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Broken news

Canada's media landscape needs some serious fixing, communications expert warns

Back when schools strapped children and doctors endorsed cigarettes, Canada’s big daily newspapers were considered above-ground goldmines.

It also was the long-gone age in which journalists treated news as a sacred and romantic calling, and life an amusement park named mischief.

Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press</p><p>Edward Greenspon, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Forum, speaks at a Jan. 26 news conference about the report The Shattered Mirror.</p>

Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press

Edward Greenspon, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Forum, speaks at a Jan. 26 news conference about the report The Shattered Mirror.

Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Like many media organizations, Postmedia Network Inc., which owns many newspapers (including both the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province), is in financial trouble.</p>

Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files

Like many media organizations, Postmedia Network Inc., which owns many newspapers (including both the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province), is in financial trouble.

Take the young reporter who wormed his way up and along an air duct that got him spread-eagled above the long table in which the Winnipeg Police Commission was meeting in secret below. From the duct above the meeting, this young reporter could see then-mayor Stephen Juba and burly police chief Bob Taft and hear their every word.

Unfortunately, this young reporter lost his grip and fell straight down and through a metal grill onto their boardroom table. A thunderous crash echoed throughout the old Rupert Street cop shop as the crusading journalist dropped in unannounced. Other reporters outside in the hall couldn’t stop laughing when their colleague was thrown out the door and into their arms by the red-faced and outraged chief.

The days of eccentric behaviour in Canada’s media are over, and there are many vacant desks in today’s newsrooms, thanks in part to deep drops in circulation and plummeting revenues. Half as many journalists are now working twice as hard.

In The News We Deserve: The Transformation of Canada’s Media Landscape, former journalist Marc Edge dissects in detail the fracturing elemental facts about Canada’s media: while some are doing their damndest to hang in there, independent newspapers have become as rare as corner grocery stores, mostly swallowed up by amalgamates.

The result for print — and electronic media too — is massive concentrations of ownership that undercut democracy because they erode the amount and diversity of information and opinion that is critical to the public’s search for the truth. On top of that, ownership of our media by foreigners continues to rise unabated and, naturally, is worrisome because they put their selfish economic and political interests ahead of our country’s.

(The alarming truth is that of the roughly 100 daily newspapers in Canada in 2015, only seven were independent or privately owned — one of those being the Winnipeg Free Press.)

Edge also contends the big players in Canadian media are more driven to increasing their holdings than informing the public because the more holdings they collect, the more influence and power they believe they acquire. There is truth in that, says Edge, and absolutely nothing has or is being done to stop them.

Edge, who lives in British Columbia, has a doctorate in mass communication. This is his fourth book on Canada’s media.

While Edge says "to a great extent the horse is already out of the barn," he argues the Trudeau government should step in to put an end to what he calls "the madness" of a corporation (mostly owned by U.S. hedge funds) continuing to gobble up almost all of Canada’s remaining press competition. Here he’s talking of the Postmedia Network Inc., the country’s largest newspaper chain, which is now in financial trouble. Edge says we have laws limiting foreign ownership that are not being enforced, or should be changed so that they are.

To nurse media back to public health, more competition and diversity of ownership — in both print and electronic media — will have to be achieved. To start, both Canada’s Competition Bureau and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will have to stop ignoring their responsibilities and/or acting only in the interests of the people they are supposed to regulate and, instead, champion the public interest.

Edge says government subsidies could help keep old media alive until they recover and incubate new ones. Despite journalists’ suspicion, the scheme works exceedingly well in Scandinavian countries. This is one reason these countries rank among the highest in the world in press freedom.

Edge thinks another consideration would be to grant charitable status to non-profit news media in order to encourage and nurture them. As it stands, this isn’t allowed in Canada, one of the few English-speaking countries with such a prohibition.

The recently released Public Policy Forum study of Canada’s media, Shattered Mirror, doesn’t recommend government subsidies, but does endorse some limited tax breaks. As well, among its 12 recommendations it proposes — somewhat along the same line as Edge — that non-profit organizations producing local news be allowed to accept financial help from philanthropic foundations and, in some cases, become charities themselves.

Meanwhile, Free Press publisher Bob Cox has written that the report does very little in its main recommendations to address one of the media’s most urgent needs, its economic sustainability — in other words, a certain and sure economic future.

Edge also thinks a good idea would be the establishment of "mojos," government-funded mobile journalists to cover local communities. Hyper-local mojos could feed into the CBC network. Local CBC news websites could continue to offer basic service free of charge, but introduce longer-form journalism and special features for a subscriber fee.

Edge says as a basic protection against further consolidation of media, any merger or closure of newspapers should be prohibited before offering them for sale, and incentives should be introduced to encourage local owners or even employees to purchase.

Meanwhile, Canada’s journalism schools don’t escape Edge’s scorn. He says most of them have been "nothing less than derelict in their duty to serve the profession and practise of journalism." In his book he explains why.

An emphatic conclusion of The News We Deserve is that government should no longer treat media like any other business, but as something much more precious, if properly functioning. Edge doesn’t say so, but he obviously believes healthy media are as precious a component of democracy as the right to vote and the rule of law.

His latest book is an important examination of what can be done to nurse Canada’s media back to public health. It is a provoking primer of what is and what might be.

The reporter flung out of that police meeting years ago was Laszlo Bastyovanszky of the Free Press. Barry Craig, then of the Winnipeg Tribune, helped cushion his fall.

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