Ar­gu­ing against gov­ern­ment funds for jour­nal­ism

The Compass - - Editorial - Russell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages

This is my opin­ion and mine alone.

Why? Be­cause I used to work for a me­dia com­pany that was ac­tively tak­ing part in try­ing to con­vince at least two lev­els of gov­ern­ment to fi­nan­cially in­ter­cede in jour­nal­ism in some way.

I work for a new com­pany now, and they haven’t said much about their stance on gov­ern­ment fund­ing — so please don’t imag­ine that I speak for them. Be­cause I don’t.

When it comes to the ques­tion of whether fed­eral fund­ing — tax dol­lars — should be used to back­stop Cana­dian me­dia, you’d have to count me among those say­ing a def­i­nite no.

Do I think good in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism is nec­es­sary in a democ­racy like Canada’s?

Ab­so­lutely, I do — but I also think af­ford­able child care is a ne­ces­sity and full den­tal care is long over­due as well, and that doesn’t mean any­one’s been able to find money for them ei­ther.

And the truth is, I’m more than a lit­tle ashamed of our in­dus­try.

Why?

Be­cause the very peo­ple in the in­dus­try who are cur­rently poor mouthing them­selves in front of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans have had no qualms in the past about tak­ing wind­fall prof­its — when there was ex­tra cash, they didn’t start putting aside funds for im­prov­ing or strength­en­ing jour­nal­ism. They just took the money. Put it this way; while me­dia com­pa­nies have cried about the need for good jour­nal­ism, they have quite hap­pily sac­ri­ficed good jour­nal­ists — es­pe­cially good, young, keen jour­nal­ists — to main­tain ex­ec­u­tive salaries and of­fer up re­turns to share­hold­ers and lenders. If the bosses of the main­stream me­dia re­ally had such al­tru­is­tic goals, per­haps they would have in­vested more of their at-the-time wheel­bar­rows of cash into re­search and de­vel­op­ment at the start of the In­ter­net ex­plo­sion.

When times got tighter, the solution news­pa­per own­ers tried was cut­ting costs and giv­ing buy­ers less. Ask any busi­nessper­son about cut­ting your way to prof­its.

“The model is clearly bro­ken: putting gov­ern­ment money into the ex­ist­ing sys­tem ei­ther means a per­ma­nent crutch, or a slow slide into ob­scu­rity.”

The model is clearly bro­ken: putting gov­ern­ment money into the ex­ist­ing sys­tem ei­ther means a per­ma­nent crutch, or a slow slide into ob­scu­rity.

Plenty of in­dus­tries change — but if a prod­uct has value and you can find a way to get it to mar­ket, it will have cus­tomers.

Our prob­lem isn’t the cus­tomers — we have more than ever.

Our prob­lem is more nu­anced: it’s get­ting those cus­tomers to be­lieve that we’re a busi­ness, not a char­ity, and that they may ac­tu­ally have to pay for what they con­sume. In the past — par­tic­u­larly in print, ad­ver­tis­ers paid a pre­mium that kept the costs down for cus­tomers.

That hasn’t worked as well on­line.

If the model is bro­ken, a new one should ap­pear. Stage­coaches gave way to trains, af­ter all.

You can ar­gue that there should be some sort of tran­si­tion fund­ing to move the in­dus­try into a new model: I’d still grit my teeth over that, be­cause it’s like let­ting your roof rot off while you’re off spend­ing your money on for­eign va­ca­tions, and then ask­ing for gov­ern­ment-paid shin­gles.

The only real tragedy is if noth­ing ap­pears — be­cause that fun­da­men­tally means that peo­ple no longer care about their com­mu­nity, their gov­ern­ment, and their role in the process.

But there are is­sues with the gov­ern­ment pay­ing for me­dia as if it were thrice-weekly serv­ings of broc­coli — “be­cause it’s good for you.”

Gov­ern­ment fund­ing for tra­di­tional me­dia would re­ally only solve one of our prob­lems: find­ing some­one to pay for the work that many read­ers are al­ready con­sum­ing for free.

What you also have to be con­cerned about is the ex­tent to which a news­pa­per — or any jour­nal­ism out­let — is spon­sored by gov­ern­ment. There is an old say­ing that “he who pays the piper, picks the tune.”

The only thing worse than hav­ing no un­der­stand­ing of what your gov­ern­ment is do­ing? Well, per­haps it’s sit­ting and lis­ten­ing to the gov­ern­ment choir.

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