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Kate Taylor: Cost of free information could be end of local news knowledge

Some days there are so many straws in the wind you need a pitchfork to build your haystack. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began hearings this week about the future of local television: Do Canadians care enough about local news and community programming to support some kind of new funding mechanism for broadcasters? Not if they come from Guelph or Nanaimo, apparently. The Guelph Mercury, a local Ontario newspaper dating back to Confederation, closed its doors this week citing declining ad revenue and a shrinking subscriber base, which has dropped 25 per cent in the past two years. The Nanaimo Daily News, a British Columbia paper that is almost as old, also ceased publication Friday for similar reasons.

Meanwhile, on another part of the acreage, the American journalist Justin Peters has just published The Idealist, a sympathetic biography of Aaron Swartz, the advocate of "free culture on the Internet" who killed himself in 2013 while facing U.S. federal charges over his unauthorized download of millions of academic articles from a database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (You'll find it reviewed elsewhere in these pages.) Free culture hasn't been working so well for Twitter lately, which suffered another drop in share price this week as the company struggles to monetize the micro-blogging site. It has more than 300 million subscribers, but they pay nothing to use the service. And why should they? After all, they generate all the content.

But yet, all those tweeted links link back to something. Peters's book on Swartz is not a hagiography, but it does suffer from the same confusion that is common among those who want all "information" and "knowledge" openly shared online, as though "information" and "knowledge" just float around out there without anyone having to labour to produce them. Because many of these advocates are based in universities, and are largely concerned with the sharing of academic research, they can easily ignore the labour costs: Academics are paid salaries from the public purse, the argument goes, so surely the public should have free access to their work.

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In this debate, commercial interests are often depicted as necessarily huge and greedy – the hated Disney – but the case of the Guelph Mercury is a small reminder that not every researcher, writer or publisher is either a tenured professor or a cigar-chomping capitalist. Did Metroland Media decide to cease print editions of the Mercury and lay off 23 full-time staffers because Torstar shareholders are greedy? The company considers a newspaper as a business and decided to close one that was losing money.

Guelph is a burgeoning city with a metropolitan population of more than 140,000 but only 9,000 of those citizens were subscribing to the Mercury, whose recent topics include the odd history of a statue of a bear, an initiative at city hall to get more information out to citizens and the fate of Guelph's Anglican churches, as well as several crime stories. Metroland is maintaining the Mercury website, but without any staff to research, write and edit the news, it seems unlikely that stories such as these will ever appear on it.

Television broadcasters are suffering the same drop in advertising as newspapers and, for six years, the CRTC maintained a small fund to subsidize local news. Called the Local Programming Improvement Fund, it was levied from the cable and satellite companies; you may have noticed it as a surcharge on your cable bill. It was phased out in 2014, but the hearings will consider whether to replace it with some more permanent support. Of course, there are non-profit models for news-gathering, publicly funded models in particular, but as government cutbacks have hit the CBC in recent years, one of the first things to be trimmed has been local news.

Most Canadian journalists working for private media would make little distinction between themselves and colleagues at the CBC: In every newspaper where I've worked, there has been some tension between journalists who felt their job was to gather and disseminate information in the public interest and publishers who felt their job was to make money. And whether it's in the public realm or the commercial one, the creators of knowledge and gatherers of information have to eat. Citizens may discover that, in the case of local news, free information means no information at all.

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