The Liberal government is preparing an aid package for print media in coming weeks, with an emphasis on local news and innovative technologies, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly says.
Ottawa has moved cautiously to deal with the crisis in the media industry in recent months, citing the need to preserve journalistic independence.
Still, a new Nanos/Globe and Mail poll found that 55 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support "additional government funding to keep local news sources open." On the other hand, 41 per cent of respondents were opposed or somewhat opposed.
On Friday, Ms. Joly promised changes later this year to the Canada Periodical Fund, which provides $75-million a year to magazines and non-daily newspapers. A Liberal official said the announcement will be linked to the next federal budget, which suggests it will come with increased funding.
"We are currently reviewing the Canada Periodical Fund to make sure it can support magazines and local papers to innovate, adapt and transition to digital," Ms. Joly said in a series of tweets.
Ms. Joly has endured much criticism since unveiling a new cultural policy in September that did not directly address the crisis in the media industry. Still, she is promising that her new plan "will not bail out models that are no longer viable."
A spokesman for Ms. Joly, Simon Ross, added that "any action must respect journalistic independence."
The issue of government support for the news industry has sparked intense debate in media and political circles in recent months, after a large number of outlets were shut down across the country. While some argue that media need a financial boost to survive the digital revolution, others worry how public funding would affect journalistic neutrality.
Pollster Nik Nanos said if the federal government increases funding to the media, it needs to highlight the positive impact on the production of news at the local and regional levels.
"The Liberals have to be careful on this from a political standpoint, because they are at risk of falling victim to the default narrative that the media are Liberals and that this is a way to support the Liberal-oriented media," Mr. Nanos said in an interview. "To do this, a focus on local TV, radio and newspapers is quite important. Canadians see that as less partisan."
The Nanos poll of 1,000 Canadians was conducted between Dec. 6 and 10. It is considered to be accurate within 3.1 percentage points.
According to the poll, support for government intervention is strongest in Quebec (65 per cent), the Atlantic provinces (60 per cent) and British Columbia (59 per cent). Support is weaker in Ontario (54 per cent) and the Prairies (37 per cent).
Since 2008, 238 local news outlets have closed in 173 communities, says April Lindgren, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who runs the Local News Research Project. About 70 per cent of those were community papers that published fewer than five times a week.
In an interview, Prof. Lindgren said government support remains a complex issue given that direct subsidies would mainly benefit a large company such as Postmedia that operates more than 100 daily and community newsrooms. She said the best way to help news organizations is to foster diversity and innovation, rather than subsidizing jobs.
"There are no clear answers," she said, pointing out that several groups are looking for solutions to the worldwide crisis in journalism.
Prof. Lindgren said the Canada Periodical Fund must be modernized to get it away from its current focus on print subscriptions. "There will have to be some provision and recognition, you would think, about how people actually are consuming now if the object is to support local news," she said.
The closing of community newspapers has reverberated in the halls of Parliament Hill, as many MPs expressed their concerns over the state of local news in their ridings.
"Am I worried? Yes," said Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz, who represents the Toronto riding of Davenport. "Do I think local news is important? Absolutely. At what point should the government intervene? I'm not sure."
However, Conservative MP Tony Clement said the market is simply evolving in a new direction, with no need for government intervention.
"All over the country, particularly in rural areas, online news services are popping up on Youtube and Facebook. I think the state of news in Canada is very good," he said. "It's worrying if you're a traditional journalist or publisher."