The newspaper industry, seemingly forever the epicentre of the world’s news gatherers, survived the upstart of radio in the 1920s and the television era of the 1950s, but fell flat on its face when confronting the competition of the Internet.

The Internet has all but delivered a coup de grace on the newspaper business — leading to shrinking budgets, shrinking staff counts, a shrinking number of existing newspapers, and the shrinking number of actual newspaper pages.

As proof that survival may not be in the cards, there are hardly enough pages in today’s daily print newspaper to line the bottom of a birdcage or to wrap a decent fish.

If a local newspaper went on strike back in its heyday, for example, local radio panicked. Its main news source was suddenly dry. It could no longer “rip and read.”

This was the reality of those times.

And now the worst news of today? Legacy journalists are no longer trusted or respected because government bailouts have tainted their reputations.

Journalists and politicians do not meld nicely.

“The Internet has created a world of unlimited choice and been a gift to consumers and innovators,” said the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s (MLI) Peter Menzies, once a Canadian newspaper executive.

“But Canada’s news industry providers have suffered losses of audience engagement and advertising revenue.”

As Menzies put it, “Canada is on the cusp of making most of its journalists permanently dependent on the federal government. This is evolving directly through tax relief and subsidy funds and indirectly through offshore tech companies compelled by legislation.

“While this may permit some of the legacy news organizations to continue to survive financially, this new connection to politicians is eroding public trust in both government and news organizations.”

This illustrates why a long-term national news media policy is now not just necessary, but vital and urgent, said MLI.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has ensured that certain levels of Canadian content (which is heavily subsidized due to low domestic market demand) are carried by licensed broadcasters. 

The CRTC enforces foreign ownership restrictions on currently regulated media – radio and television – through its licensing process. In order to obtain a CRTC licence, a broadcaster must be more than 50% owned by Canadians and its board must be made up of a majority of Canadians. 

“Canada’s news industry has been unable to adapt to technological change,” said Menzies. “In the case of print, the collapse of concentrated ownership led to even greater concentration of ownership, which has resulted in more than $200 million in annual public subsidies and tax credits. Some of these were initially intended as temporary measures to assist companies trying to transition into the digital age. But as companies fail to do so, these subsidies and credits are becoming permanent.”

“Making matters worse, each appears to be oblivious to the impact that it has on the others,” said Menzies. “The CRTC, for instance, is creating an artificial oversupply of news products by forcing many broadcasters to employ reporters and dedicate airtime to news, as if their local radio station is the sole possible vehicle through which people may obtain the information they seek.”

Canada is currently in the process – through Bill C-11 (Online Streaming Act) – of defining the Internet as broadcasting and putting it within the jurisdiction of the CRTC, which will allow it to control citizens’ viewing and listening choices as it does with cable, satellite, and over-the-air broadcasting. 

Bill C-18, meanwhile, intends to divert advertising revenue from Facebook and Google to legacy media and more legislation involving control of speech on the Internet has been promised through an Online Harms Act to patrol citizens’ speech. 

“So long as government appears prepared to sustain legacy news operations through subsidy and dependence on offshore tech company revenue, there will be less room in the market for the revitalization it needs,” wrote Menzies.

“So, while Postmedia newspapers in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Regina are subsidized, none of them have their own reporters in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Yet Western Standard, which refuses to be dependent on government, does have a reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Similarly, Blacklock’s Reporter, which has built an independent subscription-based reporting service in Ottawa, must compete against subsidized competition. The same can be said of The Line, which focuses on commentary and prefers to be independent.

True North would be a fourth example.

“This is not good public policy,” concluded Menzies.

Author

  • Mark Bonokoski

    Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.

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