The smartest thing the federal government could have done to answer pleas for subsidy from the nation’s newspaper publishers is nothing.
The next smartest thing it could have done is what I suggested it do last August – get the CBC out of the domestic advertising business and make all of its news content available without copyright protection across the nation.
It did neither.
What it did do recently was promise $50 million over five years to support news generation in unserved areas – not entirely stupid but easily described by some as a wasteful sop.
The money, if it follows the path trodden by most federal funds, will need to be split on a two-thirds/one-third basis between English and French offerings. And that might be after a portion is set aside for Indigenous and third language entities.
Then there will need to be a definition of what constitutes an unserved audience. If it comes to print products, that would not be hard. But when it comes to news (the justification for action is, after all, the usual blah, blah, blah about how without journalists, democracy will die), this sort of definition is more problematic.
How, for instance, could the government declare that a community such as Wrigley in the Northwest Territories (pop. 133, located along the Mackenzie River about 800 km north of Yellowknife) is unserved when the Broadcasting Act makes it clear that the CBC’s job is, among other things to “be made available throughout Canada?”
In Wrigley’s case, CBC North is also dedicated specifically to serve its residents and the other 100,000 or so people sprinkled across Canada’s northern territories. In addition, APTN (the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) is available throughout Canada and targeted at an audience often living in remote and underserved areas. That’s its raison d’être.
If that isn’t enough, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is there to, according to its website “ensure Canadians have access to local programming that reflects their needs and interests and inform them of important current issues.”
So, with billions spent directly on the CBC, tens of millions in mandated subscriber fees set aside to support APTN and hundreds of millions more redirected by the CRTC to ensure Canadians are informed (and, really, if you can’t trust the CRTC, who can you trust?), it seems unimaginable that any area in Canada could sensibly be defined as being in need of the money set aside in the budget for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly to distribute.
To do so, it seems to me, would be to recognize public sector failure on a troubling scale.
Newspaper publishers would point to this system as among the reasons they struggle and they wouldn’t be wrong. But their malaise (and there are notable exceptions, such as the Victoria Times Colonist) is due to multiple factors, not a few of which are self-inflicted. Their demise can easily be tracked through websites such as Intermedia’s iabcanada.com.
In terms of media websites, for instance, and according to information posted by Global’s David Akin on Twitter recently, cbc.ca has a solid lead with about 20 per cent of market share and continues to grow. Closing the gap with about 13 per cent share and 32 per cent growth in the past year is globalnews.ca, followed by ctvnews.ca.
The top three are all broadcast media converting to online – something newspapers are comparatively not very good at. The entire Toronto Star group, for instance, combines for fourth place with about 10 per cent share, followed by CNN, whose website draws more eyeballs in Canada than either the Globe and Mail or National Post (multiple) sites. Those combined readerships still don’t match that of the CBC.
People who are not very good at things should not be given subsidies to continue being not very good at what they’re doing. The $50 million set aside by Joly would have been more wisely contributed to ensuring Internet access for remote areas.
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who served as a CRTC commissioner and vice-chairman for 10 years.
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