A Band-aid solution at best
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.