September 16, 2019

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Opinion

Heritage minister offers little support for newspapers

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly outlines the government’s vision for cultural and creative industries in a digital world.</p>

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly outlines the government’s vision for cultural and creative industries in a digital world.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2017 (718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is disappointing to hear a federal cabinet minister say that your industry is “no longer viable.”

It is even more disappointing when you know that this is not true.

For the past several months, a broad coalition of publishers has been making the argument, publicly and privately, that news gathering is in serious trouble in Canada and needs federal government support to stabilize and help transition in the digital age.

I have often spoken in favour of this idea, and it has made me the target of many critics. They will take comfort in the words of Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, who outlined the Liberal government’s plans for cultural policy on Thursday.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2017 (718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is disappointing to hear a federal cabinet minister say that your industry is "no longer viable."

It is even more disappointing when you know that this is not true.

For the past several months, a broad coalition of publishers has been making the argument, publicly and privately, that news gathering is in serious trouble in Canada and needs federal government support to stabilize and help transition in the digital age.

I have often spoken in favour of this idea, and it has made me the target of many critics. They will take comfort in the words of Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, who outlined the Liberal government’s plans for cultural policy on Thursday.

She made support for local news part of her speech and said that reliable journalistic content is critical to our democracy. She said the independence of newsrooms must be preserved.

However, she added: "Our approach will not be to bail out industry models that are no longer viable. Rather, we will focus our efforts on supporting innovation, experimentation and transition to digital."

In other words, there will be no direct support for news gathering done by newspapers and no actual promise of new federal money for the innovation that Joly favours. That amounts to ignoring a crisis that is real and urgent.

Joly appears to have ignored the main recommendation of the House of Commons heritage committee, which studied the problem of diminishing local news and said the Heritage Department should create a new funding model that would support Canadian journalistic content.

It appears the only support for newspapers will come from the Canada Periodical Fund, which is being revamped to "better support innovation, business development, startups and export."

The fund currently provides a small amount of money — about $7 million a year — to subsidize the paid, printed copies of community newspapers. Newspapers are doing much of the experimentation, innovation and transition to digital that is going on in news gathering. But it does not appear much new funding will be directed to support this.

Joly’s only concrete announcement regarding news was that Facebook will partner with Ryerson University to create a digital news incubator. This is the kind of project Facebook loves — demonstrating its concern for news gathering without putting any substantial amount of money into doing the sort of original journalism that gets shared endlessly on Facebook, generating ad dollars at little cost.

We have argued for the creation of a Canadian Journalism Fund, which would partially underwrite the cost of newsrooms and be open to any non-regulated provider of public-interest news.

That won’t happen. Contrast this with what is happening to the Canadian Media Fund. The government is going to increase its $130 million annual contribution to this fund, which finances television and digital productions, to make up for money it is losing from industry because fewer Canadians are subscribing to TV cable and satellite services.

So the government will spend money to keep TV and digital production healthy, but not to keep news gathering across the country healthy.

One of the objections to government funding for news gathering is that it somehow threatens the independence of newsrooms.

This is a curious objection from the federal government, given that it already is the largest funder of newsrooms in the country, mainly because of a CBC subsidy of more than $1 billion a year. Does this mean CBC newsrooms are not independent of government?

Another objection is that federal money would simply be a bailout of the dying newspaper industry — rhetoric that Joly adopted in her speech.

It’s true that some newspapers and newspaper companies will disappear due to market forces.

It’s also true that others are adapting, developing new business models and facing the future head on. This is where timely, limited public funding is needed — to ensure this transition succeeds. Publishers would never have asked for government help in the past, but we did so because of the urgency of the problem.

During this transition, there needs to be a clear vision of what is at stake. Newspapers still employ the majority of journalists across Canada doing independent, fact-based news gathering. Newspapers still provide the most comprehensive coverage of virtually every community where they publish, in print and online.

Alternatives are developing, but to date there are none in Canada that do the job done primarily by newspapers — reaching broad audiences with comprehensive news and content gathered by good-sized newsrooms.

That capacity needs to be preserved for the sake of an informed public participating in a healthy democracy. We’re dedicated to doing that, even if others think our industry is no longer viable.

Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chairman of News Media Canada.

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

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