Pub­lic fund­ing the so­lu­tion to strug­gling news out­lets

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Rick Sa­lutin Rick Sa­lutin’s col­umn ap­pears ev­ery Fri­day.

Net­flix says it’ll vol­un­tar­ily pour $100 mil­lion a year into Cana­dian film pro­duc­tion over the next five years. The re­sponse here has been typ­i­cal Cana­dian in­grat­i­tude: Is that all? Or: They’re only do­ing it to evade be­ing taxed di­rectly. I won­der if that ir­ri­tates Net­flix, or just per­plexes them. What’s with th­ese peo­ple?

My own re­ac­tion is that I’m wor­ried less about Net­flix than about News­flix. What­ever its trou­bles, Cana­dian dra­matic art is in far bet­ter fi­nan­cial shape than Cana­dian jour­nal­ism. Does that sound like the most art­less segue ever?

Al­low me to dou­ble down. I think there’s been a pe­cu­liar but strong his­tor­i­cal sym­bio­sis between Cana­dian jour­nal­ism and Cana­dian film cul­ture. This was al­ways the land of doc­u­men­tary, shading into drama. The first fea­ture doc ever made (more or less, th­ese are in­her­ently spe­cious claims) was Nanook of the North, done by an Amer­i­can but made here, with early in­ti­ma­tions of docu­d­rama. The very term “doc­u­men­tary” was coined by a Scot, John Gri­er­son, who mi­grated here and cre­ated Canada’s lu­mi­nous Na­tional Film Board.

The first An­glo-Cana­dian dra­matic fea­ture, 1964’s No­body Waved Good-bye, was made by Don Owen, at the NFB. Our films have re­tained a doc-like feel, as if the na­tional sense was shaky enough that it needed a sense of be­ing an­chored in the real world, some­thing that ac­tu­ally hap­pened, be­cause you prob­a­bly read about it, eh?

Add the na­tional bent for news-based satire, from Max Fer­gu­son’s bril­liant daily ra­dio sketches through Rick Mercer or all the Cana­di­ans who built satire in the U.S. One of Canada’s sub­limest dra­matic cre­ations, Ken Finkel­man’s The News­room, was based on CBC news, and filmed in the bow­els of the CBC. It couldn’t have ex­isted with­out Cana­dian jour­nal­ism, but tran­scended it ut­terly.

CBC, in fact, should be a key to re­solv­ing jour­nal­ism’s cur­rent cri­sis. That cri­sis is based on the sud­den dis­in­te­gra­tion — like a milk­weed pod, poof — of the ad­ver­tis­ing eco­nomic model. It was al­ways ac­ci­den­tal; there’s no nat­u­ral affin­ity between ads and news, but it worked, till in­ter­net be­he­moths like Google and Face­book swiped all the ad rev­enue. Now news out­lets are gasp­ing for air; many have al­ready ex­pired.

The ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion is pub­lic fund­ing, as with other na­tional ne­ces­si­ties, like health care or the Armed Forces. For some rea­son, many peo­ple, jour­nal­ists in­cluded, find this odi­ous and a threat to press free­dom. Why cor­po­rate pres­sures, via ads, are seen as less men­ac­ing than govern­ment ones, I have no clue. But CBC al­ready ex­ists and gets about $1 bil­lion in pub­lic funds each year. So there’s your new model, and it’s been ac­cepted for decades.

Sadly, CBC in its cur­rent in­car­na­tion is a wretched ex­em­plar for news. For its own tawdry rea­sons, it’s cho­sen to fo­cus mainly on crime, weather and con­sumer tips. Its lead story for the Hous­ton hur­ri­cane was how much it would cost Cana­di­ans at the pumps. That’s an in­sult to the in­tel­li­gence and cit­i­zenry of those whose taxes sus­tain it. CBC’s mo­tive for this con­temp­tu­ous dumb­ing down was os­ten­si­bly to mul­ti­ply eye­balls. The re­sult is that more peo­ple now watch not just CTV Na­tional News with Lisa Laflamme, but Global Na­tional with Dawna Friesen. Global for God sakes!

So I’m not ar­gu­ing for sup­port to the in­sti­tu­tions just as they are, in­clud­ing the CBC. For­tu­nately, other mod­els ex­ist, like Vice News Canada. Vice News is a com­plex in­ter­na­tional oc­to­pus but has a lively Cana­dian com­po­nent. Its U.S. re­porter, Elle Reeve, did the splen­did em­bed­ded cov­er­age of racism in Char­lottesville as well as a piece on pro­gres­sive lib­eral wrestling heel Dan Richards. It is a kind of news­flix.

Here’s my pro­posal, meant to grad­u­ally tran­si­tion to a sol­vent news me­dia with pub­lic fi­nan­cial back­ing: take CBC’s en­tire news sub­sidy and fun­nel it to news out­lets, old and new (Vice News Canada, Jesse Brown’s Canada­land) that, un­like CBC, serve a pub­lic pur­pose. Turn CBC ba­si­cally into a spigot. Add more funds as re­quired. If CBC news ever smartens up, they can ap­ply to get some of it back.

I know it sounds a bit im­pro­vised but we live in an era of mish­mash. Work and leisure, cul­ture and the econ­omy, news and art, are less dis­tin­guish­able than they were. Most jobs now in­volve an (al­beit rou­tinely over­stated) el­e­ment of cre­ativ­ity. It’s all courtesy of the in­ter­net, which, at its elec­tronic root, is about con­nec­tions.

There you go. Cri­sis solved. Next?

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