OTTAWA – the federal Liberal government has enlisted the independent Public Policy Forum to assess the state of Canada’s struggling news industry as it mulls over potential policy options.
A rash of newspaper closures and newsroom layoffs this past winter, combined with a looming debt bomb for Postmedia Network Canada Corp., Canada’s largest newspaper chain, has added a sense of urgency to a decade-long disruption of the journalism that Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s office says “plays a central role in a healthy democracy.”
“It’s a sensitive area of policy making,” Ed Greenspon, the president of the Public Policy Forum and former Globe and Mail editor and reporter, told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“We’re not, if you will, hired by the government. But we’re doing this in co-operation with the government.”
Reporters will be uncomfortable with this arrangement, because it nudges them perceptibly towards a government when they are supposed to be writing about said government, without fear or favour.
Folks in government will be uncomfortable with this, meanwhile, because they privately don’t think traditional media can be fixed – which is why so many of them spend all their time, and all their money, on stuff like Facebook and Twitter.
Joe and Jane Frontporch, meanwhile, won’t care – because they think government and media are incapable of doing anything other than peer at their own navels.
All that aside, should a government – any government – be offering such help? Should any self-respecting news person be accepting it?
At Carleton’s journalism school, back at the beginning of time, we studied Senator Keith Davey’s inquiry into the state of newspaper industry in Canada. I was a big fan of both newspapers and (later) Davey, so I didn’t see anything wrong with Pierre Trudeau’s government being similarly concerned about the future of print media. They were right to do so, I felt, because – as subsequent events showed – the print media sometimes didn’t seem to have a future.
It wasn’t an abstract question for my J-school classmates, either: our perspectives were shaped by events of the time. In my case, I had arrived at Cartoon U. literally on the very weekend that the Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune folded – prompting my Dad, at the time, to gently query whether I had picked the right career path. (I responded to the challenge by actively imitating Grattan O’Leary – pinballing between the State and the Fourth Estate, but belonging to neither. It kept bread on the table.)
I digress. Ed Greenspon, who is apparently leading this utterly doomed exercise, has also orbited between media and government, and is a pretty smart guy. I suspect he’ll offer up a thoughtful, well-meaning report in a few months, people will write self-involved opinion columns about it, and then we’ll all place it on a distant perch on the bookshelf, alongside the Davey and Kent Commission reports.
Let us save Ed time and money, and help answer the why-newspapers-have-failed part of his mandate. There are lots of reasons.
- Bad business decisions
- Offering up a crummier and crummier product
- Embracing the digital revolution, like the music industry did, without considering the myriad perils inherent in that
- Dismissing web sites like my own ([popup url=”http://http://www.warrenkinsella.com/” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]warrenkinsella.com[/popup]), which gets 3.5 million visitors a year, and which costs readers precisely nothing
- Thinking, wrongly, that mindless consolidation was better than thoughtful local ownership
- Letting Facebook and the like get their content for free, and then letting themsteal away their advertisers
- Heartlessly terminating reporters and editors – when reporters and editors are really all that a newspaper is
- Pretending to be objective when the aforementioned Joe and Jane Frontporch saw them as just another special interest group.
And so on.
Can a government do anything about any of that stuff? No, of course not. No way. Because every fix would require a government to go back in time. And even Justin Trudeau isn’t a time traveler.
Change is upon us, whether we like it or not. I’m not sure where newspapers are going to end up. But it sure ain’t gonna be where they once were. It probably won’t be pretty, either.
Grattan O’Leary weeps. Weep with him.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.