Monday, July 13, 2009

Could the Calgary Herald Be Promoting Its Own Demise?

I take a break describing my walks today to discuss the pages of the Calgary Herald, the city's lone broadsheet and a member of the floundering Canwest media duchy.

I am not a regular reader of the Herald, but I have been struck by some rather odd coverage that they have devoted over the last few months. As the debate surrounding Calgary's Plan-It document preoccupies a few people in Calgary and moves through the mechanisms of city hall, the Herald has become an unabashed champion of suburban development. In May 17th, 2009 the Herald's front page headline trumpeted praise for suburbanites who get a modicum of exercise creating their very own bucolic backyards replete with fountains, ponds and such. Deeper into the paper there was an article warning about the threat of elevator breakdowns. The combination makes for a very transparent bias in favour of continued sprawl. Any reading of the paper's "Homes" section on Saturdays would promote the home builders' polls that people want cars and backyards - the price of oil, the environment and reality be damned.

For all the glory that the Herald wants to heap on suburbanites for their backyard exertions, and two-car garages, they seem to be overlooking some persistent trends.

The opposition between the suburbs and inner-city living is a misconstrued one. The fears that people have of city life are grossly exaggerated in the name of justifying the move to the suburbs. The exodus of people from inner cities to the suburbs has fostered a false belief in the private domain rather than the public domain. Those people building their backyard vistas are glorifying their own little private space as a refuge from the rest of the world rather than engaging in it. The desire to close oneself off from the rest of society has reared its head in a variety of forms in Calgary and Alberta over the last few months.

- Protests against a methodone clinic in the Calgary neighborhood of Braeside.
- The Alberta government's passing of Bill 44 giving parents the option to pull their children out of school if they object to the subject being taught.

These are just the two highest profile examples of this desire for people to escape from each other or the issues that ought to be shared, discussed and dealt with in the public domain by the largest number of people possible.

So, you ask, "What does this have to do with the possible demise of the Herald, or newspaper readership?"

While the first culprit for the demise of the print media might be the presence of the internet as a source of information, it is not a particular solid argument if we are talking about media arms that have an internet presence. The bigger challenge that newspapers face is that of providing a product that appeals to the audience it has targeted in a certain geographic area. If the people in that area are all pursuing ever-more-private lives, detached from the community and uninterested in the issues that face it, why would they choose to read newspapers that may only have a handful of interesting and relevant articles.

Picture if you will a domain of individuals sitting in their suburban homes in front of their computers, safely enclosed behind their garage doors once again to surf the net for news of interest to them. If they are not interested in the well being of a community that they only visit for employment and a few commercial activities such as the groceries and picking up the latest new release at Blockbuster, what reason is there for them to take interest in the gang wars that are taking place, the state of the city's schools and hospitals or anything else that forms the fabric of the community? The weaker the fabric of the community, the smaller the audience for news and information about that community. If that is what the Calgary Herald wishes to so unabashedly promote then its commitment to its advertisers is nothing short of a painful irony.

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