By Shannon Rupp
The Toronto Star just announced that you can’t trust a thing you read on their website — although that’s not quite the way they phrased it. Canada’s largest daily has joined forces with TheMarkNews.com, one of those free blogger sites, to acquire a small army of unpaid “community correspondents” to cover Ontario’s October 6 election.
A measure of how far removed newspapers are from the media of even 20 years ago can be seen in the badly written ad riddled with grammatical errors. They tell us correspondents will be expected to “use a variety of mediums with an emphasis on video and photos,” which left me wondering how anyone in the professional media doesn’t know that mediums are found only at psychic fairs and clothing stores.
But the breakdown in basic literacy skills is probably of little concern except to reporters from an era when they taught us to dread an editor bellowing across a newsroom: “Rupp! How the hell do you spell separate?” Far more disturbing is seeing the biggest (and many journos would argue the best) newspaper in Canada admit that it is planning to deploy lobbyists and political shills where once they fielded journalists.
“Community correspondents will receive no monetary compensation for their work. The value is being able to shape the debate and broadcast your ideas to the Toronto Star and The Mark’s national audiences,” the ad’s FAQ tells, without a hint of irony.
I guess we’ll have to edit Samuel Johnson’s famous line — no man but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money — to say “nobody but a shill . . .”
Shills are exactly what the Star will be promoting under a banner that once explicitly stood for good journalism, due to the Atkinson Principles. When TorStar bought the paper that published the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan from the estate of publisher Joseph Atkinson in 1958, the deal came with strings attached. The new corporate owners had to continue to treat the paper as a public trust delivering journalism “conducted for the benefit of the public in the continued frank and full dissemination of news and opinions.”
I see no mention of the Atkinson Principles in the community correspondents ad. But the FAQ offers a hilariously ignorant definition of conflict of interest that makes it clear political operatives will be a big part of the “overwhelming number of applications expected.”
“A conflict of interest is defined as a formal or informal affiliation with any political party or interest group with a stake in the election. Conflicts do not disqualify candidates, but they need to be declared in order to maintain the credibility of the project.”
Uh, no. As any journalist can tell you, a conflict of interest is defined as serving two masters simultaneously. A conflict is often determined by who is paying for the service. And make no mistake, all bloggers are paid — just not by the sites running them.
Platforms like The Mark or The Huffington Post collect the copy of people who are paid to write promotional columns for a product or a cause. It’s a form public relations – copy written for self-serving reasons, rather than to inform readers. Some naïve would-be writers think they’re building a career by contributing free pieces to The Mark or HuffPo, but most readers know these sites are just publicity. Which isn’t a criticism: promotional sites have their uses. As journalism disappears, stories of genuine public interest have been ignored, and sites like The Mark provide a place for academics to advertise their books or charities to promote their beliefs.
But it’s not journalism, which is defined by journalists as newsgathering done on behalf of the public. Newspapers attract readers and lay claim to all sorts of privileges, including access to government, because they serve citizens. That’s the product they sell: independent information for participants in a democracy. Or rather, that’s the product they used to sell.
Apparently, the Star thinks there’s more money to be made in running online propaganda. For their sake I hope so, because they just devalued their newspaper by making it obvious they no longer adhere to the Atkinson Principles, or even have enough respect for their readers to bother using the words right.