As Canadian newsrooms shrink at an unprecedented rate, a major report released Thursday has MPs asking the Trudeau government to fund more news organizations so they can combat the rise of so-called fake news.
"We recognize the challenges the media face," reads a report by the Commons heritage committee. "We believe that steps must be taken to help them navigate this tumultuous period."
The MPs note Canada has the highest rate of media consolidation in the democratic world, meaning large companies such as Postmedia are merging newsrooms and sending fewer reporters to city hall and school board meetings.
The committee also said Manitoba isn’t as hard hit by that phenomenon as Alberta towns or Ontario suburbs.
"I actually think Manitoba is doing quite well in media," said Winnipeg Liberal Dan Vandal, echoing his committee colleagues. "We have to continue that, and make sure everybody else can do that well."
His colleagues pointed to Ryerson University’s Local News Research Project, which has mapped new, closed and stable newsrooms across Canada.
It shows far less change in Manitoba than surrounding provinces.
Bob Cox, publisher of the Free Press, said Manitoba has seen occasional cuts to journalism, as when Brandon’s only television station was shuttered in 2009.
"We haven’t gotten to that stage yet, where you’re seeing a lot of newspapers disappear. But newspapers are struggling harder and harder, just to keep the doors open and keep reporting on their communities," Cox said
As chairman of News Media Canada, Cox has spent a decade advocating for print organizations.
He praised the committee’s idea to make "platform agnostic" a fund for magazines and small newspapers and to include city dailies and online upstarts.
"This is a big call, because they feel a pillar of our democracy is threatened," he said.
The committee also proposed a five-year fund that would help legacy media such as newspapers adapt to digital media, possibly funded by charging five per cent on streaming services, to make them fall in line with TV broadcasters.
The report asks bureaucrats to have "experts in media" test any proposed media mergers for whether they threaten a "diversity of voices." Vandal said he was proud of a recommendation to have the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in Winnipeg train more indigenous journalists with government funding.
The committee’s Conservative MPs wrote a dissenting report, saying the solution was to lessen existing policies to allow for more innovation.
"People are not stupid," their report said, largely dismissing concerns about fake news. "The new media era... cannot be stopped or blocked or regulated in Canada."
Christopher Waddell, a Carleton University journalism professor, has seen newsrooms shrink dramatically since he started teaching in 2001.
He agreed that outdated policies can stifle competition, but said it depends on the community.
"Sometimes, existing news organizations can take up a lot of the space in some communities so that new agencies can’t try new things unless they see a vacuum they can fill," Waddell said.
He noted that upstart SteinbachOnline filled a niche for daily news, while the community maintains a weekly newspaper, the Carillon, which is owned by the parent company of the Winnipeg Free Press.
Yet Conservative MP Peter Van Loan said that on some blogs, "you get better news" than cash-strapped newsrooms, especially close-knit Prairie communities.
"That lends itself well to developing the kind of local, citizen-driven, news-dissemination websites and Facebook groups," Van Loan said.
His colleague, MP Kevin Waugh, recalled that when he was a Saskatoon school trustee, parents were better served by the board’s own tweets and parent bloggers than the big-city paper, which rarely sent a reporter to meetings.
"It’s the way things are going now," he said.
Cox stressed that journalists fill a vital role by digging for information others want hidden, and said he was "baffled" by the idea of social media replacing reporters.
"Let’s just have the wild west, and let’s have chaos. Boy, I don’t want to see how that works."