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A man walks by newspaper stands in downtown Toronto. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)
A man walks by newspaper stands in downtown Toronto. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)

Will fake news provide an excuse for the feds to help Canadian media solve their real financial woes? Add to ...

If Canadian news outlets get the massive federal bailout that a new think-tank report is calling for, they might want to send a thank-you note to Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump’s unexpected election, and the explosion of fake news that some have suggested helped vault him into the White House, hover like a smiling Satan over the report issued Thursday morning by the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based organization which advocates policies to promote good governance: Mr. Trump is mentioned 17 times by name.

Canadian news industry needs an overhaul for a strong democracy: report (The Canadian Press)

While the report doesn’t say so explicitly, it implies the election of a Trump-like figure, a politician who repeatedly threatens a free press and lies without shame, is a serious possibility in Canada if the news industry, crippled by titanic shifts in technology and consumer preferences, doesn’t receive some additional government assistance.

But in making the case for that assistance, Mr. Trump isn’t the only American president invoked by the report, which is soberly titled The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. Written by Edward Greenspon, a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail who later worked for the Toronto Star and Bloomberg News, the report notes that Thomas Jefferson urged the U.S. citizenry to be given “full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.”

In other words, though he couldn’t have foreseen our age of filter bubbles, in which anecdotal evidence suggests people are less likely to encounter information that might clash with their ideological biases, the report says Mr. Jefferson was insisting on “the importance of common pools of information in governing a democracy with informed consent.” Canada, it adds, “has been contriving for generations to provide its citizens with common pools of information through public-policy initiatives – from the creation of the CBC to the addition of Section 19 to the Income Tax Act to the Canada Periodical Fund – that are designed to counter an economic logic that has favoured the importation of information from large media entities to the south.”

And it would like the government to contrive some more.

The report is an earnest and deep dive into the state of the industry which includes long-winded analyses of sometimes arcane elements of the media ecosystem, such as the evolving modes of newsgathering and publishing, that may be of interest primarily to academics.

To wit: Rather than posit a “digital vs. print and broadcast” dialectic, the report suggests it is more useful to think about “System A: curated, codified, professionalized” (a.k.a. legacy media) vs. “System B: instant, participatory, opinionated” (a.k.a. new media). It tracks the infamous story of Rob Ford’s first crack video – in which Gawker (System B) first reported the video, followed quickly by the Toronto Star (System A) – as a case study in both the benefits and disadvantages of each system.

The report also explores the successes and challenges of niche media, including farm news and indigenous outlets such as Turtle Island News and Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), which have seen a handful of their big stories – such as the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women – picked up by legacy media while other important stories have been ignored.

All of the outlets are operating in an environment of whipsawing change and shrinking revenues: Between 2009 and 2016, more than 200 weekly newspapers and 36 dailies closed their doors (including the one-day double whammy, on Jan. 29, 2016, of both the Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News).

Rogers Media is shuttering some titles and desperately trying to reinvent others as digital-only brands. Dozens of veteran staff recently accepted buyouts from both the Toronto Star and The Globe. Postmedia continues to struggle under heavy debt, this week announcing that an insufficient number of reporters had taken the company’s recent buyout offer, so more layoffs were imminent.

The report notes, “The news media’s march to the precipice appears to be picking up speed. This slide may not produce the kind of crisis point that stops policy-makers in their tracks, as the implosion of the auto industry in 2008-09 did, but the pace is unrelenting and the downward slope ever steeper.”

And so the Forum’s report makes 12 recommendations of federal intervention, unfolding against a backdrop of Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s current top-to-bottom review of the country’s entire media industry. It all might feel wearily familiar to a nation whose nascent media ecosystem was born in the 1930s out of recommendations of a government panel and has since been endlessly MacGyvered atop ad-hoc regulations and agencies.

Mr. Greenspon recommends a few big-ticket items that he says will level the playing field where Facebook and Google currently take in about 85 per cent of digital ad dollars, including the closure of a tax loophole that allows Canadian marketers to write off expenses for advertising on foreign-owned digital platforms. He expects that to bring in $300- to $400-million annually, to be directed into an arms-length agency called The Future of Journalism & Democracy Fund, which would support both digital news innovation and so-called civic-function journalism.

The fund would also pay for a new 60- to 80-person outfit called CP-Local, operated under the auspices of the Canadian Press (privately owned by Gesca Ltee, Torstar Holdings Inc. and The Globe and Mail), to produce coverage of courts, legislatures and city halls which could be published freely by any outlet under a Creative Commons licence.

“We would hope that such a service would mitigate against the creation of ‘official’ journalistic enterprises run by the communications departments of municipalities,” Mr. Greenspon writes.

He also calls for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to get out of online advertising, and to focus more on its mandate to “inform” the nation with civic-function news, rather than pumping out the clickbait content that critics say has become more common lately on its online services. And he suggests CBC move to make its content freely available to all under a Creative Commons licence.

In doing so, the report again invokes the spectre of Mr. Trump’s election, though not by name.

“The best defence to fake news is a strong offence, widely disseminating real news produced to the highest standards,” it says. “Sharing the CBC’s content in this manner would see significantly more quality journalism coursing through the social media ecosystem.”

Fake news is not, so far, much of a problem in Canada, which may prompt readers to wonder why it is mentioned 39 times in the 108-page report. But some domestic publishers may be crossing their fingers in hopes that its appearance down south proves enough of a pretext for a government-led solution to their own financial woes.

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