The Golden Era of Journalism

Veteran journalist Ian Gill on the future of the industry

By Veronnica Mackillop

Media in Canada is changing every day, and according to reporter Ian Gill, we’re on the cusp of a golden era of journalism­—despite all evidence to the contrary.

Gill moved to Vancouver from Australia in the 1980s, and worked for the Vancouver Sun for seven years, followed by several years as a television reporter for CBC. In 1994, he started his own philanthropic foundation, Ecotrust Canada, which he ran for about 20 years.

“I partly did that because I felt that the impact that journalism was having seemed to be diminishing,” says Gill.

He left Ecotrust Canada when he realized his true vocation lay in storytelling—an area where he thought he could have the most impact. Today, Gill serves as president of Discourse Media, a Vancouver-based independent journalism company with a focus on in-depth reporting.

Last year, Gill also published a book, called No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse—and What Comes Next. He says it came about somewhat by chance, as he was doing research about social innovation and social finance issues for The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. The foundation thought the book was a little too pointed in its critique for them to use, so Gill published it on his own.

“I was a journalist; I am a journalist. I guess you never quite get it out of your system,” he says. “They were kind enough to give me my words back.They were quite happy that I would go off and publish this.”

“The funny thing about a book like this,” he continues, “is that almost as soon as I hit send on the final draft of the manuscript, it was out of date the next day, because things are happening so quickly. I think that the basic premise of the book still holds, which is that we’ve kind of missed the boat on the digital revolution in Canada from a journalistic point of view.”

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Ian Gill’s book, published in 2016

Gill finds it “astonishing” that we trumpet Vancouver as a world-class city and yet have such a poor media environment. “Vancouver is in shockingly poor shape from a media point of view,” he says. “We think of ourselves as a first-class city and we have third-rate media.” The only thing world class about Vancouver, he adds, “are our real estate prices.”

Gill says the low-quality media in the city is not being helped by the closing of newsrooms, both small and large. He thinks that what we are seeing, as a result, is a diminution in actual coverage of the city.

The concept of “news poverty,” which Gill talks about in his book, describes the new reality where the public is dramatically less informed about current events.

“We don’t cover the courts, for instance, with anywhere near the frequency and depths that we used to. When was the last time you ever saw anyone identify as a labour reporter? We still have labour relations, we still have unions, we still have workplace issues in this province, and it’s one of the most under-reported sectors you can find anywhere.

“Where’s the comprehensive reporting about health issues in Vancouver? Who’s really covering the Downtown Eastside?”

Gill thinks that what readers used to take for granted as the job of reporters just isn’t getting done anymore. “An ecosystem is stronger if it has diversity, so what we’ve seen in the journalism ecosystem in Canada […] is an increasing lack of diversity.”

Like many reporters, Gill believes that the current political situation in the United States is going to force the media to do some serious self-reflection. Specifically, he worries about “anti-immigration, aggressively retrograde opinions, and the sort of retreat to social silos that are encouraged to appeal to very narrow interests.”

He argues that now is the time for media to take a huge step back and look at how we cover these issues to encourage public discourse, rather than division. Part of this reflection, according to Gill, requires the media to stop pandering to the lowest
common denominator.

“There’s a bit of a myth, I think, that people only want to read 140-
character tweets—and that reflects the superficiality of people—[but] I don’t think that’s true. In fact, there’s evidence that millennials are actually very interested in long-form complex journalism about things they care about.”

Millennials, like many readers, want quality content, according to Gill. “I think that the age of media being able to insult the intelligence of their readers and their viewers is over, and I think that’s a good thing. I think Canadians have got to come to some realization that if they want quality journalism, they’re going to pay for it.”

As for people just emerging out of journalism school, Gill thinks there is hope yet—but not necessarily in legacy media. “There will be a lot of work, it seems to me, in new creative pursuits and digital developments.Look at the places where reporting isn’t happening. Why is it not happening? It’s not because people aren’t curious about the courts, or city hall, or a whole bunch of other things. It’s because broken business models now have shed coverage of these things because they keep cutting back on reporting.”

Gill believes that collaboration is going to be a key factor in saving the media. “I think these days, being intentional and really serious about collaborating is really the only way people are going to be able to make it in journalism today. There are very few opportunities, and not really a need to be first to a story anymore. Being first with real analysis and being first with smart reporting rather than just being first is an area that has sort of blossomed.”

Without collaboration, Gill believes that journalism is at risk of continuing its decline. “Legacy media clings on to this old notion of brand and exclusivity in journalism, which I think is really counterproductive. The real opportunity that we need to look at is how can our journalism have an impact, and what the intention of our journalism is when we set out to do it.”

He believes that looking at stories in terms of ratings rather than public interest is a poor metric that is failing journalism. “I think if some of the legacy media were to begin to think more creatively, and think about collaborations, they may survive a bit longer.” 

 

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