Media analysis

Government funds should support new media, not corporate dinosaurs

Print newspapers will soon be extinct, it’s time to invest in the future
Photo: Province of British Columbia

News Media Canada, formerly the Canadian Association of Newspapers, has submitted a proposal to Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly for a whopping $350 million a year to prop up the journalism of the country’s 100 struggling dailies.

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The publishers are asking for: $175 million of our tax dollars per year to subsidize the first 35 per cent of the salaries of hundreds of journalists who are paid $85,000 or less, potentially including luminaries such as Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail and Christie Blatchford of the National Post.

And $90,000 a year to help each of these newspapers improve their presence on the internet — a request that comes 18 years after Kijiji was created in 2005 — and others began grabbing their classified ads. This reveals their ineptitude with social media and inability to successfully get on the Internet themselves.

I’m against this proposal for a number of reasons, including the fact that these self-important papers want to be the only ones getting government support. They apparently made little effort to approach or include the dozen or so small digital media groups that have worked hard over the past few years to establish themselves.

How corporate media shapes the news

But I have a more fundamental problem with the newspaper industry. First, I want to acknowledge that some newspapers, including certain local papers as well as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, produce some excellent journalism, including important investigative stories.

But, having followed the content patterns of several papers for a number of years, it’s obvious to me that Canadian corporate media systematically manages and censors the news.

Four examples:

Labour is demonized or ignored in Big Media. When unions are mentioned, it’s usually to blame them for strikes. There’s seldom any background information in stories on the conditions facing workers, and labour leaders don’t get the puffed up profile stories given to “the captains of industry.”

Newspapers criminally accept the destruction of the planet by not campaigning against climate change. The concerns of environmentalists are usually played down and buried somewhere inside papers. The papers cater to the views of much of the corporate world, which knows that fighting climate change would be costly for business.

Mainstream media give token coverage to poverty issues, but provide large sections catering to business interests. But business journalism isn’t real journalism. Reporters are not required to balance their stories with information that might be critical of business. From what I have seen, most major newspapers in the country, except The Toronto Star, have fired their progressive and left-leaning journalists and commentators. As a result, newspaper readers have no access to alternative views that are necessary in the discussion of politics and other important issues.

With this kind of manipulation an everyday occurrence, it is time that we began tracking the quality of news being produced in the country. I would like to see the creation of a media evaluation project that would report annually on the performance of all Canadian news media.

This would be an excellent activity for a journalism school.

A media evaluation project could assess whether the journalism of media outlets is fair and balanced, and whether false news is being disseminated. It could address one of my long-time concerns — identifying stories coming out of Washington and appearing in Canadian media that falsely report on U.S. foreign activities, particularly military activities.

Newspapers may be extinct by 2025

Heritage Canada must not fall for the publishers’ proposal to prop up their antiquated institutions because the newspaper industry is doomed.

Long-time media analyst Ken Goldstein predicts that, if current trends in the newspaper sector continue, it is likely that there will be few, if any, printed daily newspapers in Canada in 2025. Goldstein, former Associate Deputy Minister of Communications for the Province of Manitoba, bases his dire prediction on the near total disappearance of highly profitable newspaper classified advertising and the decline of paid subscriptions. Only 20 per cent of households subscribed to a daily paper in 2014, and he believes the percentage will continue to fall, decimating the industry.

So far we’ve seen a number of daily newspapers — like the Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News — stop publishing because they are not viable. The Guelph paper, among others, has migrated online, but even there their future is tenuous.

Because Canadians are not getting the news they need, I agree that Canadian Heritage must pump millions of dollars annually into the media industry — not into the print newspaper sector, but into internet-based media sites.

No support for daily newspapers

If some newspapers are still profitable, they should continue to publish. But they should not receive any government funding that aids their publishing activities. We owe them nothing.

On the other hand, if a publisher decides to close down a paper and have a news site on the Internet, they should be eligible for support. In Montreal the influential La Presse now publishes online-only from Monday to Friday, while maintaining a weekend print publication. The online tablet edition, contrary to the Star’s experience with Star Touch, has been successful.

Any government-funded support program should pay particular attention to assisting existing news sites that have had the courage to launch out on their own — sites such as iPolitics, National Observer, The Tyee, Ricochet, rabble.ca, and others.

These sites require funding to increase their journalistic capacity, stabilize their business model, buy technical equipment, and market their product.

On another level, the government should look to the future and reach out to communities across the country poorly served by internet news sites. Small grants should be made available to help communities establish viable sites. The local groups would be required to create a business plan, a news strategy, sell a certain number of subscriptions in advance, and perhaps obtain some funding from foundations or investors.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to Ricochet. He is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists and, toiled relentlessly for the CBC for more than 25 years. Visit Nick’s blog to read his views on many important issues.

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