31 January, 2016

The End Of Local

Not long after I got here in 1990, our local newspaper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, ran a story on page A1, above the fold.

Its title was:

A) Councillor Retires After 33 Years Of Service
B) Potbellied Pigs Make Perfect Pets
C) Ethel Bloodthwaite Gets New Screen Door

Bear in mind that this city had a population, at the time, approaching 400,000 people. It wasn't quite a metropolis, but it was quite a long ways from being a one-horse town.

The correct answer is B, and no, I am not making this up: the most important story of the day, that day, was that potbellied pigs make perfect pets.

I very rarely read an edition of the local rag after that. Every once in a while I'd pick up a copy, confirming with one glance at the front page that if it didn't happen within city limits, it didn't happen. Ethel Bloodthwaite and her new screen door would come up every time I talked about the Record, to my wife's unending chagrin. Oh, look, she'd say when I brandished a copy of the Globe and Mail prominently featuring a piece of Toronto-centered fluff. It looks like Ethel done up and moved. 

Yes, but her pigs are still rooting around town, and damnit, they make perfect pets!


Guelph, Ontario, population 175,779, just lost its local paper, the Mercury, in business since 1867. Very nearly a century and a half, vanished, leaving a thriving city without a local newspaper.

I'm sure many of my readers don't care: newspapers. How quaint. Next he'll be lamenting the loss of video stores and blacksmiths. 

Here's where I admit to a lifelong love of newspapers. I still have a weekend subscription to the dead-tree edition of the Globe and Mail, and it's something I look forward to every Saturday morning. There's something about an actual newspaper that bespeaks seriousness of purpose. This is the news, it says, in indelible ink. The pixels on your screen are peripatetic, winking in and out of existence, but the paper? Stored properly, it will outlast me.

I've read the Toronto Sun since fairly early childhood. Now, the Sun has its detractors, and I am often one of them. Let's see: sensationalistic, unabashed right wing trash, riddled with typos; and let's not forget the daily portrait that used to grace (?) the inside cover and now resides somewhere near the back: Sindee, 19, who loves dancing, shopping, and anal sex. Oh, and while the Sunday edition used to push 300 pages at times, 200 of them would consist of full-page ads.

Yes, the Sun was and is heavily flawed, and its reporting of the news is more biased than most papers. But it had two things going for it back in the day. One, it wore its bias proudly and didn't even pretend to be evenhanded. Two, and much more importantly, it allowed and encouraged its writers to express whatever opinions they had, regardless of whether or not they fell in line with editorial orthodoxy.

I can't begin to tell you how exhilarating that is for a reader like me, watching two writers feuding with each other in print. You could learn something. You could learn a lot. It was much better than the Toronto Star, a paper with whose politics I generally AGREE: there was and is no room for dissenting opinion in the Star, and it leans at least as far left as the Sun does right.

Then there's the National Post, also very unapologetically right-wing, but at least it has an excuse: it's marketed to millionaires. Their HOMES section ought to be called ESTATES or MANSIONS or some such, and rare is the car review of something plebeian like a humble Ford or Toyota.  What the Post does have going for it is a dearth of advertisements. In their place there is lots of long-form, meaty journalism.

The Post is on life support and has been for years. Because of so few ads? Possibly. More likely there was never room for a second national newspaper in a country with less population than metro Tokyo.

Finally, the Globe and Mail, which bills itself as Canada's paper of record. I find it strikes a pretty fair balance, and it employs a number of my favourite columnists, among them Tabatha Southey and Elizabeth Renzetti.   Its Arts section on Saturdays is a treasure trove.

Pardon me that digression. I just wanted to say I've been reading papers for a long time, and I don't read them online very much. Somehow they seem...I don't know...cheapened online, like virtually (ha-ha) everything else.

I'm an old curmudgeon that way, I guess. Because everything is migrating online. Information longs to be free and all that, but free doesn't put food on the table for those who gather it, edit it, or opine on it. And so the Canadian media has lost ten thousand jobs in the past decade, and the American media is shrinking at the rate of a thousand jobs a month. Newsrooms are consolidating in major centres: local papers, like the Mercury, are being crumpled up and thrown in the garbage bin of history.

It's not just newspapers. Canada may lose half of its local television stations by 2020. Again, the major reason is that people aren't watching local news any more, preferring to get all their content online.

Except if there' s a reliable source of local news online, I've yet to find it.  It's certainly not in any sort of convenient package.

We haven't had access to local television news for many years. For a long time we had Bell satellite, and it would show my dad's local news, and Eva's mom's local news, but not ours. Now we don't have the satellite any more (and what a trip through bureaucratic hell THAT was: I don't look forward to ditching our landline by the end of next month, let me tell you). We've got Netflix and Shomi and we'll almost certainly get rid of Shomi soon. Primewire and Putlocker have everything those two do and much, much more, and they're free with your unlimited Internet connection. Hard to beat that.

Local is disappearing, at least for now. (I don't believe forever: for one thing, I don't believe the Internet will exist in anything like its present form a century hence). But for now...

Local is boring. Who wants to stay close to home when there's a digital world, a galaxy, a universe, out there just beyond the next click?  Why talk to the person in the same room when you can text somebody halfway around the world (or in the next room?)

Progress isn't always progress, you know. It's the secular equivalent of Satanic to say this out loud: it's apt to brand you a heretic, a Luddite loser who wants to go live in a cave. (As if there's nothing in the whole of human existence between "cavemen"--very, very few of whom actually lived in caves--and the present day!)

But progress isn't always progress. Sometimes, maybe even often, it's regression instead. Compare the respective quality of a 1970s appliance with its modern counterpart. Today's has more bells and whistles, to be sure, but it will also be a brick in five or seven years. Rather than face this truth, we've created a world in which novelty is a virtue. Well, guess what? Novelty is often pointless. Why buy a new something when your old something does what you want it to do?

Pity about the collateral damage as we chase the newest gadget and the cheapest way to get news of the world. We're losing a very valuable sense of locality, a grounding in the here and now. Some of us are losing livelihoods. Adapt or perish. Survival of the fittest.

What's fit, again?

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get Ethel to close her screen door before the last pig gets out.

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