Le Devoir’s Stéphane Baillargeon laments the lack of prominence given to reporting about poverty in the media these days, even through a serious recession.
The reason, of course, is simple: poverty doesn’t pay.
It’s one of those unfortunate realities of the media that, no matter how many barriers you put up between editorial and advertising, there will always be pressure for the latter to affect the former, and a tendency for that wall to slowly crumble.
One prime example of this (and it’s not a recent development) is so-called “special sections”. Long ago, some newspaper advertising department genius discovered that you’re more likely to attract advertising if the editorial content appeals to the advertiser.
Because automotive companies have among the largest advertising budgets, special sections related to cars are among the most prevalent. In fact, most newspapers have multiple automotive sections every week, even now despite their shrinking sizes. Other attractive topics include sports, employment, real estate, investing, travel, health, home electronics and fashion.
In some cases, the idea of editorial freedom is chucked out the window completely and the section designated “advertorial” (or the more nuanced “special advertising section” or other euphemisms for such). In others, that wall between editorial and advertising is maintained, and the advertisers have no say in the content, except, of course, that it be on a certain topic.
And that’s the problem, because not all topics have big-money advertisers willing to bankroll newspaper sections. Books sections are disappearing from newspapers because book publishers don’t have large advertising budgets. Poverty doesn’t have a financial backer, which is why you never see special sections about it. Homeless shelters don’t have large advertising budgets (that won’t change no matter how many people subscribe to this blog), and neither do so many issues that don’t involve people buying expensive things. Forget reporting on international issues, human relationships, political corruption, the food industry, philosophy, science or other matters that don’t involve excess consumption. Instead, they all have to share space in the cramped, overworked general news section, along with the political horse-race stories and cop briefs.
The environment is a bit of an exception to this. A lot of advertisers are pushing green initiatives, either because they think they’ll make money off of it or just because they’re trying to drum up some good cred. But otherwise, money is a more important factor than importance. That’s why there’s no special section on science but two on RRSPs and one on golf.
The problem is only getting worse as newspapers cut back. Choosing between a books section that loses a lot of money and an automotive section that pays for itself, newspapers will keep the latter.
Contrast the special sections in commercial newspapers with the special sections in student newspapers and the differences show clearly. The student paper I worked for had special sections on gender, sexuality, disability, poverty, and all sorts of other topics that don’t usually get special attention in the mainstream media.
Mainstream media, that is, except Le Devoir. That’s why it’s so small. It could make a lot of money filling its pages with advertiser-friendly fluff, but it has chosen to build a stronger wall to protect its editorial side. Either that, or it’s just being particularly hoity-toity about the type of content it produces.