Lit­tle good news from jour­nal­ism re­port

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - BOB COX

The fol­low­ing edi­to­rial orig­i­nally ran in the Win­nipeg Free Press on Jan­uary 27, 2017.

Man­i­to­bans know that when the snow comes and your car is slid­ing around cor­ners, you switch to win­ter tires. You don’t stare at the sum­mer tires and think about how you could de­sign a dif­fer­ent sys­tem to push the ve­hi­cle for­ward. In short, you don’t try to rein­vent the wheel.

It’s a les­son the Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum could have learned in its re­port on the news me­dia, The Shat­tered Mir­ror, which was re­leased Thurs­day.

The re­port pro­vides lots of de­tail on how much ad rev­enues have de­clined for tra­di­tional news me­dia – news­pa­pers, TV and ra­dio – and lots of de­tail on how this has cut staffing in news­rooms and cur­tailed the amount of civic func­tion jour­nal­ism be­ing done in Canada.

It asks: “Do the me­dia, and par­tic­u­larly the civic func­tion of jour­nal­ism – the coverage of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, pub­lic af­fairs and com­mu­nity – need a life­line?”

It an­swers the ques­tion with a clear “Yes!” But then its main rec­om­men­da­tions are not any­thing that I rec­og­nize as a life­line.

It rec­om­mends a 10 per cent tax on pur­chases of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing in for­eignowned me­dia. This is pri­mar­ily a tax on Google and Face­book, the two U.S. giants that gob­ble up bil­lions that used to be spent in Cana­dian-owned me­dia.

The ra­tio­nale is twofold: it would make Cana­dian com­pa­nies more likely to ad­ver­tise in Cana­dian-owned me­dia and it would ad­dress the fact that large U.S. dig­i­tal com­pa­nies take a lot of money out of Canada and put lit­tle back in the way of cre­at­ing con­tent for Cana­di­ans.

The tax could amount to $300 mil­lion to $400 mil­lion each year. That money could go a long way to shoring up re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ism across the coun­try. It could, for ex­am­ple, un­der­write the en­tire news­room bud­gets of dozens of ma­jor daily news­pa­pers.

But that’s not where the money would go. In­stead, it would go to a Fu­ture of Jour­nal­ism and Democ­racy Fund that would sup­port dig­i­tal news in­no­va­tion with a spe­cial em­pha­sis on early-stage lo­cal and in­dige­nous news op­er­a­tions, and re­search into is­sues rel­e­vant to the in­ter­ac­tion of news and democ­racy.

In other words, the money would not go to sup­port what ex­ist­ing news out­lets do to en­sure on­go­ing coverage.

There would also be money for a whole new ser­vice by the Cana­dian Press to cover lo­cal news that would be shared. For ex­am­ple, a com­mon re­porter at the Win­nipeg courts would pro­vide sto­ries that all lo­cal me­dia could use.

Apart from the fact that lo­cal news me­dia are al­ready do­ing this, you have to ask: Does it serve Win­nipeg­gers well to have a sin­gle source of such news, with the ex­act same story be­ing re­peated in ev­ery lo­cal me­dia out­let? I would an­swer “No.” A key part of strong civic func­tion jour­nal­ism is a va­ri­ety of re­port­ing, with dif­fer­ent ver­sions that pro­vide dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives that al­low peo­ple to come to their own con­clu­sions.

As well, this kind of ser­vice is only vi­able in larger cen­tres. Who is go­ing to do this in Stein­bach and Beause­jour and ev­ery other smaller cen­tre across the coun­try that is cur­rently served by lo­cal news­pa­pers?

The re­port has some use­ful rec­om­men­da­tions. It sug­gests tak­ing sales taxes off sub­scrip­tions to Cana­dian news out­lets, in large part be­cause such taxes are not cur­rently ap­plied to sub­scrip­tions to for­eign news out­lets.

It also sug­gests that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment ad­ver­tise only in Cana­di­anowned me­dia and that char­ity laws be changed so that peo­ple can make taxd­e­ductible do­na­tions to non-profit news or­ga­ni­za­tions. These would help civic func­tion jour­nal­ism.

But, af­ter de­vot­ing 80 or so pages to the state of news me­dia to­day, the re­port’s rec­om­men­da­tions do not go very far to­wards help­ing the news me­dia with mea­sures to strengthen eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity.

Cur­rently, there are news­pa­pers and news out­lets across Canada do­ing their best to cover their com­mu­ni­ties, build out dig­i­tal plat­forms and adapt to the new busi­ness re­al­i­ties. This is the be­drock of civic func­tion jour­nal­ism in Canada. The best bet for en­sur­ing its sur­vival is to find ways of help­ing it get bet­ter trac­tion in chang­ing con­di­tions, and not rein­vent the wheel.

Bob Cox is Pub­lisher of the Win­nipeg Free Press and board chair of News Me­dia Canada. You can view and down­load the PPF re­port at https://shat­tered­mir­

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