February 18, 2019

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Feds hint at shoring up support for news industry

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle</p><p>Prime Minister Trudeau gave new Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez 11 priorities, two of which touched on shoring up support for newsrooms.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Prime Minister Trudeau gave new Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez 11 priorities, two of which touched on shoring up support for newsrooms.

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are hinting at support for Canada’s ailing news industry, but it’s unclear if they’ll deliver tax changes or funding for newspapers ahead of next fall’s election.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released mandate letters for his cabinet, including new Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. Trudeau gave Rodriguez 11 priorities, two of which touched on shoring up support for newsrooms.

The first is to help implement budget commitments “to support local journalism and developing business models that better facilitate private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional non-profit journalism and local news.”

The second is to “work with media organizations to consider how the government can further support the transition to digital media.”

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are hinting at support for Canada’s ailing news industry, but it’s unclear if they’ll deliver tax changes or funding for newspapers ahead of next fall’s election.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released mandate letters for his cabinet, including new Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. Trudeau gave Rodriguez 11 priorities, two of which touched on shoring up support for newsrooms.

The first is to help implement budget commitments "to support local journalism and developing business models that better facilitate private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional non-profit journalism and local news."

The second is to "work with media organizations to consider how the government can further support the transition to digital media."

The only media-related instructions for Rodriguez’s predecessor, Mélanie Joly, was to review the CBC’s mandate. When Joly unveiled the Liberals’ cultural policy last fall, she pledged support for artists and playwrights, but had nothing to say about newspapers and legacy outlets.

Heritage Canada estimates Canada has lost 10,000 media jobs in the past 12 years. Research by Ryerson University Prof. April Lindgren shows that between 2008 and August 2018, 258 Canadian newsrooms have closed (one-sixth due to mergers).

Rodriguez was not available for a Thursday interview, and the Liberals haven’t said when they’ll unveil support for the news industry.

In any case, the newspaper industry’s main lobby group says the mandate letter quells fears the Liberals won’t do anything for the industry.

"I think the mandate letter shows that in fact, it is on the agenda, even if we haven’t seen concrete measures spelled out yet," said Bob Cox, chairman of National NewsMedia Council and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

"This letter makes it clear that it is on the agenda, and that the government is taking it seriously."

In May, Montreal newspaper La Presse restructured as a non-profit, and wants to issue charity-donation tax receipts, as American newspapers can do. Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, has been lobbying federal officials for such changes to the tax code.

Lindgren suspects Ottawa is afraid fringe outlets would be accorded charitable status. She’s found "sort of an even split" in American outlets that qualify for subsidies between left- and right-leaning agencies.

Rodriguez will also have to decide how to allocate $50 million over five years the 2018 budget earmarked to "support local journalism in underserved communities." That funding won't go to the CBC, but the Liberals haven't said if it's intended for legacy media, newer digital upstarts or both.

Cox said NNC has been "patiently waiting" since speaking with Heritage officials about that funding. "We’d really like to see it move a little faster," he said, given layoffs and downsizing are announced almost monthly in the industry.

In April, internal analysis obtained by the news site Blacklock’s Reporter found Heritage Canada estimated the $50 million would allow organizations to hire "60 to 80 journalists" covering beats such as courts and legislatures.

Lindgren suggests the funding ought to "create greater, long-term sustainability" through institutions that can provide training and gather data to help existing publications with reporting on social issues.

Last month, the Senate’s communications committee released a report urging Ottawa to decide whether it will harmonize online advertising tax rules with those for broadcasting.

Currently, businesses get tax deductions for what they spend on advertising through Google and Facebook, a perk only available for print and broadcast advertising when it involves Canadian companies.

The Senate committee suggested it was a low-hanging fruit to slow declining ad revenue for Canada’s news industry, but not a magic bullet. The two tech giants account for two-third of American ad dollars; the Public Policy Forum suggests it’s a similar rate in Canada.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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