GD: This was an investment idea, that we could buy up a lot of broadcast media and print media and, instead of having to gather news for each one of them, we could gather the news up once and spread it around, and then we’ll get rich. Or at least, people will think they’ll get rich and so we’ll buy all that, put it together and flip it to some idiot who’ll think this is really going to work. And this was repeated several times. Of course, what you did before you flipped it was you mortgaged everything to the hilt and left it very deep in debt. … Your average American newspaper, 40 years ago, was debt-free. Now they are so deep in debt that it’s either pay the reporters or pay the bank. The story is [that] this is all the web’s fault. No, it’s not.
Here in Canada, the newspapers are in slightly better shape because that didn’t happen so much here—although you had people like Conrad Black trying to do it, but he went to jail instead. … You know, he had me expelled from every newspaper he owned.
VW: That’s impressive—and a badge of honour, in a way.
GD: Well it is, although I lost quite a lot of my income that way. His wife, Barbara Amiel, walked into the offices of the Jerusalem Post one day, just after he bought it, and saw my column and I was gone like that. He didn’t even own the Canadian newspapers at that point, but I knew what was coming when I heard that he bought them—but that’s just personal onus. He was trying to actually build a good newspaper, and although I have no admiration for him, in most respects, he did, in the end, produce a decent newspaper. The National Post is not a bad newspaper.
VW: It’s a little too right-leaning for my taste.
GD: Well, I know it is, but at least it’s to the right of The Globe and Mail. So you can now think of that as Canada’s right-wing newspaper and The Globe and Mail as Canada’s only slightly right newspaper.
VW: And what, The Georgia Straight is our only left-leaning paper?
GD: (laughs) Yeah, and they had to drop my column because they were running out of money too. The alternative weeklies are all dying, because what they lived on was listings and nobody buys them for listings anymore.
VW: And when they are gone ..
GD: Yes. When Conrad Black threw me out … my solution was to transit to all the alternative weeklies. … I went to NOW in Toronto, Georgia Straight in Vancouver, Vue here in Edmonton and Fast Forward in Calgary. So I got them all and replaced that income. The only one left is Vue; [the rest] all had to drop me because they just ran out of money. They’re all going down, and I doubt if any will exist in 10 years’ time, including The Georgia Straight.
Journalism of some sort will continue, and at some point … people need reliable news. The people with money or jobs or something big at stake need accurate news. So that kind of news will continue to be produced in some way or another. Maybe a new business model will emerge: subscriptions, pay by view, whatever. It’s not working yet, you bet, but [people] are going to need accurate reporting because they are going to need to make decisions. They can’t gather all the information themselves.