This column first appeared in September 2017
On Sept. 1, an agency of the Canadian government directed nearly $100-million to support local television news. Suddenly, more local television reporters are working stories on more broadcasts across Canada.
But why just television? Why not newspapers or digital-only publications? It's the reporting of news that's important, not the platform on which it resides.
The answer is purely bureaucratic. Television is regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which collects a levy on the revenues of cable and satellite distributors and then redirects the funds into producing content deemed to serve the public good, such as television news. Other parts of the Government of Canada, supported by the same taxpayers, have so far resisted measures to bolster an industry that plays an essential role in our democracy, one that's even explicitly written into the Charter of Rights.
The situation is bad and getting worse. More and more newspaper jobs are disappearing – at least one in three since 2010 by our count – and newspaper closings in more than 200 federal ridings have loosened the social glue news provides to communities. These reporter-intensive organizations are the tributaries for much of the news about democratic institutions generated in Canada, both in print and online. Digital news startups in Canada, with a few exceptions, so far have been unable to fill the growing deficit in reporting capacity.
Please adjust the dial. There's something wrong with this picture. This isn't a good time to allow the weakening of news organizations. We are seeing in the United States the critical role newspaper companies, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, are playing in keeping the public informed of deep stresses in their democracy. The classic relationship between whistle-blowers and reporters can't work if the latter become an endangered species.
In Canada, the threat is more acute because the market is smaller. Canadian daily newspapers have seen more than half their ad revenues – about $1.5-billion – bleed away over the past decade, most of it going to Google and Facebook, which together served up more than eight out of 10 digital ads in Canada last year. Unfortunately, they don't invest in generating news.
Meanwhile, as the sources of verifiable news dry up, fake news – designed to disorient and disillusion the public – proliferates. Making something up or simply distorting facts costs a fraction of real reporting. Whether for commercial, partisan, ideological or geopolitical reasons, it represents a direct assault on our democracy. Again, there's something wrong with this picture.
In many places, calling the mayor the day after council meetings for an account of what happened constitutes coverage of city hall. Even in provincial capitals, some governments go uncovered in between legislative sessions and fewer specialists work the corridors of power in Ottawa.
From a public-policy point of view, this raises vexing questions. Nobody wants to give governments leverage over the reporters meant to hold them to account. That said, the CBC is both publicly funded and independent, so it's not an impossible task.
We see two problems that cry out for attention: getting more reporters on the ground and financing innovation so that news producers can keep up with ever-evolving consumption habits.
Last April, on the heels of The Shattered Mirror report on news, democracy and truth in Canada, the Public Policy Forum brought together about 40 news organizations and unions to propose solutions that would support employment of reporters and investment in innovation without sacrificing media independence or shutting out new competitors. Out of this process came a proposal to add a new component to the well-established Canadian Periodical Fund, one that would support journalism of a civic, or democratic enhancing, nature.
This new Canadian Journalism Fund would feature a preprogrammed formula to cover 30 per cent of the costs of reporting, creating an incentive to hire rather than fire reporters, and, critically, denying governments the discretion to play favourites. We have established a definition for who qualifies and an appeals process independent of government. As well, companies would be forbidden from diverting the funds to dividends, bonuses and debt payments. There are those who rightly worry any government involvement would compromise a free press. But a broke press isn't much of a free press. Others contend it's best to wait for news organizations to go bankrupt and then pick up the pieces. But once in bankruptcy court, it is the debt holders and not the public interest that is served, as we saw in 2010 when Postmedia emerged out of bankruptcy court with bondholders as owners and an unbearable burden of debt.
Some say the companies seeking assistance are doomed in any case. That may be true, but established news companies and startups should be given five years to prove they can make a go of it. The alternative of more and more fake news and less and less reported news is antithetical to the precepts of a healthy democracy.
Bob Cox is chairman of News Media Canada and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press; Jerry Dias is national president of Unifor; Edward Greenspon is president of the Public Policy Forum.