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Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead
Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead

Sylvia Stead

Public Editor: A parliamentary committee to save the news? Good luck with that Add to ...

This week in Ottawa, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage began to study how Canadians “are informed about local and regional experiences” by the media, whether broadcasting, digital or print.

It’s a noble mission, fuelled by a concern over protecting Canadian content while local newspapers are closing, newsrooms merging and jobs in journalism are being lost. But is it also mission impossible?

Important journalism certainly happens in smaller communities. Last year, the Moncton Times and Transcript won a National Newspaper Award for its exhaustive coverage of the shooting rampage in its community that left three RCMP officers dead.

A decade ago, another example of great local coverage won the renowned Michener Award for Public Service Journalism. Gordon Hoekstra of the Prince George Citizen spent months, in the midst of regular daily stories, plugging away in his off hours on how dangerous logging roads are in the area. Through freedom-of-information and access requests, along with many interviews, he produced Dying for Work, a series that painted a compelling picture of the problem. As a result, the province announced more than $20-million would be spent to upgrade the roads and make them safer.

So, I share the concern of the committee members that vital work will fade away if local and regional news is not supported.

But is state intervention the answer, or even likely? There have been three government studies into media concentration, in 1969, 1980 and 2006. Concerns were expressed, both about concentration of ownership and the closing of newspapers, but not much changed.

Now here we are in 2016, not only with similar problems, but many new ones. Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia, is struggling with declining revenues and a large debt load payable in U.S. dollars. In fact, most mainstream media have seen a drop in advertising dollars, as changing technology has upended their economic model.

On top of that, the change means everyone is competing on various and shifting platforms for the same audience. There is little difference between broadcasting, digital and print material when it is viewed on your phone.

Liberal MP Hedy Fry, the committee’s chair, told the Canadian Press that she is convinced the study will work. “One day, stuff is facing you so hard that you have to do something about it. That time has come.”

But how will the committee tackle the issue when the government has little control of what is mostly private enterprise? Also, how will it define its own terms, such as “local and regional experiences?”

In the past, you could assume that local news was the product of the local newspaper or broadcast outlet, and distributed in that community alone. Today, we define our own communities of interest much more broadly, and we follow those interests through many more media platforms and outlets.

As an example, I got my news about the committee not from TV or a newspaper but by following a journalist on Twitter. David Akin of the Toronto Sun live-tweeted day one of the hearings, reporting how the MPs learned that no fewer than 22 daily newspapers have closed in the past five years and that, according to Jean-François Bernier, Heritage Canada’s director general of cultural industries, advertisers in this country increasingly turn to “Google News” and other foreign-owned online organizations.

All this is a grim reminder of the difficulties the media faces, but what levers does the government even have to save something like local news? The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulates the broadcast industry, and the Competition Bureau tracks who owns media companies. Neither seems up to the task, which leaves funding.

About 800 magazines have received support from the Canada Periodical Fund to help them compete with U.S. publications and, of course, the CBC/Radio-Canada receives a good deal of money to help it fulfill its mandate as the national broadcaster.

But these measures were instituted under an old, predigital model of news coverage. On what basis could the committee now recommend financial support to some media and not to others?

So, while I worry about the threat to local coverage, I just don’t see what another government inquiry can do, other than shine a light on the problem.

In fact, there is a risk that the committee could be tempted to do too much. According to Mr. Akin, Ms. Fry ended the first day’s hearings by asking who will regulate the accuracy of online news. “Anyone,” she said, “can publish anything!”

In fact, the laws on libel, slander and hate speech apply to all publishers. The committee’s mandate, along with looking into media concentration, includes examining the role of digital media. So perhaps, with just 10 days of hearings, its members should concentrate on what is already a massive and difficult job without raising side issues like accuracy.

In the final analysis, businesses depend on customers, not government, for their economic well-being.

The Michener-winning Mr. Hoekstra is now with the Vancouver Sun, but tells me that Prince George has been well served by its local media. And that matters because, he says, “at its core, an informed community will be a better judge of what is good for” itself.

Yet, change has come for residents of the largest city in Northern B.C. Last year, they lost their weekly paper, and two weeks ago, the Citizen had to drop its Monday edition, and now publishes just five days a week.

A sad reminder on its 100th anniversary that the world of news is in flux.

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