The vast majority of Canadians believe that journalism plays a vital democratic role for the country. An Angus Reid survey last month found that 94 per cent of respondents say the media performs an important function in our democracy. It sends a clear signal to elected officials that journalism is a crucial part of Canada’s democratic fabric.
But in the past 10 years, 238 local news outlets have closed their doors, according to a Ryerson University media watchdog. Of those, 212 were newspapers that were either closed entirely or closed due to mergers. The remaining 26 closures were TV, radio and digital outlets. More than 16,500 jobs in the media sector have been eliminated since 2008, according to the Canadian Media Guild - nearly half of those are in print media.
It’s not a healthy picture for preserving our democracy. The reasons are obvious – a decline in ad revenue, a shift to digital, and the powerful online presence of Facebook and Google. Media groups, especially newspapers, have rushed to adapt to the digital age but the turmoil has seen newsrooms close and journalists laid off.
What are media outlets to do? For starters, they have adapted and diversified to publish their material in various platforms such as print, mobile, digital and video. And following consultations with news organizations, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage produced a positive report last year with recommendations for federal action to support media in local communities. News organizations had offered practical, low-cost solutions for Ottawa to consider, such as amending the Canadian Periodical Fund (CPF) to include daily newspapers, copyright protection, closing loopholes, tax changes and reversing the digital-first strategy for government advertising. One such loophole allows billions of dollars in ads to flow to foreign internet sites, which hire no Canadian journalists, at the expense of Canadian media outlets.
News Media Canada, which represents community and daily newspapers, proposed remaking the CPF into the Canadian Journalism Fund and giving it a new mandate to support local journalism, along with $350 million in funding. But the federal budget brought down Tuesday was far below what news industry leaders had sought or expected. It offered $50 million over five years to independent, non-governmental organizations to support local journalism in under-serviced communities. There is no indication of who those organizations will be.
On a positive note, government will explore allowing charitable support for journalism and local news, thus avoiding direct funding to news organizations that are fiercely protective of their independence from government.
Government likes to tout its support for journalism by pointing to increased funding for the CBC. But most community reporting is being done by newspapers, which won’t be found anywhere else. The mistaken focus of government is on communities that have already lost newspapers, rather than supporting existing newspapers and their journalists to allow them to continue to provide local news in their communities.
The industry wants to boost journalism, which supports democracy; yet the government seems content to let market forces run their course.
It’s a potentially dangerous situation. And not just for those behind pens and computers.