Can we preserve Canadian newspapers in the digital age?

Not if those publications must compete with the CBC, which operates with the generous help of taxpayers' money

An ominous silence has fallen over the demands to save Canada’s newspapers, even as more of their employees take the long walk into the abattoir of the industry’s ambitions.

It was only 18 months ago that the Public Policy Forum report authored by Edward Greenspon – The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age – made a number of recommendations designed to halt the slaughter.

Chief among the recommendations was the establishment of a fund of as much as $400 million supported by a 10 per cent withholding tax on advertising purchased in foreign digital media.

Additional recommendations included – and some of us have long campaigned for this – banning the CBC from digital advertising and making its content available without charge to its domestic competitors.

Then another group – News Media Canada, chaired by Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox and supported by Unifor, the union representing 12,000 Canadian journalists and media workers – called for the updating and expansion of the Canadian Periodical Fund so that it could make $350 million available to newspaper publishers. That’s roughly the size of the Canada Media Fund that subsidizes TV and film productions.

Nothing happened.

At least until later in the year when Postmedia Inc. and Torstar Corp. engaged in a swap and closure of assets that raised eyebrows but, more importantly, threw a bunch more newspaper people out on the street.

Then it looked like something might happen when it was announced in this year’s federal budget that assistance would be extended to newspapers through the Canadian Periodical Fund. That fund for years has supported well-known products such as Maclean’s, Reader’s Digest and The Hockey News. Alas, the amount was a mere $50 million – dismissed swiftly and justifiably by the industry as inadequate.

What followed were more closures and yet another Postmedia announcement regarding the need to reduce staffing costs by 10 per cent prior to the company’s Aug. 31 year-end.

Two points to remember here: one is that while the coverage tends to imply all those losing jobs are journalists, many fine people work at newspapers other than in newsrooms and they too are impacted; the other is that we should all say a prayer for those having to work within this horrifying uncertainty.

There have been some high-profile exchanges on the issue of a bailout, notably between Cox and Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne, who strongly opposes the idea of any journalism organization being fed and watered by the government. One journalist, Selena Ross, said in a CBC interview that many of her peers would rather face bankruptcy than be compromised by government funding. It’s a view with which I sympathize. No matter how vigorously one applies objectivity to one’s work, the conflict lays in how others will perceive it.

Yet there’s little hint that the CBC, regardless of its many merits, is feeling so compromised. The public broadcaster was, at last report, well on its way to surpassing the target it set in 2014 of, by this year, reaching an average monthly audience of 18 million unique visits to its websites.

Here then, is the crux of the structural problem for those desperately trying to become or transition into sustainable digital products: the field upon which newspapers aspire to conduct a viable business is increasingly dominated by an entity that’s heavily funded to their disadvantage by taxpayers, including themselves, their employees and their families. Just imagine that your taxes – the product of your enterprise and ambition – are putting your pension at risk and you’ll get the gist of it.

We all know the age of print is over and that it would be foolish to subsidize it. But we know just as well that the cornerstone of democracy is freedom of speech. And freedom of the press to verify and disseminate that speech is necessary in order to discern what’s true within an otherwise cacophonic maze of opinion and manipulation.

Yet by refusing the entreaties in Greenspon’s report and elsewhere to balance the online playing field by banning the CBC from selling digital advertising and eliminating its domestic copyright protection on news content, Canada is sustaining a public policy that can only end with private sector failure and a government-funded news aristocracy bordering on monopoly.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC.


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