A Dark Day
With Monday’s announcement that Torstar Corp. and Postmedia Network Inc. will cut nearly 300 jobs and shutter 36 newspapers, the federal government is coming under renewed pressure to find solutions for Canada’s ailing newspaper industry.
Jerry Dias, leader of Unifor, a union that represents many media workers, says the closures are devastating and he’s urging federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to take action to protect print journalism. CWA Canada has called to strengthen the Competition Act to prevent such deals, which it charged are designed to eliminate competition.
Joly unveiled a cultural strategy in September that was criticized by industry experts for lacking expected measures that could have given a boost to Canada’s struggling newspapers.
She said at the time that Ottawa had no interest in bailing out industry models that are no longer viable, and would instead focus on supporting innovation, experimentation and the transition to digital platforms.
Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chairman of News Media Canada, has been lobbying Joly’s office for some time to convince her that the newspaper business as a whole needs helps to transition to digital.
“I have been warning the federal government for some time that newspaper closures were inevitable and communities would have less and less access to news and information about themselves,” he said. “I did not want to be right. But I am right.
“These papers are not going to get a chance to transition,” he said of the 36 now slated to close. “There is no digital future for any of these newspapers.”
Joly has said that her department is looking at making changes to the existing Canadian Periodical Fund to help the newspaper industry, but there has been no announcement.
“It is taking a long time,” Cox said. “Newspapers do not have a long time.”
When asked Monday if news of the closures had encouraged her to rethink her approach, Joly reiterated that the government will provide support in the coming months for local media as they continue to shift to web-based models.
“Of course, I’m sad to hear about these local closures and my thoughts are with the families affected,” she said.
She mentioned the government’s $75-million fund for periodicals, which is available to ethnic and small-town media, but hardly any daily newspapers. She has suggested letting web-only outlets access the fund, but hasn’t boosted its budget.
“Canadians value the importance of local media, and also that they access more and more content through the web,” Joly said.
Joly said on Sept. 28 that the federal Liberals will not support newspapers because “our approach will not be to bail out industry models that are no longer viable.”
Ottawa-area Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld calls the closures — several of which will impact papers in the national capital — an unfortunate development that will impact democracy and make it more difficult for politicians and community groups to connect with locals.
Vandenbeld says that if there are solutions available to help the industry, the government should pursue them. But she believes the industry’s challenges are a much larger issue that are part of a global trend.
“I think it’s part of a much larger and much more worrying trend in the world today, which is the closure of a number of media outlets, investigative journalism, print media, that is frankly not good for our democracy,” she said.
“If there are solutions, then absolutely I think we should be doing what we can. But I think this is a much bigger, societal issue than individual papers.”
Transcona NDP MP Daniel Blaikie recalled reading Metro on the bus when he commuted to his job as an electrician.
“When you see these kinds of closures, and the loss of competition that comes with it, it’s a disappointment,” the MP said.
Blaikie said many are suspicious of Torstar and Postmedia swapping ownership and suddenly laying off dozens of reporters. “Something’s not right about that.”
He acknowledged that media are grappling to find a sustainable business model, and that companies have made poor choices. But he argued that Ottawa needs to support journalism to maintain its quality.
“It’s at its best when it’s not just about the money; it’s about having people with investigative skills looking into what government’s doing; keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in their communities and getting that information out to Canadians who are doing their jobs,” he said.
Blaikie took aim at Joly’s earlier comments.
“The old advertising model isn’t working anymore; that doesn’t mean we don’t need the working journalists that have been paid out of that model,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of time before the next closure like this, if we don’t have a strategy. And we’ve got a government that’s pretty much said, ‘We’re not interested in having a strategy.’”
— The Canadian Press, with files from Martin Cash and Dylan Robertson