A Band-aid solution at best

The Casket - - Page Two - SAM MACDONALD sam­mac­don­[email protected]­cas­ket.ca

As 2018 winds down, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment gave some of us, who whack away at key­boards for a liv­ing, a bit of a sur­prise, when it un­veiled a plan in its fall eco­nomic state­ment to pro­vide fi­nan­cial sup­port for Canada’s strug­gling news me­dia.

Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau promised a $595 mil­lion in­jec­tion of cap­i­tal into Canada’s me­dia sec­tor over the next five years, along with tax cred­its for peo­ple sub­scrib­ing to some me­dia out­let’s web­sites, and for cer­tain for-profit and non-profit me­dia out­lets.

Along with some mea­sures to make fundrais­ing eas­ier for non­profit me­dia sources, this in­fu­sion of fed­eral cash into the Cana­dian news in­dus­try su­per­fi­cially looks like a re­ally good idea.

Truth be told, I’d go as far to say the Trudeau Lib­er­als have their heart in the right place with the do­na­tion. But that’s about as char­i­ta­ble an in­ter­pre­ta­tion as I’m go­ing to give this move – be­cause as moves by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment go, it’s an un­wise one.

Where do we even start? To be­gin with, it’s the epit­ome of a Band-aid-solution to the gap­ing fi­nan­cial wound Cana­dian me­dia is plagued by. That rev­enue is hard come by, and get­ting harder to come by for news­pa­pers is the ele­phant in the room.a few grants handed out over the next few years won’t sat­is­fac­to­rily ad­dress the root is­sue Cana­dian me­dia – par­tic­u­larly print me­dia – faces. Throw­ing money at Cana­dian news­rooms, think­ing that will solve any­thing is short­sighted. Like, we’re-a-year-out-from-thenext-fed­eral-elec­tion-short­sighted.

Print me­dia in Canada – and in other parts of the world that are out­side the scope of this piece – are suf­fer­ing be­cause one of their main sources of rev­enue has taken a hit: ad­ver­tis­ing.

Since the rise of Google and Face­book, enor­mous amounts of cap­i­tal are flow­ing into those on­line spa­ces to pay for ad­ver­tis­ing – as op­posed to pay­ing for ads that fill spa­ces in news­pa­pers, and on their web­sites.

That’s cut­ting deeply into the profit that print me­dia was once able to amass through ad­ver­tis­ing. There has been a steady bleed of rev­enue, over the course of years, but it’s ba­si­cally death by a thou­sand cuts for a lot of news­pa­pers.

Cer­tainly, a wind­fall of gov­ern­ment money will, per­haps, slow that bleed­ing, but not for long. Ex­cuse the un­qual­i­fied health­care metaphor, but you’re not go­ing to cure some­one by treat­ing symp­toms of their dis­ease, in­stead of the dis­ease it­self. A subsidy from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment isn’t go­ing to stop peo­ple from us­ing far more money to ad­ver­tise on the in­ter­net than in news­pa­pers.

Given the tim­ing, the move smacks of a cheap, dis­hon­est way to buy good press for the com­ing 2019 elec­tion. The Trudeau gov­ern­ment, in a pre­vi­ous budge, promised $10-mil­lion a year for five years to news out­lets in "un­der­served" com­mu­ni­ties.

Why did the Trudeau Lib­er­als not in­tro­duce these dra­matic me­dia-sav­ing mea­sures ear­lier in their term? Are we go­ing to pre­tend the lucky re­cip­i­ents aren’t go­ing to have, maybe, some prob­lems with ob­jec­tively – and crit­i­cally – re­port­ing on the gov­ern­ment dur­ing elec­tion sea­son, when the gov­ern­ment is throw­ing money at them?

Another is­sue of mine is writ­ten right into the lan­guage of the fi­nance min­is­ter’s an­nounce­ment: that the money to be de­liv­ered is to help Cana­dian me­dia tran­si­tion to the dig­i­tal world.

The idea is that Cana­dian me­dia is go­ing to grad­u­ally tran­si­tion onto the in­ter­net. An in­evitable re­al­ity, given what or­ga­ni­za­tions like Pew Re­search Cen­ter and Vivi­data are find­ing; an uptick in peo­ple read­ing their news on­line, and the grad­ual cool­ing of de­mand for print me­dia.

The gov­ern­ment talking about tran­si­tion­ing into on­line me­dia is a tacit ad­mis­sion that it thinks print me­dia is los­ing vi­a­bil­ity. What sorts of safe­guards will news­pa­pers have, that more of their ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue doesn’t get swept away by the far more prom­i­nent Face­book, Google and their gar­gan­tuan ilk, once they are more on­line-fo­cused? Only time will tell if this will stymie or ac­cel­er­ate the amount of ad­ver­tis­ing in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia gi­ants sap from tra­di­tional me­dia.

And fi­nally, who is de­cid­ing where, and to whom, this money will go? The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has promised a panel of in­de­pen­dent in­dus­try experts to de­cide where the fed­eral bucks go over the next decade; note the "in­de­pen­dent"- part.

It’s cer­tainly a nice idea, but are we go­ing to trust the cur­rent gov­ern­ment not to just to cher­ryp­ick peo­ple they’re chummy with? Are we re­ally ex­pect­ing a panel of gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed jour­nal­ists to be im­par­tial? No­body is com­pletely ob­jec­tive, and there will in­evitably be con­flicts of in­ter­est, when it comes time to de­cide who gets money – es­pe­cially if they’re con­sid­er­ing a ri­val pub­li­ca­tion, or a com­pany with dif­fer­ent val­ues that in­form its editorial choices.

For ex­am­ple, if you put a pub­lisher or edi­tor from Toronto or Van­cou­ver on that board, you’re fool­ing your­self if you think they’re not go­ing to give a jaun­diced eye to a re­quest for fund­ing from a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine in south­ern Saskatchewan or north­ern Al­berta.

I think it’s a dis­ser­vice to the word "in­de­pen­dent," if the gov­ern­ment is pick­ing a panel that’s ex­pected to make de­ci­sions that are in­de­pen­dent and free of po­lit­i­cal slant. I don’t have any al­ter­na­tives in mind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ob­serve an ob­vi­ous po­ten­tial con­flict of in­ter­est.

Al­most $600 mil­lion is a nice ges­ture – al­beit at a con­ve­nient time – but it’s not worth the trou­ble, and it cer­tainly won’t solve any prob­lems beyond the im­me­di­ate short term.

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