Special interests feeding on voter apathy: former Globe editor

John Stackhouse spoke Thursday night on voter turnout. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten

A former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail said there is a “quiet siege” on the media, where “they are eroding before our eyes, in terms of engagement and, with that, legitimacy.”

John Stackhouse spoke to a crowd of about 60 people on Thursday night in a lecture called Byte-Sized Democracy at the University of King’s College. Stackhouse is currently a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

While editor-in-chief of The Globe he oversaw massive redesigns in the paper’s layout and an unapologetic installation of a paywall.

He’s seen the rise of digital media in the newsroom and he’s noticed the changing society that goes along with it.

During the evening he spoke at length on the changes that came with the adoption of digital media, as well as low voter turnout.

Voting in a brave new world

A common myth on voter turnout is that, if voting were more accessible, more people would do it. That’s not the case, Stackhouse said. Voting is the easiest it’s ever been and there’s still a low voter turnout.

Stackhouse argued there’s been a fragmentation in the consumption of media. People now have their own tiny, personalized interests that don’t intersect with the greater whole. In return, large groups, whether it be in the realm of politics or media, court the favour of these smaller interest groups. They focus on “smaller and smaller groups of voters.”

The greatest threat, he said, is voter apathy and people’s alienation from political institutions. It has created a vacuum that groups with deep pockets have filled.

Stackhouse said the decline in voting is a threat to democracy.

“Political action committees funded by special interest groups, by corporations, wealthy individuals and unions are today the most powerful political force in the world,” he said.

“And they are profoundly shaping Capitol Hill, in the White House, with the message that appeals to five to 10 per cent of the population, the so-called ‘undecided’.”

The rise of niche publications

Like it has in politics, the publishing world has also seen a segmentation. Stackhouse calls this a “trend towards personalized news and away from shared experience … The greater risk which is emerging is not to us as individuals, but it is to the collective.”

Niche media groups don’t try to court the majority of readers, they just go after smaller groups of selective consumers.

David Guy, who works at AllNovaScotia.com and Postmedia, was in the audience. He disagreed with Stackhouse, arguing consumers have always had niche interests “ but we really didn’t have a choice. You had to buy the whole newspaper or watch the whole CTV news. Nowadays you go on your phone and you just pick-pick-pick.”

John Stackhouse getting ready for the “Byte-sized democracy” Lecture at King’s College. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten

A call to action

Stackhouse concluded his lecture with five recommendations:

  1. increase financing for public activities, in for-profit and non-profit sectors
  2. create more foundations that are “devoted to action rather than debate”
  3. introduce mandatory voting and digital voting over the phone
  4. encourage universities and colleges to offer mandatory civics classes that could be held online
  5. encourage universities to “take media and democracy to to next digital level” to get more people voting

Rachel Ward, a master’s student in investigative journalism program at King’s, said the need for new ventures  “is exactly what this guy’s talking about. We need brand new models, new funding streams.”



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