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[This is the second part in a short essay series. Yesterday's first part proposed the question of social health. In the end, this series will confront the Toronto Sun, Sun News Network, and Sun Media generally, and how they are simply standing in the way of nice things for our city. So you'll just have to wait 'til I come up with a better way to describe this series. For now, I'm calling it "Sun Spots". Go figure.]
When Canadian newspapers got underway during the 19th century, the press didn’t report on the news — not in the sense we think of today.
Rather, newspapers were founded as party organs — that is, publishing arms of political parties — owned by industrial and political bosses who were vested to preserve a political stability around (and control over) their political plans.
The newspaper was designed to deliver little more than party opinions and editorial pieces on the front page (pushing incidental news to the back as some kind of afterthought). The party organ was a sounding board for political projects. Those early newspapers tended to connect only with established participants of that political machine.
This needlessly left out a lot of people who weren’t interested in political rhetorics.
The initial stability of party organs facilitated the beginning of an ad-revenue stream from multiple sources. Advertising was just a small part of it, but other sources included the political parties themselves, party donations, and subscriptions.
At first, this model worked fairly well. Circulation numbers were low by today’s standards, so high-efficiency printing presses weren’t really needed. These papers, however, needed to be more than party sounding boards in order to remain solvent. They generated support for political ends, but they weren’t reporting on localized, quotidian stories which we would think of today as dispassionate “fact reporting”.
Starting in the 1870s, the party organ faced a challenge. As University of Toronto historian Paul Rutherford explained in his essay, “The people’s press: the emergence of the new journalism in Canada, 1869–99“, a handful of newspapers departed from the party organ model by popularizing “a simplified and direct prose style, quite different from the verbal diarrhoea which sometimes filled up the editorial columns of the party newspapers.”
Rutherford, a Canadian culture historian, described this rise of popular journalism as a model which used ad revenue almost exclusively to service daily news to readers who were largely disinterested in explicit political agendas and more interested in what happened around the city during the previous day.
The party organ had been a propagandistic sounding board in its most literal sense. It generated a predictably skewed pitch as it suited the publisher’s own ends (the publisher often being that organ’s political party).
Party organs were not intended for carrying conversations with their readers. Rather, they were intended for pacifying, energizing, and mobilizing — quite crudely — a sympathetic “proletariat” by dictating to them what was best and what was worst. The “conversation”, as it was, stayed limited to editorial writers between opposing party organs.
Eventually, this strategy backfired on the party organ as citizens turned their attention and support toward a new, popular journalism — a journalism which at first wasn’t condescending.
(And by “popular”, it meant literally “about people” — not what was super awesome and just better than everybody else in school.)
In practice, the party organ was a self-congratulatory rag whose project was to retain and back up ideas which benefited the preservation of the political orthodoxy that gave those party organs a continued reason to exist. It principally benefited those with centralized access, voice, and some level of control over the political climate.
Again, Rutherford describes how party organs “espoused the views of the politician rather than of the citizen, their abusive commentary and doubtful news degrading public debate.”
As viewed by party organ publishers, the “proletariat” they felt they were writing for were basically unwashed masses — that is, non-ruling social classes which themselves lacked a publishing arm and thus would have to consume whatever was written (if they wanted to read at all). The unwashed masses, they believed, needed to be told why it was important to support that paper’s political agenda.
An egregious flavour of this fictionalizing and stereotyping was called yellow journalism (“journalism” being a generous offering). It set out to generate outrageous, absurd, and even fictionalized claims against political adversaries as it suited that publisher. It manufactured a veil of fear for interests which ran counter to its publisher’s political ends.
A response to party organs was also how modern journalism — which wasn’t formalized as a discipline until the early 1900s — evolved into investigative fact-finding and reporting, as kettle-stirring fictions and internecine scuttlebutt within the elite classes just weren’t enough to keep their operations afloat. The party organs which failed to adapt folded (or were absorbed by competitors which could). The few party organs which could adapt embraced this new style of journalism.
The old proletariat was, as Rutherford put it, the petit bourgeois of businessmen, “workingmen”, clerks, and even women. This old proletariat, remarkably and quickly so, became a new bourgeois. Even so, there was still a working class beneath this social-economic class (whose clout in press media was still largely absent).
This new bourgeois, which largely held as a domain for men (either leaving behind women of the petit bourgeois or pandering only to their purses), became fixated on expanding their popular newspapers, whose original promise of popular journalism rapidly moved away from dispassionately reporting on daily news and toward rolling together more business to keep the operation afloat. As businessmen foremost, this project was a natural fit for their skills and their own ends.
A way of assuring that business — namely, through consistent, if not growing ad revenue — was to produce and cultivate a social consistency which made fellow business advertisers feel the least risk-averse for spending their money for promoting their products and services. Papers now competed against one another not around party rhetoric, but for a pool of available advertising dollars.
To keep things financially steady meant producing a social plan of sorts. This social planning produced the social organ.
What’s changed, especially in the last twenty years of online media, is a churning of the waters not seen since the dying days of the party organ.
Much like the higher-efficiency printing presses that were put into use in the late 1800s by business owners of “new journalism”, which needed to keep up with much higher circulation numbers than the old party organs ever dealt with, today’s churning derives from the emergence of the internet as a cheaper medium. The physical infrastructure of the internet simply made it easier (and generally more affordable) to publish new kinds of reporting, commentary, and casual discussions (and yes, trolling too).
And the best part? One did not have to be connected with a publication in order to be published. One could (and still can) publish anytime by posting to blogs, to a tumblr, or in tweets. Of course, these are beginning to mature into clusters of more organized online media outlets, just as early popular journalism merged many smaller publications into larger newspapers and, eventually, media empires. How that bodes for the future of online journalism is unknown, but history might probably offer a few hints.
A bigger part of today’s turning over in mass media is much more fundamental.
The political machine of old, now just as much a figurehead as the Crown was before, was replaced by a social and cultural engineering project built around access to commercial capital and maintaining circulation numbers. This could only be maintained through further growth to raise the revenue to keep up with increasing operational costs of features (such as acquiring prized journalists).
The optimistic hope of this popular journalism, by doing away with the party organs, became themselves the centralized social organs we know today.
As with the promise that new journalism hoped to deliver in the late 19th century — as an antidote to the centralized party organ — the popular accessibility of today’s publishing options (in a still-decentralized capacity of blogging, news portals, and online-exclusive journalism) is a direct response to these social organs. History does repeat.
It’s also why we consider the “party newspaper” in largely communist nation-states a strange anachronism. In practice, examples like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily are just holdovers from when party organs were the only game in town.
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So for the next instalments, I’ll finally get into why this relates to the Toronto Sun (and Sun Media). I’ll explain why I was motivated to write this series (hint: “let’s go shopping for alcohol as a kid in drag and hope no one sees what we look like in these stupid sunglasses, making good people look bad by dragging them into our bad example”). I’ll also describe how a hand-held app could undermine some of the social manipulation orchestrated by today’s aggressive social organs (like the Toronto Sun), and how citizen-hostile publishing is likely to go the way of the proletariat-hostile publishing of the late 1800s.
About Astrid Idlewild: Astrid (@accozzaglia) is an urban design graduate from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University (2012). She completed her HBA in Canadian and urban studies at the University of Toronto in 2009. She is a film photographer, #RIDEOCCUPYSURVIVE button fundraiser for Jenna Morrison, former bike courier, the brains behind the DenizenTO TTC subway shirts, and curator for The Kodachrome Toronto Registry. Contrary to perception, Astrid really isn’t preoccupied with organs (unless it’s the Hammond B3 kind).