PM sa­lutes me­dia, but hasn’t acted

Medicine Hat News - - COMMENTS - John Hon­derich

Last week be­ing Na­tional News­pa­per Week, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau de­cided to send out a tweet ex­tolling the value of news­pa­pers to our democ­racy.

“In an ever-chang­ing world with an ever-chang­ing me­dia land­scape, our lo­cal news­pa­pers play a vi­tal role in pro­tect­ing our democ­racy,” he wrote. “We salute the pa­pers — big and small — work­ing to keep us in­formed.”

It is re­as­sur­ing to know the role of Cana­dian news­pa­pers is ap­pre­ci­ated. For many, my­self in­cluded, the feel­ing is deeply in­bred that our democ­racy is only as strong as the strength and vi­tal­ity of our news­pa­pers.

Yet in the past decade, at least 137 com­mu­nity and lo­cal news­pa­pers have folded or ceased pub­li­ca­tion. This, in turn, has led to the creation of “news deserts,” where some com­mu­ni­ties are left with no news out­let at all. Many oth­ers are strug­gling des­per­ately to stay afloat.

To deal with this, the Trudeau govern­ment in its Fe­bru­ary bud­get com­mit­ted to spend $50 mil­lion to sup­port lo­cal jour­nal­ism.

It also promised new char­i­ta­ble mod­els to aid “pro­fes­sional, non­profit jour­nal­ism.” And third, it promised to re-ex­am­ine its ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get, which is al­most ex­clu­sively dig­i­tal, vir­tu­ally ex­clud­ing all print news­pa­pers.

One should not for­get Ot­tawa had com­mis­sioned two stud­ies on the plight of the in­dus­try, both of which came out with a long list of rec­om­men­da­tions. The vast ma­jor­ity of these were re­jected. So what has hap­pened since? A lit­tle talk, but ab­so­lutely no de­fin­i­tive ac­tion. Take the $50 mil­lion to be spent over five years. The plan was for the funds to go to “in­de­pen­dent, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions” to sup­port jour­nal­ism in un­der-served com­mu­ni­ties.

But it seems the govern­ment can’t de­cide who that would be. One or two ex­ploratory talks have been held, but there has yet to be even a re­quest for pro­pos­als. Maybe next year, we are told.

On the new phil­an­thropic mod­els, a com­mit­tee was struck to study the is­sue. When might some­thing be forth­com­ing? Prob­a­bly next year.

The ad­ver­tis­ing is­sue is the most frus­trat­ing. Last year Ot­tawa spent about $36 mil­lion on ad­ver­tis­ing, vir­tu­ally all of it ded­i­cated to dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing.

Since about three-quar­ters of all dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing is owned by ei­ther Google or Face­book, that means mil­lions of Cana­dian tax­payer dol­lars are go­ing straight to the two Amer­i­can tech gi­ants.

What’s worse, a House of Com­mons com­mit­tee study­ing the is­sue last year con­cluded that Ot­tawa’s strat­egy had re­sulted in a “mis­align­ment” of the re­al­ity that many Cana­di­ans still rely on tra­di­tional me­dia. It urged more spend­ing be di­rected to “TV, ra­dio and print me­dia.” Again, there’s been talk. But last month’s fed­eral cannabis cam­paign had ab­so­lutely no print me­dia.

We are now told this is­sue has been placed on the man­date let­ter of the new her­itage min­is­ter.

Put to­gether, there has been a lot of talk and no ac­tion.

You can also throw in the copy­right is­sue where news­pa­pers have long ar­gued they should re­ceive a li­cens­ing fee when ar­ti­cles are posted or dis­trib­uted by ag­gre­ga­tors (read Face­book and Google).

The Euro­pean Com­mu­nity passed a law do­ing pre­cisely this last week. And Aus­tralia and the United King­dom are con­sid­er­ing the same. In Canada, it is not even on any agenda. Mean­while, me­dia com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Torstar, con­tinue with new strate­gies to com­pete in this new dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment. Many are mov­ing to pay­walls, which could well ben­e­fit from spe­cial tax treat­ment from Ot­tawa.

So, prime min­is­ter, we ap­pre­ci­ate your kind sen­ti­ments.

But, on bal­ance, I think we’d pre­fer some real ac­tion on these files.

John Hon­derich is for­mer pub­lisher of the Toronto Star, and is chair of Torstar's board of direc­tors. This col­umn was dis­trib­uted by Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices.

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