Saturday 15 February 2020

Christie Blatchford and the so-called death of journalism

I have been reading tributes to the late Canadian journalist Christie Blatchford. Most of them are wonderful, as if the authors were channelling her shining prose as they typed. The Canadian conservative blogger Kathy Shaidle keeps posting links to these offerings on Facebook and has added Blatchford's meditation on the death of her cat. At the time Blatchford had no idea she was going to die in 13 months. In fact, it appears that her death came as a surprise visitor. 

Shaidle also posted an offering by Siri Agnew, who drew a line between Blatchford's death and the supposed demise of journalism. It too is well-written, but there were touches of snobbery in it that annoyed me. For example, Agnew writes:  

"Journalism was a profession I thought would be filled with smart, fearless people who stayed up too late telling stories about the stories they had told. It was a club defined by the work and the honor and the principles of the thing, which we all knew if we were invited to the party [thrown by Blatchford], and that we would all defend if someone tried to get in who didn’t. Journalism was something aspirational and proud, a privilege and a joy - the chance to be a part of a rarified group of truth tellers and level setters, of people who hold power to account. It was fun and it mattered and it was not to be messed with."
As a social conservative, I have a vested interest in the outcome of Harry "the Owl" Miller's challenge to police investigations of tweets critical of transgenderism. Thus, I do not like the idea of journalism as a club or of journalists as a "rarified group." I liked Blatchford or, rather, her writing (I never met her) because it was good. Now I know she was a workhorse, too, and fought her editors as hard as she fought for victims of crime. That's rather different from belonging to "the club" and being invited to "the party" even though, in that anecdote, Blatchford threw the party. 

Agnew blames the internet for the apparent end of journalism, mentioning that this party was during Canada's Newspaper Wars "which was a time when reporters were competitive with one another while the Internet snuck up behind them and ate their lunch." 

I laughed, but my grandfather was a typesetter for Maclean-Hunter, and his profession disappeared shortly after he retired. In Britain, there was a civil war between the typesetters union and journalists. Typesetting was a trade as old as the printing press, and therefore as old as journalism, and yet  computers put the typesetters out of work. Made them redundant. Obsolete.

Journalism isn't obsolete, though; it has just changed. The Internet sparked the biggest communications revolution since the invention of the television, if not the printing press itself. I do think the internet is as big an upheaval as the printing press, though, for many reasons, one of which is the democratisation of the press. Anyone with an internet connection can publish news and opinion. Anyone. The trick is getting readers. The next trick is getting them to pay.

Most readers are attracted by good writing, stories that interest them, and opinions that mirror their own. A few enjoy hate-reading, which means reading opinions that make them angry or contemptuous, for the fun of feeling angry or superior. However, most people want to read material that speaks to them, and millions of social conservatives feel that left-leaning mainstream media simply despises them. It often does and has for a long time.

One of my earliest memories of the Toronto Star was a column by Doris Anderson in which she sneered at a play by Karol Wojtyła solely because he was also the reigning Pope John Paul II. I was only a child, but her anti-Catholic (and, by the way, anti-Polish) prejudice was crystal clear to me. Fifteen years later I was so distressed by another anti-Catholic slight in a Canadian newspaper that I shut myself in a cubicle in the ladies' washroom at work and cried my heart out.

Around that time I succeeded in getting two fluffy pieces published in the Arts section of the National Post and was paid what seemed like, and actually was, an enormous sum for each. Almighty God clearly didn't want me writing stuff like that, for both times I saw my work in print, my guts went into spasm. The second time I was in so much pain I thought my appendix had burst. So that was that for my new career writing witty fluff for the Post, which shortly thereafter gutted its Arts section anyway.

That was my only foray into mainstream media, to which I did not think I belonged because I was a practising Catholic. My favourite high school English teacher told me I should become a journalist, but when I paid a visit to my university's newspaper building, I was too intimidated to walk into the offices. I forced myself through the Varsity's front door but got only as far as the bulletin board.  The Varsity openly sneered at social conservatives. I think I feared they would be able to smell my Catholicism on me. The Varsity, incidentally, helped launch the careers of both Stephanie Nolan and Naomi Klein. Yes, that Naomi Klein.

I did not know at the time that millions of other people felt frozen out by the far-left university newspaper editors their fees funded. Nor did I realise they would feel the same way when the editors graduated and joined the "rarefied group of truth tellers" who ruled mainstream media. The internet revolution gave the millions new options, and the Americans, at very least, were willing to pay for it.

This, by the way, is the secret of making money from material anyone can access for free: donors. Yes, advertising is important, but donors are even more important. Donors are as important to the New Media as they are to U.S. Congressmen. The great thing is that people will donate if they feel strongly enough about a cause, whether that is the pro-life movement or keeping the left-wing Guardian afloat.

My guess is that the Guardian will survive because it is part of the very identity of the "rarefied group" who live in North London or wish they did. Possibly the Catholic Register will survive if enough Toronto Catholics continue to think it is part of their identity as Catholics. LSN is a powerhouse because we all work our butts off for the social conservatives the mainstream media despises.

We do work our butts off, No, seriously. I write two or three articles a day, and I'm not the fastest person on staff. We have full-time reporters in both London and Rome. If my husband retires early, we'll have a full-time correspondent in Kraków. Diane Montagna famously interviewed Bishop Sorondo in Rome last week. Claire Chretien interviewed Cardinal Zen in New York yesterday. I interviewed Harry Miller by phone. Journalism is not dying; it's just been democratised. Social conservatives are no longer kept out of the fusty old club because we stopped trying to join. We took advantage of the internet revolution to get our arguments out there and to tell the pro-life, pro-family stories that were screaming to be told.

The one thing that hasn't changed, though, is the need to write beautiful sentences. Blatchford was so good at that.

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