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Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Chair Hedy Fry speaks about the committee's report on the Media and Local Communities as Conservative MP Peter Van Loan looks on during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday June 15, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Chair Hedy Fry speaks about the committee's report on the Media and Local Communities as Conservative MP Peter Van Loan looks on during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday June 15, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Newspaper coalition seeks $350-million per year in federal aid Add to ...

The federal government should take a broader role in helping to fund Canadian journalism, according to the report of the standing committee on Canadian heritage released on Thursday. Now, an association representing newspapers has put a dollar figure on that assistance: $350-million per year.

News Media Canada on Friday submitted its own set of recommendations to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly as she mulls possible changes to the policies she oversees. Echoing the committee’s report, News Media Canada asked for the Canada Periodical Fund to be expanded to include daily newspapers and free community newspapers, but went further in recommending how the fund could be expanded from the $74-million allocated to publishers in 2015-16.

The group is asking for the creation of a Canadian journalism fund that would finance 35 per cent of newsroom costs, based on the number of journalists employed there – not including executive compensation, non-editorial costs such as interest payments, or journalist salaries above $85,000.

Part of creating a funding model for journalism involves defining what journalism is, and the group also has a suggestion on that: Eligible publications should regularly cover democratic institutions, and be produced by employees in Canada, and owned by Canadians. Funding should not go to “advertorials” or other “sponsored content,” the group said, nor should it go to magazines or newspapers that are “produced primarily for industrial, corporate or institutional purposes.” The group also recommends an independent body could review cases Heritage deemed ineligible.

“We’re not looking for a bailout of poorly run companies,” said Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada. “That’s why we wanted to tie [funding] to journalism jobs. Journalism is notoriously difficult to define. What we wanted to say was, there is a purpose for news: to inform communities about themselves.”

The question remains, however, where this money would come from. Thursday’s report included recommendations such as diverting revenue from the upcoming auction of wireless spectrum, and extending the tax deductions for advertisers on ad spending in Canadian publications to online ads purchased from Canadian platforms.

“The truth is there isn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre,” said Michael Geist, law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. “There’s not much appetite in government for creating new taxes. If the focus is on new financing, it’s somewhat limited.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that many digital ads bought on Canadian sites still go through the ad-buying mechanisms of foreign companies, primarily Google.

Furthermore, some have raised ethical questions about whether it is appropriate for government to finance journalism.

“A true free and independent press must be free of any government interference or entanglement (even if it comes in the form of ‘support’ which means a press dependent upon government and inevitably beholden to it),” the Conservatives said in a dissenting opinion published within the report.

This could be managed with a governance structure that would provide some distance and oversight between government forces and the organizations to which they allocate funding, suggested Howard Law, director of the media sector for Unifor, a union representing about 12,000 members of the print, broadcast and filmmaking industries, including employees of The Globe and Mail.

“There’s the CBC example to point to: You’ve had public support of the public broadcaster for years,” he said.

The dissenting report also pointed to the rise of social media that allow people to inform themselves and to engage in citizen journalism, including Facebook groups.

“A reporter at city hall doesn’t get replaced by people on social media who have an opinion on something,” said Ian Koenigsfest, president of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “There still needs to be the delivery of local news with journalistic integrity.”

Digital media have transformed not just where advertising money flows, but also how advertisers think about where they put it. They used to place ads in certain publications or on certain programs on the assumption that they would reach the right audiences there, but digital targeting has fragmented that spending. Now, marketers’ budgets are scattered across the Web as they attempt to find people more precisely, following them where they go. It is not clear that a tax incentive could change that.

“Advertisers spend not because they get a tax break; they go where the ads are most effective. And the most effective place is where people are,” Prof. Geist said.

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