"Is it better to have spent government money on Canadian journalism and lost than to not spend government money on Canadian journalism at all?"
The $50 million over 5 years in the new federal budget feels like droplets in a giant bucket and yet also runs counter to the traditional argument that a government giving money to journalism outlets makes journalism weaker by being influenced over government money.
Some would argue that the government funds CBC and therefore CBC News, but that is a different argument we will get back to later in this column.
The money will go to "independent non-governmental organizations" to support local journalism in underserved communities to "ensure trusted, local perspectives as well as accountability in local communities." For the moment, this reduces the potential impact on government-journalism relationships.
The Public Policy Forum’s The Shattered Mirror report noted that since 2010, 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers had closed or merged operations.
The problems of newspapers in Canada mirror those in the United States. Advertising revenues are plummeting. Fewer subscriptions. Less interest in a newspaper as the content is reduced in quality and quantity.
For a relatively liberal country, Canadian newspapers are quite conservative. There are no The New York Times or The Washington Post in Canada. The media power in newspapers is in very few hands.
We saw the power of these conservative newspaper companies with the recent TorStar/Postmedia switch where they traded newspapers to then close them. Postmedia is scheduled to close 21 of the 22 acquired community newspapers as well as the Metro Winnipeg and Metro Ottawa free dailies. Torstar is scheduled to close 3 of the 7 daily newspapers in Ontario and all 8 community newspapers as well as 24Hours Toronto and 24Hours Vancouver.
Postmedia acquired the Sun Media newspapers and then 16 months later, Postmedia announced that the main print outlets in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa (but not Toronto) would merge into a single newsroom in those cities. While there would visibly be 2 papers in each market, the news would be the same, except for style points for the Sun papers' tabloid format. They wanted the public to think there was competition when there literally wasn't competition.
Even the U.S. newspapers owners haven't been that cruel.
An angry Paul Godfrey, CEO of Postmedia Network says the program to boost local journalism in the Federal budget won't do anything to help existing media, and the lack of government support for the industry will lead to poorer journalism for Canadians. pic.twitter.com/8folXNPo6K— On The Money (@OnTheMoneyCBC) February 28, 2018
Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey is very upset that his company isn't getting a dime from the Canadian federal government. The company's policy of writing editorials for all the papers, forcing the papers to endorse Stephen Harper in 2015, and that U.S. hedge funds have dominated the company's finances might explain why large companies aren't getting more money.
The Toronto Star has highlighted its own struggles recently. Toronto Star publisher John Honderich told The Globe and Mail that Torstar Corp. is fighting for survival.
Andrew Coyne, who writes a column for the National Post (Postmedia) did point out some of the Toronto Star problems.
"The Star, like other papers, put its content online for free; like other papers, it forced readers to put up with a succession of hideously designed websites, then wasted $40 million on an unreadable tablet app; all this, I might add, on top of the decades of print-based mediocrity that preceded it. None of which deterred him in the slightest from demanding millions more from the taxpayers. We screwed up. Now you get to pay for it."
You can take the point on what Coyne thinks about the content with a grain of salt, but the mistakes on the Web and the app illustrate the concern. The track record doesn't speak well, and not just for the Toronto Star.
Godfrey and his equivalent, Torstar president/CEO John Boynton, can think about those communities with newspapers more than 100 years old that lost their papers thanks to their recent moves.
Honderich wrote an op-ed that ran in the company papers back on January 26. He has 10 possible recommendations based from The Shattered Mirror report. #8 is particular notable since that one involves the CBC and digital advertising.
"In today’s digital world, the greatest competitor to Canadian newspaper websites is cbc.ca. It is an excellent website, flush with resources and funded, of course, by the public. Not only that; it is free. Furthermore, it is out in the market competing for digital advertising. The heritage committee, in its report, proposed that Canada adopt the British model where the BBC does not compete for ads. The rationale is that the public broadcaster has an obvious advantage with its guaranteed public funding."
There has been quite a bit of talk that the CBC is at fault for taking digital advertising from newspapers. The CBC is also at fault for running ads on its TV channels, potentially taking away money from TV networks such as CTV, Global, and City TV.
Admittedly, we are defenders of CBC, news and otherwise. But hearing about the dominance of a public broadcaster that was financially damaged by the Harper Government and the loss of Hockey Night in Canada revenues while still running the games feels like the private newspapers and TV networks need to find a different outlet for their troubles. And the extra taxpayer money would have to increase to make up the financial difference.
For those who argue that the newspapers and TV networks should get money if the CBC gets money, the relationship with public broadcasters and government is a much different dance. The money goes to the CBC and the public broadcaster sets aside resources for news. The CBC has to be in places where there are few news outlets but also doesn't have to worry about ratings and readers as much.
As we saw during the Harper Government, despite being deliberately underfunded, CBC was the hardest working news outlet against the government.
From the federal budget:
"To ensure trusted, local perspectives as well as accountability in local communities, the Government proposes to provide $50 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to one or more independent non-governmental organizations that will support local journalism in underserved communities. The organizations will have full responsibility to administer the funds, respecting the independence of the press.
"Further, consistent with the advice laid out in the Public Policy Forum’s report on news in the digital age, over the next year the Government will be exploring new models that enable private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit journalism and local news. This could include new ways for Canadian newspapers to innovate and be recognized to receive charitable status for not-for profit provision of journalism, reflecting the public interest that they serve."
The $50 million isn't about propping up failed newspaper companies but trying to plant seeds of non-profit journalism. Even when the newspaper companies had real competition and things were better for the TV stations, the Canadian media wasn't that strong. The money was often more of an issue that the results. This model concentrates more on results than the money.
We have given TorStar and Postmedia a difficult time and a lot of the newspapers' problems are points beyond their control. Buying up small newspapers and then dumping them takes a lot of communities out of the news business when important information isn't getting to people who care about those communities. The Postmedia monopoly in several major Canadian cities wasn't enough. Both newspaper companies need to focus on their readers than the almighty Canadian dollar.
These non-profit ideas will never replace the standard newspaper. But their budding growth might inspire large newspaper companies to be more responsible to their readers.
Twitter capture: @OntheMoneyCBC