Paper Weight

“The very structure of social media encourages polarization,” New York Times journalist Max Fisher informs us in his newly published volumeThe Chaos Machine, as if we didn’t already know. The trolls and the ragebots swarm over Twitter. Facebook is a disinformation vector and Instagram a triumph of narcissism. Extremism of all descriptions has clawed its way up from the dank basements of social media – subreddits and 4Chan – and shrieks for attention. We are at one another’s throats.

If only there were a way of somehow moderating this maelstrom – of altering the algorithms so as to downplay vitriol and falsehood and outright lunacy. If only the social media giants would choke off content that was harmful and deluded, and play up instead what was trustworthy, reliable, reasonable and civil.

There was a time when it was so, a time when the media were the custodians of a less hysterical conversation; when almost everything we knew about where we lived and the world beyond came delivered to our doorstep in a physical package of paper and ink – a daily digest of information that set the metronome of what mattered. This was the 20th century, the Age of the Newspaper.

There were other mass media – radio, network television, movies – but for the most part these were given over to entertainment. The chronicle of actuality, of real life, was typeset on newsprint. In 1950, prior to the ascendance of television, the newspaper was so essential that there were more copies sold each day in Canada than there were households.

A product of an era when even information had to be mechanically mass produced, the newspaper was an objectassembled and distributed by machines. It required a printing plant, regimes of factory production, fleets of distribution vehicles that had to fan out across the city in heatwaves and snowstorms, armies of children with paper routes, flinging copies onto the front lawns of suburban homes. And every subscriber received the same artefact. They might read the paper differently, but the news content, the sports scores, the stock listings, the obituaries and the birth notices were the same for everyone. That commonality was the basis for a sense of community. Without a mechanism of cohesion, a municipality is just an aggregate of strangers.

And although the newspaper-as-object had myriad uses – it was used to line the bird cage and housetrain puppies; it was stuffed into wet boots to dry them out and formed the raw material for papier mâché – as an amalgam of information it had the curious property of being instantaneously out of date, so that it could sell itself anew day after day. A six-month-old magazine in a doctor’s office can still be enjoyable to read. A newspaper from yesterday is just fire starter. So, in 1995, back when the Internet was little more than a means to send email and the newspaper industry was at its height, Canadians purchased 5.3 million copies of newspapers each day. Apart from products that are physically ingested – hamburgers, cups of coffee, cigarettes – no other Canadian industry sold more than 5 million units of its product a day. Not the razor blade industry, not the toilet paper industry, not the toothpaste industry.

The genius of the newspaper as a cultural artefact was that it combined three different types of information in search of one target market: the public. Four hundred years ago, before there were newspapers, there were printed accounts (“relations”) of political news and salacious events. There were also pamphlets agitating heatedly for one political cause or another. And there were commercial sheets announcing goods for sale and services on offer. The omnibus newspaper brought all three – news, editorial opinion, and advertising – together in one indispensable compendium of public address. Indeed, the newspaper helped to bring the notion of “the public” into being, as a body of citizens who could be addressed collectively, and whose opinion would form the basis for democratic governance.

Newspapers in Canada, as elsewhere, began in the 19th century as political instruments seeking to sway public opinion. Their “news” served to champion one party and vilify opponents, and their income derived from the fees of like-minded subscribers. But over the course of the 20th century, as advertising became their revenue base, the impetus was to seek greater and greater circulation, because circulation was the metric by which advertising rates were set. The result was a newspaper that strove for universal appeal, that sought to be all things to all people. 

Newspapers developed an ethos of “objectivity” in their reporting – a means of covering the world that was deadpan, neutral, and factual. The editorial pages and the opinion columnists might harangue the citizenry, but the news columns were designed to be reliable, trustworthy, and palatable no matter the political persuasion of the reader. The newspaper as a whole was the original compendium of pastiche, bricolage, and juxtaposition – stories of catastrophe jammed against happy headlines to warm the heart – but for all that it traded in the novel and the shocking, the newspaper itself was a familiar package, rendered daily in the same rote format.

And though the paper sold itself as a comprehensive chronicle of public affairs, in fact its contents were shaped by the imperatives of advertising. The newspaper proved particularly adept at creating editorial content that was simultaneously appealing to readers and a platform for advertisers. It became a multi-sectioned behemoth as it added one subject-specific section after another so as to capture distinct advertising constituencies: the travel section, the real estate section, the fashion section, the food section, the automotive section. Every newspaper in North America came to have a business section, filled with news for the investor, the manager, the employer, and flush with advertising. But not a single newspaper included a labour section, covering unions, working conditions, and the plight of the unemployed. There was no advertising constituency eager to underwrite such a section, and so it never existed.

The newspaper also addressed what its readers had in common, rather than what set them apart. Its contents were designed so that readers could recognize themselves in all their various social roles, as voters, consumers, taxpayers, parents, moviegoers, sports fans, and so on. In that regard, the newspaper was a cohesion machine. But it was also a force for conformity. It told its readers what they should know about the world and their communities, but it paid scant attention to what its readers thought. Of the scores of pages in a typical city broadsheet, only one at most – and usually only a fraction of one – would be devoted to views from the public, in the form of letters to the editor.

In its editorial decisions about what to cover and what to ignore, what prominence should be given to which events, and whose views would find expression in its pages, the newspaper drew boundaries between the permissible and the impermissible. It worked to establish a version of common sense, a daily affirmation of the Overton window. Extremist views seldom featured – all to the good – but at the same time the newspaper too often marginalized subcultural communities either by ignoring them or portraying them as aberrant, a deviation from the norm.

Both a product and an architect of its time, the newspaper was as essential to civic discourse as it was to commercial wellbeing and social cohesion. The social media giants of the 21st century have liberated us from a world in which centralized information sources such as newspapers fixed the terms of the “real” and controlled the parameters of debate. But they have also visited manifest harm on the social fabric and on the means by which people come to form attachments not only to the places where they live, but to the neighbours with whom they live alongside. Between them, Google and Facebook have drained away the advertising revenue that underwrote the editorial enterprise of the newspaper. In Moose Jaw, only one forlorn example, the local paper, the Times-Herald, is no more. It shuttered permanently in 2017. Founded in 1889, it was 128 years old when it died. So, thanks to Google and Facebook, a citizen of Moose Jaw is today awash in information and opinion about everything and everywhere under the sun, except the place where they live.

  • Headlines: The Art of the News Cycle, Winnipeg Art Gallery, December 2022.