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February 8, 2016

The latest layoffs in the newsrooms of Postmedia across Canada have spurred much criticism and reflection on the decline of daily newspaper journalism. The falling circulations of the dailies show that the majority of Canadians are not - nor have they for a long time - getting their news from newspapers.

When was the heyday of daily newspapers? The 19th century? The 1950s? The 1970s? Whenever it was, it hasn't been for a long time.

Nevertheless, until recently, the dailies did the things that good journalism does. They brought communities together; they reported on important happenings in the community; occasionally, they unearthed scandals or other news that institutions wanted hidden.

One could argue that the corporate owners of the dailies killed newspaper journalism. However, that view is hopelessly one-sided. The owners' primary goal was to make money. They did that mainly by selling readers to advertisers. They lassoed the readers to sell to the advertisers by providing news people wanted to read in a format that was readable.

When owners could no longer make money - something assured by the almost overnight disappearance of classified advertising and the rise of the Internet - the writing was on the wall for daily newspaper journalism.

To be sure, this is a loss for Canada and for Canadian democracy. Journalists not only helped keep the rulers of society honest, they helped to build community. It is not too much to say that the decline of daily newspapers has contributed to the waning of community in our increasingly anonymous society. The collapse of daily newspapers is not the main cause of this waning, but it is one factor.

Newspapers, all media, are not without problems. They can bolster stereotypes as much as they can cut them down; they can focus too much on crime and celebrities; reporters can be too cozy with the people and institutions they cover; they miss important stories and important angles on stories they do cover; occasionally, their reporting is just plain wrong.

Still, if citizens are to be active participants in democracy, they need something like a daily newspaper. They need to read hard news and behind-the-scenes features as well as be exposed to the diversity of views that good newspapers present. More and more, Canadians live in silos exposed only to the views of those with whom they already agree. This is not healthy.

Some maintain an online replacement media for the daily newspaper will be invented. This is far from certain. It's more likely we will remain in our silos and that the common ground on which society is built will erode still further.

For journalism to survive and be strengthened, it will have to do so in other formats, ones that attract enough eyeballs to give them influence. That can only happen if both new forms of media arise and, more importantly, if people care enough to tune in.