Monday, March 16, 2009

Every columnist in the mainstream media wants me to lament the impending death of newspapers. Canwest's whiny self-serving Barbara Yaffe even wants me to pay her salary:

"Television production groups last month argued before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that the regulator ought to introduce a levy on Internet service providers -- such as Shaw or Rogers -- whereby three per cent of revenues would go to a fund to support the creation of Canadian online programming.

The same sort of idea could produce a revenue flow for newspapers."

This assertion is so breathtaking in its arrogance, it's hard to know where to begin refuting it. But start with the premise that newspapers, at least the current models, still provide useful information to readers. The Southam-owned Vancouver Sun did at one point. In high school, and even on into university, I delivered the Sun, and read it cover-to-cover every day. Columnists like Frances Bula, Kim Bolan, Lee Bacchus, John Mackie and John Armstrong educated me about how the world worked; through their skill in reporting on crime, or civic affairs, or music, books and television, I found my taste expanded. Nowadays the Sun is firmly in the grip of folks like Yaffe, Harvey Enchin, Shelley Fralic & etc., who all write in a clumsy Canwest house style that reminds me of grade-school reader-ese, the most offensive aspect of which is its conversion of everyone to "we." We're pulling for the Olympics! We're worried about crime! We're buying a house in the 'burbs! We're concerned about government intervention in the free market! We're frightened by media's grip on our kids! & etc.

Canwest, like Ingsoc, routinely invokes disturbing issues, then provides simplistic solutions in clunky, start-stop prose.

What I take from Canwest's house style, and from the collapse of Canadian print media in general, is its assumption that its readership doesn't get out much, and doesn't have alternatives to what's presented in its pages. I say this as a former journalist. In the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote semi-regularly for the North Shore News, the Vancouver Courier, and the Georgia Straight, and occasionally for the Sun. My early experiences with print media were positive: editors were enthusiastic about the work, printed my pieces more or less exactly as submitted, and steadily requested more work from me. Midway through the 1990s, word counts started to fall, and editors began making nit-picky intrusions, asking me to simplify details that weren't hard to begin with. Two examples spring to mind:

EDITOR: Who's this "Warhol" you refer to?

CJB: Oh, come on.

E: Do you mean Andy Warhol?

CJB: Uh, yeah.

E: Better say so! Otherwise a reader might get confused.


SAME EDITOR: Now, in this paragraph, you use the word "abstraction."

CJB: Uh-huh?

SE: Is there a simpler phrase you can use, instead of academic jargon?

CJB: "Non-representational art?"

SE: Let's stick with "abstraction" for now.

People still ask why I quit writing newspaper criticism. When I started at the Straight, art reviews were 1000 words, and the paper printed one or two reviews each week. When I left five years later, reviews, even of group shows, were 500 words maximum. List every participating artist in a six artist group show, name the venue and the relevant dates and what remains of a 500 word review reads like Donald Judd: "John Smith shows a picture. It's square and green."

Strangely, readers never wrote to complain about my conceptual impenetrability. (They did regularly complain about the soundness of my judgments). The only people who had stylistic complaints were newspaper marketing departments, who repeatedly explained that people had a hard time reading more than 500 words at a go, which would probably have surprised journalists like Orwell and Liebling and Twain.

So, contra Barbara Yaffe, I think that print media's great failure was running as fast and as far as it could go from stylistic and intellectual complexity and detail, at a time when unlimited complexity and detail was becoming available online, in real time.

Canwest and the Globe are currently producing products that no one wants to buy, linguistic SUVs instead of smart cars.

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