Pique'n yer interest: Sinking ships 

Rats and the current news media paradigm

My fist pet was a rat. He was of the hooded, Norwegian variety, pretty smart little dude, too. Regrettably, for lack of both wit and imagination, I named him Buster. But he carried that burden with panache, romping through life like he owned the place, scaling family legs to the bounty of the dinner table, sometimes disappearing for days in the bowels of the house, only to remerge in my pillow case, his inquisitive nose nudging my ear lobe as I bedded down for another night.

Lots of people thought Buster was disgusting, a carrier of plague and fleas, vermin fit only for death. Eventually, they got their way. Two and half years into his life, Buster contracted some sort of lung disease, started sleeping standing up, his lips and ears blue and his chest heaving. I had him put down. The vet, insensitive geek, handed him back to me in a shoebox, which I immediately opened, only to see his legs still twitching as the poison worked its way through his collapsing system. Poor Buster. Though he was just a rat, I learned a lot from him, things about caring, protecting, cherishing and understanding. Important things.

A lot of people look at news media the same way they did Buster. Fair enough. Who likes a bunch of prying, self-important generalists vying for the last word on everything from culture to politics, history to business? Who wants to hang around with a gaggle of hyper-competitive narcissists rubbing their inky hands in anticipation of someone's public failure? A bunch of parasites spouting axioms like "If it bleeds, it leads"? I'd rather hang out with drug dealers and class action law specialists.

Of course, we're not all like that. At least, we're not always all like that. Given the pace of today's new cycle, Watergate was a long time ago, and the fall from grace has since been fast and shameless, be it the puny challenge mounted against the reasons to invade Iraq, or the bullying, Conservative-spun coverage of ousted Liberal leader Stéphane Dion during the last federal election. But there have been moments of levitation that can renew trust and dignity in the media machine. CBC Radio, for example. Stephanie Nolan's writings about Africa. Roy MacGregor's conjurings of Canada. Select pages in The New York Times and Washington Post. Aaron Wherry's Parliamentary blog on Macleans.ca. The Guardian. The Hill Times. The Walrus. The Atlantic. Believe it or not, the list goes on.

At least, it has been going on. From big to small, media outlets are struggling to keep the colour in their lips amid a crashing global economy and bewildering changes in technology. The CBC is sounding alarm bells over budget shortfalls worth tens of millions, though the government is so far completely indifferent. CTV, whose parent company owns The Globe and Mail, says it will lose $100 million from its TV lifelines. They're so hard up they tried to sell a Manitoba station to the CBC for $1 - and talks broke down. Meanwhile, CanWest, owner of The National Post, The Province and The Vancouver Sun, owes billions and is battling to keep creditors at bay, while Global, its TV arm, is shutting down stations. Then there's TorStar, which is shedding jobs like Lassie with lupus.

It's the same story everywhere, except in some places it's much worse. Newfoundland's The Independent recently put out its last issue, taking with it the province's best news and feature writing and leaving the island and overlooked mainland to the bland and corporate doings of Transcontinental Media. Denver's Rocky Mountain News also stopped publishing last week, and that was an award winning journalistic institution of 150 years.

In the Sea to Sky corridor, similar forces are at work. The Sea to Sky News has been sold yet again, while the page count in Pique is lower than usual, a reality that takes with it either depth, scope of coverage, or both. Meanwhile, The Chief sensationalizes the odd headline (like the recent "Sustainability Corp faces demise") in the hopes of drawing more eyeballs than the market might ordinarily offer.

The erosion of news media is not always a bad thing, especially if you're a blogger or some other kind of citizen journalist. Annoying though you may be, people like you, with your camera phones and other gadgets, are in part responsible for exposing such garbage as the RCMP testimony at the inquiry on the Tazer death of Robert Dziekanski. Then again, there are enough unqualified people working under the forgiving guise of actual media to close the idea of encouraging still more.

Fortunately, rats are versatile creatures. They can squeeze through holes the size of a quarter just as easily as survive a fall from five stories. Some research goes so far as to say rats and roaches are the only life forms that scurry unawares in the aftermath of a nuclear blast.

New business models will have to come on stream. People are thinking about local ownership and dissolving the sacred divide between advertorial and editorial. Some people think news items should be sold the same way music is on iTunes. Others that cell phones have a role to play.

No doubt there's a fix out there, and no doubt it'll bring with it a massive reshaping of the ethical and functional landscape. Not all of that change will be good, which is worrying considering how much of what's currently out there is already pretty bad.

No matter what happens, it won't happen anytime soon. In the meantime, all these events do tell us something. After all, we all know what rats do on a sinking ship.

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