If there is one glimmer of light in a Canadian February, it is the sweet excitement in the air just before a new federal budget. What magical presents await us this year? Who will get the lump of coal? Imaginations are fired with fervour. It is an exciting time to be alive.
This year, it seems the welfare ship might finally come in for Canada’s ailing newspapers. Ottawa has played coy about the prospect of a print media bailout in the past. But Heritage Minister Melanie Joly told a Federation Nationale de Communications union meeting in Montreal last month that the February 27th federal budget will include some financial support for the industry. Just, uh, don’t call it a “bailout.”
We won’t know for sure what this looks like until the budget drops. Most indications so far (e.g. the Heritage minister’s Twitter account; this policy paper from Creative Canada) suggest the federal government will be looking to tweak the Canada Periodical Fund in a way that would free up money for small-scale community journalism to go digital.
Canadian print media has been in a bad way for some time. Program cutting, layoffs, and paper closures are a bleak and common occurrence. With the latest grim news—that the Toronto Star is indefinitely icing its prestigious internship program—coming so close to the federal budget, it has renewed discussion around what can be done to prop up these venerable pillars of democracy. Hence the Globe and Mail sympathetically interviewing Torstar chairman John Honderich about all the good things newspaper conglomerates do.
And here’s the money quote from Honderich for those of you without a Globe subscription—”We're very, very close to the end.”
Laurentian literati Andrew Coyne was quick to provide a solid liberal rebuke of a print media bailout. He also denounces the “craven” paper barons begging for federal money in the pages of their own newspapers—although he omits Paul Godfrey’s trip to Ottawa looking for a handout in 2016. Which is fair: May 2016 was 80,000 digital news cycles ago and Coyne knows who pays his six-figure salary.
But Coyne is correct to observe that the newspaper chains are largely the authors of their own disaster. It’s a faux pas to take a politician at their word these days, but let’s give Joly the benefit of the doubt when she declares that “non-viable business models” will not see a dime. Let’s also assume that the federal government is able/willing to make a meaningful distinction between “public service providers caught in the throes of market failure” and “more money for us, fuck you”—type money sinks. Consider it a thought experiment.
Imagine Society is an ecosystem, Journalism is a fruiting tree, not unlike the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Local reporting and writing is the root system. It is an invaluable public service presently caught in the throes of market failure, because it happens on a scale that is too small to generate self-sustaining profits through a transitory period of technological shock. The roots are currently parched and the canopy is so top-heavy that it’s blotting out the rain. There are weeds cropping up everywhere and someone is dumping poison in ground.
What is key is for the government to water and fertilize the roots, not spray the foliage. Only then will the proper photosynthesis of Good Content take place. The tree will be vigorous enough to purify the fake news poison. Hard facts and empiricism and the equitable inclusion of community voices will slowly seep up the trunk until the bare branches burst forth with Good Takes. But if the feds only do a half-assed job of gardening, the tree will die. The bear named Democracy will have no Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to eat, and it will become a hangry, raging beast. It will then do something stupid and harmful, like fail to prevent forest fires, because it won’t know any better.
Also, parasitical columnists like me at the ass-end of the media food chain would be out of work, and that is the real tragedy.
This metaphor needs work but just roll with it. Let’s say the government successfully overhauls the Canada Periodical Fund. More money is funneled to local journalism, which is great. But many of the already-existing community papers are run by large corporations that seem less interested in building a sustainable future for Canadian journalism than in having more money for their shareholders’ furnaces. (They will also somehow have to square this circle with the CBC, which is a publicly-funded competitor to newspaper and digital startups).
The emphasis of any subsidy has to empower journalists directly to produce good work—it can’t just boil down to a bailout for the stooges who employ them. If the government gets in the business of subsidizing newspaper owners instead of journalism—or if it fails to make a distinction between them—then this whole racket is probably toast.
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