The newspaper you hold in your hands today? Savour it. Consider yourself lucky to even have a newspaper to read. Perhaps you are reading this on a tablet, or more likely a phone. Good for you. At least you have access to local journalism, for which you should consider yourself lucky.
Journalism in Canada is in trouble. At a time when it is becoming harder and harder to make sense of our world, whole swaths of Canada now lack access to one of the most important pieces of civic infrastructure all democracies need: good journalism.
As the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy has stated, news and information "are as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health." Yet in Canada, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs over the past decade. Broadcasters can barely compete with cheap, often free content on the Internet. Venerated newspapers, some as old as Confederation, have shut their doors.
Within a decade, says Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Europe’s largest newspaper publisher, Axel Springer, newspapers will exist "only as a kind of… vintage item," much like vinyl records. In Canada, that future is fast approaching. Ken Goldstein, a leading media business analyst, says by 2025, "It is likely there will be few, if any, printed daily newspapers" and "there might be no local broadcast stations" in the country. Paid newspaper circulation, as a percentage of Canadian households, fell from just under 50 per cent in 1995 to 20 per cent two years ago. At current rates, that could be as low as five per cent within a decade.
Were such drastic declines to occur in other basic civic infrastructure — if our roads and bridges were collapsing, if we lost thousands of police or firemen, if our sewers no longer worked or no one picked up the garbage — there would be a loud public outcry. So how is it journalism’s decline has gone largely unheeded in Canada?
To some extent, journalists themselves are to blame. Canada’s media collapse has gone largely unreported, other than the occasional death watch report on Postmedia in the business pages. To be fair, newspaper publishers probably don’t see it as being much in their self-interest to chronicle the weaknesses in their own products.
We are long overdue for an honest conversation in this country about media assets, be they in public or private ownership, that are essential to the proper functioning of our democratic institutions. When our media suffer, the country suffers. Our public square is shrinking, just as the complexity of issues confronting our country is growing.
Of course some of this — a lot of it actually — is attributable to the lightning speed with which digital media have come to dominate our information channels. Sadly, Canada has been slower than most countries to adapt to the digital revolution, at least when it comes to journalism. That is changing, and we are finally seeing some experiments in "digital native" journalism platforms that are offering credible alternatives to daily newspapers. That said, emerging media confront the same basic challenge legacy media do: how do you pay for good journalism in a world awash in free content?
There are no easy answers. There is surely a role for government to change our charitable laws so that, as in America and elsewhere, philanthropy can support good public-interest journalism. Governments can also provide tax incentives for investors in new digital-media products. The CBC can and should be retooled to be more service-oriented, using the impressive channel infrastructure Canadians have already paid for to bring new and diverse voices into the Canadian conversation. It is especially urgent that, in our reconciliation era, we invest heavily in ensuring our indigenous peoples’ voices are amplified and properly honoured in our public discourse. So too, the voices and views of our remarkably diverse immigrant and refugee communities.
Something else needs to happen, too, which is Canadians have to stop taking their media for granted. In Winnipeg, you are fortunate to have a newspaper, this one, that has a better than odds-on chance of surviving the seismic changes shaking Canada’s media to their core. The Free Press isn’t immune to the complex challenges confronting newspapers everywhere, although at least it isn’t owned by an offshore hedge fund. The Free Press is trying new things, such as an experiment (unique in Canada) with micro-payments for digital media. It even has a downtown café, maintaining a face in the community that is likewise unusual among metropolitan dailies. The owners of the Free Press seem to have remembered one critical thing the conglomerates forgot, which is they owe a duty of care to their community. Will the Free Press survive? Who knows? It might come down to a matter of trust. Winnipeggers, like all Canadians, need media they can trust to help make sense of their world. Whether on paper or online, they should be prepared to pay for an essential public service, without which our cities and our country will operate in the dark.
Ian Gill is president of Discourse Media and the author of a new book, No News Is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse — And What Comes Next (Greystone Books). He appears at the Millennium Library at 4:30 pm Friday in the Big Ideas segment of the Thin Air 2016 writer’s festival.