When 24 Hours closed its Vancouver newsroom last week, Ian Gill saw it as just the latest small sign of big changes that are coming to the media landscape across Canada.
The newspaper continues in print, but the original content it used to have has been replaced with material re-packaged from other Postmedia publications.
Mr. Gill, president of Discourse Media, is the Vancouver-based author of the just released book, No News Is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse, and What Comes Next. In a recent interview he talked about the role of government and charitable foundations in helping a new, winning model of journalism to emerge.
24 Hours had a very small newsroom. Why does the loss of that matter to Vancouver?
Well, it’s a little bit of media diversity that dies in an ecosystem that has a shocking lack of diversity, so that’s never a good thing.
The other thing about it is the irony that now they will have their content produced by The Sun and The Province, that merged newsroom. Now you’ve got a company, Postmedia, that owns The Sun and The Province, that have content on sale every day, so subscribers are paying for the journalism they get in The Sun and The Province, which Postmedia is also giving away in 24 Hours. So you have a weak business model, but you further weaken that by giving away some of the summary content that you are asking people to pay for. I mean, where’s the logic in that?
You travelled widely in researching your book. Is there anything unique happening in Vancouver, where we have a lot of digital media?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Vancouver a hotbed of journalistic innovation but there are some really interesting experiments taking place here and probably more so than anywhere else in the country.
In the end, the proof in the pudding is going to be: Are these efforts sustainable? And can they transcend being niche products?
We talk about the mainstream media. But the mainstream media are in trouble. So what’s the new mainstream? I think that’s the bigger question for Canada.
You want to see these new emerging forms of media flourish.
I was at a Google Labs event in Toronto … with a whole bunch of emerging journalists, producers and entrepreneurs. I posed the question to the crowd: What is the Uber for journalism?
The journalistic landscape in this country is already thoroughly disrupted so we don’t have to worry about disrupting the landscape. That’s happened. The real question is, what are the smart, innovative, attractive new modes of journalistic transportation? What do they look like?
How do we design a totally different delivery system for quality journalism in this country? It’s one of the issues of greatest public importance that there is.
In your book, you make the case for philanthropic foundations supporting new media but say there are roadblocks to that happening.
Yeah, one of the principal roadblocks is the Canadian Revenue Agency, which determines what a charitable activity is. The CRA essentially prevents charitable foundations from investing in journalism. It can be construed as political activity. The CRA is diligent about making sure charities aren’t using money to political ends – so foundations can’t donate to non-profit journalism.
You argue that government has a role to play, but a limited one.
Absolutely, government should have no role in determining content. But there are any number of stimuli and incentives that could be created by the government to just give these emerging digital products a shot in the arm in terms of where they might go for investment.
After the deep plunge you took into Canadian journalism, what do you think the immediate future looks like?
Well, I hope there’s a shake-out in the near future. What I think would be the worst thing is a kind of slow, torturous decline.
I think we need a short, sharp shake-up. I think we can almost expect that. So the best thing that could happen is that the transition is a quick one and whatever happens happens now. There would be a runway on the other side so that people who are brave enough to sail to the new world and risk making some mistakes [could] hopefully do that and come up with some novel solutions.
Part of me is incredibly optimistic. Even five years ago, the conditions weren’t as ripe as they are now. Now it’s an issue that’s on everyone’s lips. Something has to happen and I’m confident that creative people, given enough oxygen, can do some really interesting things in this country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error