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Government aid not an easy fix for journalism

Toronto Star24 Nov 2018 Chantal Hébert Twitter: @ChantalHbert

Among the main items of this week’s federal fiscal update, none has drawn reactions as mixed as the announcement of a half-billion-dollar package to be spent over the next five years on helping out Canada’s struggling news industry.

Most media executives and many friends of the news media applauded the move. They had been calling for such a package. They described it as an overdue lifeline.

Yet, among the ranks of the political columnists, many fear it is a poison pill that will eventually do the news industry more harm than good.

Those positions are not as irreconcilable as it may seem.

The virtually unanimous positive response of the country’s news organizations — in particular those who run what used to be known as the print media — reflect the dire straits the industry is in.

Over the past decade, the ranks of journalists in Canada have been shrinking at an alarming rate. Where 470 journalists used to work at the Star about 10 years ago, there are now less than half that number. No newsroom has been immune to the devastation. While the reader base has remained strong, the advertising structure has disintegrated. It was the latter that financed the news reporting operations.

It is possible that absent this week’s federal announcement, one or more major Canadian news organizations would have gone under sooner — as in within the next year — rather than later.

A diverse news ecosystem — one that harbours a variety of perspectives — is an essential component of a healthy and vibrant democratic debate. The fact that the diversity of the Canadian ecosystem is threatened is not in doubt.

The government’s half-abillion package will not resolve this crisis. It may end up doing little more than delaying the inevitable.

Canada’s news organizations have been looking for a substitute economic model for years. Some of the best and brightest managerial minds in the country have struggled with the issue. If there were a magic bullet in sight, it would have been found by now.

Federal help will allow experimentation to continue, but success — at least as measured in healthier bottom lines — is not guaranteed.

The prospect that Canada’s news business stands to become permanently dependent on government-financed life support for its survival fuels the concerns of many of the journalists who toil on the political front lines.

It is a rare government that does not seek to use its access to media boardrooms to make its case to the people at the top, in the hope that it filters down the journalistic food chain.

It is in the nature of parties — regardless of political stripe — to use whatever leverage they believe they have to advance their goals. In my experience, there are no angels when it comes to politicians seeking to pull media coverage their way.

At the time of the 1984 federal election, for instance, the federal NDP lodged a complaint with my supervisors at Radio-Canada over a report that demonstrated that, while it was fielding more female candidates than its rivals, precious few women running under the New Democrat banner actually got to run in winnable seats.

Over my two decades at the Star, those political operations have never translated into managerial pressures.

But it has not been just out of nobility that most news organizations have striven to guard the independence of their journalists from the whims of those who toil in the corridors of political power.

I worked at Montreal’s La Presse at the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum. The paper’s owners were staunch federalists and its editorial line reflected their convictions. But a significant majority of readers were known to be of the opposite persuasion. The greater the perception of a pro-federalist bias, the higher the potential cost in terms of lost readership.

Inasmuch as the size of that readership was then tied to the capacity to attract lucrative advertising, commercial self- interest dictated a measure of editorial moderation. Those built-in safeguards went out the window along with the old advertising model.

As daily news organizations come to rely on public funding, will the power balance between news executives and governments become more tilted in favour of the latter? That is, at the very least, an open question.

The creation of an independent panel drawn from the journalism community to determine the criteria that should govern the allocation of the federal funds does not change the fact that the party in power retains overall control of the game and is ultimately free to change the rules.

Against the backdrop of U.S President Donald Trump’s current war on facts and on the journalists who report them, does anyone want to take on faith the notion that no Canadian politician will ever abuse his or her powers to try to dictate the terms of his or her relationship with a government-dependent news industry?


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