Lev­el­ling play­ing field for news­pa­pers in Canada

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - BY BOB COX Bob Cox is pub­lisher of the Win­nipeg Free Press and chair­man of News Me­dia Canada.

An­drew Coyne has writ­ten two col­umns in the Na­tional Post dump­ing on the idea that jour­nal­ism in Canada — in par­tic­u­lar the jour­nal­ism tra­di­tion­ally done by news­pa­pers — is in need of sup­port from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

By do­ing so, he’s pro­vid­ing great proof of just why sup­port is needed — so peo­ple can con­tinue to get the facts about is­sues of pub­lic im­por­tance.

Any pub­lic pol­icy worth im­ple­ment­ing is worth hav­ing a good, old-fash­ioned de­bate about. News­pa­pers pro­vide fo­rums for th­ese de­bates. If, as Coyne says, “most of the legacy me­dia com­pa­nies will prob­a­bly fail,” then both our voices could be si­lenced, or at least marginal­ized to “group blogs” or some other such venue that Coyne be­lieves will de­liver the news in the fu­ture.

A broad group of news or­ga­ni­za­tions has pro­posed ex­pand­ing a fed­eral pro­gram that sup­ports mag­a­zines and some com­mu­nity news­pa­pers. This would make daily news­pa­pers, such as the Win­nipeg Free Press, el­i­gi­ble and boost the fund’s spend­ing to $350 mil­lion a year from its cur­rent level of $75 mil­lion.

Many pub­lish­ers in Canada, in­clud­ing my­self, are pro­foundly un­easy with go­ing to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ask for help.

We have done so only af­ter fail­ing in ef­forts to get changes in tax­a­tion, copy­right and other ar­eas that we feel would level the play­ing field with other me­dia com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­larly the dig­i­tal gi­ants that are vac­u­um­ing up vast amounts of money from Cana­dian ad­ver­tis­ers and giv­ing very lit­tle back to com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.

We’ve done so be­cause of what’s at stake — the abil­ity of com­mu­ni­ties to be in­formed about them­selves through ac­cu­rate re­port­ing of what’s re­ally go­ing on. I be­lieve strongly in this prin­ci­ple.

Coyne be­lieves “Some peo­ple want to be well-in­formed; most do not,” which must make him ques­tion the pur­pose of his life’s work.

We have fo­cused our re­quest on pre­serv­ing the jobs of jour­nal­ists to en­sure that the news­rooms that still ex­ist aren’t cut to the point where they have noth­ing to of­fer read­ers.

Yes, we would ex­clude in­di­vid­ual blogs and we em­pha­size re­port­ing over opin­ion. No one wants to fund per­sonal rants or po­lit­i­cal agen­das.

It’s also folly to be­lieve that any fed­eral sub­sidy would sim­ply prop up ex­ist­ing news­pa­per com­pa­nies. Most of our ex­penses are not in our news­rooms and would not be cov­ered by any fed­eral pro­gram.

At my com­pany, our 10 news­pa­pers in Man­i­toba might qual­ify for $2 mil­lion. Our ex­pense bud­get in 2016 was $75 mil­lion. Rev­enue fell by $8.5 mil­lion. A cou­ple of mil­lion bucks is not go­ing to save us, now or in the fu­ture. Only good man­age­ment and a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to a new busi­ness model will do that.

As we tran­si­tion, the pro­posed jour­nal­ism fund would pro­tect news­rooms from be­ing cut be­cause money would be tied to the num­ber of jour­nal­ists em­ployed. A news or­ga­ni­za­tion would lose fund­ing if it cut ed­i­to­rial jobs.

We’re also not go­ing to use the money to pay higher salaries or have it “dealt away to the in­dus­try’s unions at the bar­gain­ing ta­ble.”

Ours is a busi­ness in con­stant change. Cost-cut­ting is not a one-time event; it’s daily op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure. We have pro­foundly trans­formed. We have con­fi­dence in our abil­i­ties to pro­duce jour­nal­ism, find read­ers and pay the bills.

But as we build new busi­ness mod­els, we’re con­fronted with cer­tain re­al­i­ties. We com­pete against the CBC, which of­fers “free news” that tax­pay­ers have al­ready funded.

We face the fact that money from TV view­ers (i.e. al­most ev­ery­one) is in­vol­un­tar­ily di­rected by a reg­u­la­tor to sup­port lo­cal TV news, also of­fered for “free.” Even Ma­clean’s mag­a­zine gets a cou­ple of mil­lion dol­lars a year from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

This is a play­ing field with a steep in­cline and news­pa­pers at the bot­tom.

We will rise to the chal­lenge but we are ask­ing for a bit of help to get there.

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