Legacy media players shouldn’t expect smooth switch to digital

    Apr 20, 2022
    Paul Wells

    OTTAWA—This week marks my three-year anniversary writing for the Hill Times and five years of writing in general, in addition to five years of producing, writing, recording, and curating political and pop culture content for the Bad + Bitchy podcast. In this time, the news media landscape has shifted its tectonic plates to a decentralized new media model from a highly centralized mass media model. The times are shifting again, and media will feel the pinch.

    Politico Canada reported that “Paul Wells is launching an eponymous newsletter that’ll serve as a home for his eclectic mix of writing. Canadian politics? You bet. The arts? Of course. The tagline? ‘Politics and culture as though they mattered.’” Jazzy. Fact is, Wells will need more than a tired tagline to make his Substack work. Wells goes onto say: “‘This isn’t a hobby. This is my full-time job … I’m going to have a steady stream of original reporting, interviews with newsmakers, reporting from the site of major news events, and analysis that clarifies and puts things into context.’” That’s fine, but for all of what he’s saying he’s going to do, he needs his own team and production studio to do it. Wells will now have to become an expert in the business of digital news; he will have to be both producer and production assistant, media strategist and design lead, marketing marvel and ad man, all to be successful in this new paradigm into which he’s entering. Plus, he’ll have to have a more expansive social media presence. That’s what digital media requires, and all media is digital. How are these old dudes going to compete in a world of digital savvy? They neither have the skills, nor have they developed them, for a digital world. And that’s where success in mainstream print journalism doesn’t translate into success in the digital world. And news is digital.

    Look at Peter Mansbridge’s podcast, unimaginatively called, The Bridge. It is a podcast no one talks about and no one references. I know zero people who listen to it, however if I bring up a Canadaland podcast, Sandy and Nora Talk Politics, or Bad + Bitchy, I know people who listen to these podcasts religiously. They are often brought up as topics of conversation because they’re doing news media differently. Yes, I know I plugged my own pod, but being out and about (finally) made me realize how many people respect and appreciate that we cover politics from a perspective of the marginalized people who have been traditionally left out of politics and policy. We open the door for those who have had it shut in their faces. What is Paul Wells’ schtick, besides being Paul Wells?

    And that’s what successful new media do: they create a niche market for those unattended to in the traditional market, whether through the mainstream’s marginalization of particular topics or people or stories or regions. And while Wells has a name and connections, which will give him a leg up, he still must hustle and must do so on Twitter, since that platform is the office water cooler of our lives. I haven’t seen him rejoin the app, and let’s be honest, if he couldn’t take Twitter circa 2017, he won’t be able to deal with its nonsense in 2022. Privileged white men aren’t used to hustling and grinding, so I’m not sure what the strategy is, or what his model is.

    On the flip side, what happened to Maclean’s? A once-prominent magazine that was touted as the New Yorker of Canada, has devolved into a shitshow of clickbait, obnoxious headlines and a tacky Apple News+ presence. Mike Lapointe reported in this paper that there is a new management team after Maclean’s was bought by St. Joseph Communications. Wells, who was interviewed for that piece, shed some light on the labour practices that tanked the publication: “‘Toronto Life has no staff writers, and in recent years has never had staff writers, and relies exclusively on freelance,’ said Wells.” In other words, new management isn’t used to working with professionals and specialists of their craft.

    And that’s the point. The rush to the bottom of labour rights and benefits is what ended up diluting the quality of the product—the news and current affairs. Talent is lost and new talent isn’t developed, so there is no pipeline for quality reporting and commentary. The product is cheapened and the necessary relationships to improve the product are never formed. And news media is a microcosm of what is going on in the greater economy, in various industries. Perhaps we should no longer rely on policies and prescriptives created by a generation of useless MBAs who have never run a business but are apparently omniscient about business, including how to cheapen the product and the talent that makes the product valuable.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.