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opinion

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former publisher at The Calgary Herald and a previous vice chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). This article is based on a recent MLI paper titled, Fixing the media’s trust deficit: Why a long-term national news media policy is vital and urgent.

Canada desperately needs a coherent news industry strategy to merge a series of patchwork actions that risk making the country’s journalists permanently dependent on federal subsidies and oversight.

As it stands, the news industry is supported by roughly $220-million annually through programs such as the Local Journalism Initiative, Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit and the Canada Periodical Fund. While the first two were initially introduced as temporary measures, recent enhancements by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez hint at their becoming every bit as permanent as the periodical fund.

Meanwhile, Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is intended to ensure domestic platforms can bargain collectively with offshore tech companies such as Facebook and Google. But it has been criticized on several fronts.

Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley, for example, has raised his concerns over the possible oversight of commercial agreements by the cabinet-appointed leadership of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Small independent news providers and new online innovators – numbering more than 200 across the country – are worried about their exclusion from benefits and view the legislation as tipping the scales against them.

Still others raise concerns regarding the ability of news media to maintain public trust to hold government to account in an independent manner, when their sustainability may be tied to that very government. This is of timely significance when public confidence in journalism is at an all-time low.

What is most troubling is that no one seems to be in charge of the overall picture, or care about the impact and unintended consequences of policy on the overall health of the news industrial ecosystem.

The CRTC, for instance, continues to insist that each radio station must have a news component when, at least in major markets, citizens are already well-served. Moreover, in smaller markets, many radio companies have used their news and other resources to develop websites that put local papers in such financial peril that they seek government subsidies. Similarly, community broadcasters were created to ensure alternative views have a voice. But now, thanks to the internet, everyone has a voice.

And then there’s the CBC.

It is one thing to have a properly funded public broadcaster capable of ensuring programming in both official and Indigenous languages. But what we have right now is a public-funded maze of commercial television and ad-free radio that all become merged into the nation’s dominant commercial news website and, as such, is forecast to be the single largest beneficiary of Bill C-18.

Ottawa subsidizes CBC with $1.4-billion annually. This is to the detriment of other news organizations, which it then must also support with funding. Nothing about this scenario is sensible.

So long as government is prepared to sustain the news industry through subsidy and oversight of commercial arrangements (which then actually aren’t commercial arrangements), there will be less room in the market for 21st-century innovation and revitalization. We will increasingly see unbalanced outcomes such as legacy daily newspapers without city hall, provincial or parliamentary bureaus being eligible for subsidies, while independent online news providers that staff such bureaus are not.

The federal government must develop and implement a national media strategy focused on ensuring that citizens have access to information vital to being accurately informed on current events and assist them with the organization of their lives. Such a strategy should emphasize the need for pluralism of ownership and sustain journalism that provides information to the public in a manner that halts and reverses declines in their trust.

Moreover, Ottawa must recognize that public confidence in both it and news media can only be sustained and flourish if the journalism industry becomes independent from government funding or approval of content. We must accept that, just like in every other industry, some organizations incapable of transitioning to the digital age will fail.

There is an opportunity to devise a strategy that fosters a market-based news industry based on meeting the needs and expectations of citizens. Rather than bankroll an outdated model, Ottawa can inspire and support the innovation and entrepreneurship required for the industry to move into a new era of digital news delivery.

Lurching from one reactionary subsidy to the next, however well-intended, is no way to provide the stability this struggling – and important – industry needs. Ad hoc policy making, as Canada is currently doing, can’t possibly end well for anyone.

Well, except the CBC.

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