Welcome to 'Breaking the Taboo'
A New Investigative Journalism Project Focused on Sault Ste. Marie
Journalism is dying.
News outlets across Canada are constantly cutting staff, shuttering offices, and paring down their circulation and distribution. It’s an issue that doesn’t just affect those within the industry.
It affects us all, because a healthy democracy is premised upon an engaged and informed citizenry. If citizens don’t have the raw materials necessary to form an informed opinion on public affairs – reliable and truthful sources of information – democracy just cannot work.
Despite us knowing that we need a healthy news media landscape for a democracy, why is it so difficult to provide that fertile ground? A few things have been highlighted as culprits, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.
First, technological changes have created new struggles for traditional news sources. Subscriptions to printed newspapers are dwindling and more nimble and niche publications are making print media more competitive. With vast gluts of information at our fingertips, we’re arguably less willing to pay for things that we can get for free. The stalwarts of reliable information about public affairs – daily printed newspapers – are thus in a slow, unmanaged decline.
Although some news outlets have adapted to technological changes by delivering content in novel ways and managing to retain stable levels of paid subscribers, the long-term trend is a irreversible shift from holding news in your hand (and paying for it) to seeing it on a screen (and not paying for it).
Second, our media landscape has become incredibly fragmented in the last few decades. Rather than a few large news outlets competing for a correspondingly large public demographic of potential readers and viewers, multiple news outlets compete for multiple smaller demographics. That means that news outlets have expanded ‘opinion’ and contracted ‘news,’ while carving out their own brand and niche, usually consistent with a political affiliation or ideology.
Part of this fragmentation is great. It’s easier than ever to access different vantage points on the issues of the day. It’s also easier to avoid what might be called the ‘elite consensus,’ or the ways in which traditional news outlets tended to privilege the interests and voices of the powerful.
But part of this fragmentation is not so great. It means that the media landscape is more prone to extremity and polarization, and news outlets have little incentives to create content that appeals to a general audience (as opposed to their coveted demographic base). It’s also arguably led to an uneasy mixing of information and entertainment (‘infotainment’) that too often gives us the impression of being informed.
Third, news media is largely a for-profit enterprise, which means that it can only sustain the journalism that advertisers are willing to subsidize. Most news outlets are not the beneficiaries of generous public subsidy, so they rely upon a profit incentive that uneasily reconciles with the civic function of news reporting.
Although the content they produce often has innate value in informing the public, it’s also the conduit for exposing their readers to an endless supply of paid advertising. Arguably, the more a news outlet relies upon private advertising, the less likely it will take risks in its reporting, like holding those with power accountable.
Importantly, the heart and soul of journalism – specifically investigative journalism – is the most labour and resource intensive. With relatively modest means at their disposal, most news outlets are unable to invest what’s necessary to conduct the in-depth investigations that are required to inform the public.
To make matters worse, public trust in journalism is also waning. Nothing characterizes our moment more than an intense skepticism of ‘elite’ sources of information and the news media figures prominently in that ‘elite.’
But it’s not all doom and gloom in journalism.
Despite journalism being in the grips of a startling decline, Sault Ste. Marie is the home to a different approach that’s actually expanding its reach across the globe. While small newspapers and television studios across Canada are either significantly shrinking or outright disappearing, an exclusively online ‘hyper-local’ business model has emerged to fill a large void in small, northern, and rural communities across Canada (and around the world).
‘Hyper-local’ is fairly self-explanatory: it’s a form of reporting that blends equal parts community immersion, good storytelling, and local pride. It’s a ‘feel good’ type of journalism, one that often tells human-interest stories and fosters a collective identity within a community that might not see itself in provincial, national, or international news reporting.
While ‘hyper-local’ has brought Sault Ste. Marie many important stories, kept the community apprised, and carved out a decent business plan in a dying industry, it’s not without some weaknesses. I think one stands out, in particular.
Looking at the news media landscape of Sault Ste. Marie at the moment, one can scarcely see anything resembling investigative journalism (with only a small handful of notable exceptions, and Godspeed to them). This is what ‘hyper-local’ misses, in my opinion, because the closer the personal connection to the subject, the less likely one is to be critical.
To put it bluntly, good journalism is an adversarial process, because if you do good journalism, you’ll inevitably make enemies. Not because you’re consciously making enemies, but because the truth always hurts and public accountability can’t be had if nobody faces tough (and sometimes embarrassing) questions. Covering the local community parade is great, but the news media’s vital role in sustaining democracy goes far beyond the ‘feel good’ story of the day.
Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, I still have childhood memories of the big news stories of the previous era: the Ken DeLuca and Joe Fratesi affairs. They shook our community and even the country. Since then, though, it’s really hard to point to any subsequent heydays of similar caliber journalism and public attention (again, with some notable but rare exceptions). In-depth investigative journalism, the kind that researches and breaks stories in the public interest, seems to have been on a steady, slow decline since that era.
It’s surely not because there aren’t any good investigative stories to break. If one is paying attention and looks around for more than a moment, they will see countless scandals and controversies that are the subject of informal banter but will never become the object of a headline. And these are not trifling affairs. They’re major scandals and controversies that include elected officials, large corporations, public servants, and a gaggle of other local movers and shakers.
The problem, as I see it, is that local media too often acquiesces to power rather than challenging it and holding it accountable by telling the truth.
You see this dynamic – a real deference to power – all the time in the local news media landscape. You see it when news outlets breathlessly reprint the press releases of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Services without spending any time investigating if what is conveyed is accurate. You see it when local politicians and policymakers clearly exhibit poor decision-making and leadership, but no journalist will do the proper digging to hold them accountable. You see it when Algoma Steel flagrantly flouts laws and policies designed to protect public health and the environment, but nobody dares criticize them publicly.
To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of any local journalists as individuals or even news outlets. The determinants of local news coverage transcend individual decision-making and are much better explained by structural phenomena, like the ones I briefly mentioned earlier. I truly believe that most local journalists are simply doing their best subject to constraints and incentives that they didn’t create, but that doesn’t mean that the status quo isn’t irredeemably broken.
A related problem that seems to plague local newsrooms is what I like to call the ‘cousin effect.’ In a place like Sault Ste. Marie, everyone is somehow related, if not by blood, then by mere association. If ‘hyper-local’ news already exhibits a general risk-aversion in its reporting – at least in its Sault Ste. Marie iteration – the ‘cousin effect’ sharpens it significantly. In essence, you’re much more likely to cut someone some slack if their brother’s aunt’s neighbour once drove you to hockey practice when you were eight years old.
Journalists are always navigating a fine line between keeping their sources (and esteem) while doing work that might upset people, but that’s heightened when the degrees of separation between journalist and potential headline subject are so slim. To simplify, it’s too easy to piss off the wrong people in a small community, so you just might avoid certain topics for your own social convenience and occupational well-being.
This newsletter – what I’m calling Breaking the Taboo – is a response to the problem with the local news media landscape that I’ve just described. Over the next few months (as a start), I’ll be publishing two investigative series – one about the legacy of industrial pollution and another about police accountability – and occasional short stories that relate to public accountability, transparency, and the public interest in Sault Ste. Marie.
If you’re wondering who I am, I’m an academic by trade whose research revolves around the philosophy, politics, and policy of free expression. I recently finished my PhD in Political Science at the University of Alberta and I’m now a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. I’ve spent most of my life in Sault Ste. Marie, but my academic pursuits have meant moving around a bit (Ottawa, Edmonton, and Kingston, to be exact). Despite this distance, I always come back, sometimes for a summer and sometimes for an extended pandemic relocation. If you’re curious to read more about me, you can visit my website: www.daxdorazio.com
If you’re curious as to why I’m embarking upon this newsletter and associated investigative projects, there are two primary reasons. First and foremost, I’m an academic by trade, which means that I research, write, and teach for a living. Over the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of dedicating almost all of my time to sharpening my research and writing skills. Although most of my publications end up in academic venues, I’m keen to pursue exciting opportunities in non-academic venues.
In general, I think it’s really important that academics don’t consign themselves to the ‘ivory tower.’ The public generously subsidizes academics and I’m immensely appreciative of that opportunity. Therefore, I think that it creates an obligation to contribute to the public sphere in a substantive way by using some of my knowledge and skills in more public-facing venues.
Second, in keeping abreast of the local news landscape over the past two decades, it’s clear to me that the time is right to shake things up a bit. There’s so much work to be done and relatively little appetite among existing news outlets. You might be thinking: ‘Why not just send your stories to local news outlets? They would surely publish it if it’s well written and people want to read it.’ The short answer is no.
The advantage of this newsletter is that I have total editorial control and I’m only accountable to the truth and myself. I have no personal, professional, or political allegiances to anyone in this capacity. In other words, provided that any claims that I make here are factual, I have nothing to worry about and I quite like it that way.
I’ll also have an opportunity in this newsletter to more creatively blend ‘news,’ which is typically understood at the statement of fact, and ‘opinion,’ which is typically understood as just one partial perspective on things. All of my writing here will be based on the collection of new data and subsequent analysis, but I will also be offering my own opinion along the way. Different people will come to different conclusions based on the data and analysis that I present, and that’s just fine by me.
Another reason is related to format. This newsletter will fall into the ‘long read’ variety. The stories will sometimes wade through troves of new documents and information, so a concise story is just not possible.
All of the time (and resources) invested in this newsletter is uncompensated. Most stories will require countless hours of research and some will require actual fees in the hundreds of dollars (like freedom of information requests). But what follows is not intended to be a business plan, by any means. That said, if you value this type of research and writing – and you care about public accountability, transparency, and the public interest in Sault Ste. Marie – please consider contributing.
Please note that there will be no additional or private content for paid subscribers to this newsletter. I will publicly post all of my research and writing. Anyone is free to republish what I write here, provided that they include a fair attribution to me.
Lastly, if you have suggestions for stories – as a general pitch or as a source or whistleblower – you can reach out directly via the contact page here or on my website.
Welcome to Breaking the Taboo. I hope that you enjoy it.
In the meantime, tell your friends!