Columns

Divergence

Stephen Henighan

People used to have different opinions on the news; now they cannot even agree on the terms of debate.

In the mid-1990s, media people began to talk of “convergence”: the consolidation of media resources in fewer hands and the distribution of journalistic content through a wide variety of formats. Conglomerates amalgamated newspaper chains, television stations, magazines, book publishers, internet providers and music companies. ­Facilitated by legislation that ­favoured ­deregulation and privatization, these conglomerates aimed to boost the number of stories they produced, digitize them, then distribute them through as many different properties as possible in order to maximize profits.

As companies merged, journalists’ jobs were cut. Those who remained wrote stories that had to be sufficiently generic to appear in different publications, and even in different formats. Stylistic originality and commitment to a local audience became liabilities. Articles evolved toward no-name sameness; conglomerates such as the Péladeau family’s Sun Media Corporation or Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. laid down strict ideological programs, usually neo-conservative in orientation, that journalists had to follow. Cherished journalistic principles, such as the separation of editorial content (which expresses an opinion) from news content (which reports what happened) were trampled as editorial biases pervaded the presentation of events. A narrower band of information being distributed through larger swaths of society threatened to shrivel the potential for democratic debate, induce feelings of helplessness and discourage voter turnout in elections. All of these fears have come true to some extent, yet one of the surprises has been that convergence has not gone as smoothly as planned.

Diversity of news content has suffered, yet the huge financial windfalls that the conglomerates projected for their shareholders have not been realized. The newspapers of the former Southam chain have been passed from Hollinger to Canwest to their current owner, Postmedia Network; yet the chain’s flagship publication, the National Post, has never attracted enough readers to free itself from corporate subsidy. If it were ever subjected to the ruthless market principles for which it advocates, the National Post would fold tomorrow.

In the Canadian popular imagination, convergence is incarnated by the felonious former newspaper magnate Conrad Black. In the late 1990s, a journalist on a Black paper told me that “Tubby,” as he called him, was beginning to question the wisdom of convergence. In theory, he said, globalization should blend content into one-size-fits-all message-products; yet the cultures and identities of the news organizations that had been merged were proving more recalcitrant than anticipated. (BCE’s later forced marriage of CTV with the Globe and Mail, for example, remains an uncomfortable union.) At the same time, new sources of information were springing up on the internet, and even in print, to fill the ideological gap left by the corporatization of the mainstream media and the silencing of many of its centrist and leftist voices. These events epitomize a world in which longstanding local and national institutions collapse, and megacorporations transmit the same information to the borderless billions; yet, in an apparent contradiction, audiences splinter, fragment and become more ­specialized. The unacknowledged shadow of convergence is divergence; we cannot understand what is happening around us unless we recognize this.

One result of divergence is that rather than having different opinions about events, people have narratives that do not overlap sufficiently to permit discussion to occur. This was always true to some extent, particularly in the case of tightly defined ethnic or religious communities. But whereas in the past, young people might define themselves against their origins by ­mastering the knowledge necessary to participate in the larger society, ­rebellion now means passing from one tightly defined niche (a devout Punjabi family) to another, equally restrictive bubble (players of the video game EVE Online). The information one receives in the 500-channel universe is unavoidably partial; the anarchist blogger and the Tea Party blogger cannot even agree on the terms of debate. The viewer of Fox News knows that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the attacks of September 11, 2001; the viewer of films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Dylan ­Avery’s internet hit Loose Change knows that the Bush and bin Laden families are long-time allies who collaborated on these attacks. When Canadian viewers used to choose between CBC and CTV for their evening news, the differences in what they knew about their country and the world were differences of emphasis. Now people know different truths: coalition government, which is an anti-democratic plot to a reader of the Calgary Sun, is evidence of a healthy parliamentary democracy to a reader of an independent newspaper such as Montreal’s Le Devoir. Reporting by mainstream networks is less incisive since these networks are less confident that they are speaking to a public with shared perceptions of reality. “Dumbing down” is one of the consequences of divergence.

Under the sign of divergence, new forms—often driven by the use of different delivery systems—are taking shape. Different literary cultures, for example, are emerging online and on paper. The multiplication of delivery formats and the fracturing of audiences makes this inevitable. Online literary culture is informal and dominated by punchy brevity. The blogger’s rant, the Facebook post and the tweet are in the process of blending into a fast-moving, hyperlinked new form of opinion­ated, ironic, self-centred self-expression that mingles fiction and non-fiction, narrative and information. We don’t yet have a name for this form, which will be tailored to the tastes of the individual who produces it and who may not seek an audience beyond her friends, real or virtual. But one is bound to emerge, just as the word column for an opinion piece emerged in response to changes in newspaper and magazine publishing around the turn of the last century.

In the online environment, the barrier between published and unpublished writers is disappearing. In the future, “content producers” will be paid in notoriety rather than cash by an audience that expects to get its content for free. Print literary culture, by contrast, may distinguish itself from the electronic world by reinforcing traditional forms such as the novel, the short story, the poem or the formal essay. Connoisseurs of these forms will pay to buy them on paper, just as connoisseurs of wine or painting pay to acquire these refined products. It is equally inevitable that e-books will evolve their own literary culture. Rather than an alternative way to read Charles Dickens, the e-book will become the conveyor of e-literature. This e-literature will fracture internally into different types of e-books: with or without hyperlinks, with or without videos, personalized or not to the reader’s pre-registered tastes and prejudices. Across the spectrum of human endeavour, from politics to painting, a similar dispersal of a common vocabulary is under way. Divergence is where convergence ends: not only in sameness, but also in ever-narrower specialization.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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