The news media is in crisis; we all know this. The past year has seen the closure of historic daily newspapers, unprecedented profit losses, newsroom consolidations, and journalist layoffs at major Canadian media organizations like Torstar (owners of Peterborough This Week) and Postmedia (owners of the Peterborough Examiner); the rise of ‘fake news,’ first as an insidious phenomenon of disinformation, and then as an insult lobbed at anyone you disagree with; and most recently, the media being branded “the enemy of the American people” by a sad, angry man living in a white house.
Recently, we got perhaps the clearest picture to date of the crisis in Canadian perspective, when the non-partisan Public Policy Forum released a comprehensive report with the rather alarming title The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. For anyone with an interest in media, it’s required reading.
The report is almost morbidly detailed in its outline of the crisis—169 Canadian news outlets either closed outright or merged into others in the last decade, advertising revenues cut nearly in half in the same period—and in its passionate defence of a robust news media as an essential part of a democratic society. The media keeps the public informed and able to exercise their democratic rights, reveals hidden truths about our society, forges stronger bonds in the community, and holds the powerful to account for their actions.
Without news media keeping a vigilant eye on the actions of the powerful, and telling people when to push, it’s hard to imagine what would happen.
We’ve been known to criticize our local newspapers, but the truth is that there is no Electric City Magazine without the Examiner and This Week—at least not without major changes to the magazine, and a lot more funding to hire reporters. We rely on the daily work of journalists like Joelle Kovach and Jamie Steel, so we can write the stories we do.
The report provides 12 recommendations for action, including closing tax loopholes that give foreign advertising services like Google and Facebook, who take up nearly two-thirds of Canadian ad revenue, the same benefits as Canadian ones; and removing online ads from cbc.ca, which currently devours vast sums of ad dollars that should go to other Canadian media companies.
But the report’s most dramatic recommendation is a “Future of Journalism & Democracy Fund” to help media organizations switch to digital and to support ongoing local news.
This struck a chord with us because, in setting up Electric City Magazine, we were dismayed to discover that there was no government funding available for us. The Canadian Periodical Fund and the Canada Council support magazines with paid subscriptions, and other funds support new initiatives in already-existing publications, but no money was available for the kind of free community-based paper we wanted to create, despite our apparently essential role in democracy.
And it remains unclear if this new initiative (if it ever went anywhere) would help either.
As anyone familiar with funding organisations like the Canada Council for the Arts will tell you, the money often goes to the people who need it (and deserve it) the least.
Indeed, the report is strangely silent on the role of major media conglomerates played in creating the crisis, by spending years (even before the digital age) merging newsrooms, scaling back local coverage, and filling our local papers with bland nationwide wire service articles.
Media conglomerates were slow to adapt to the digital ecosystem, leaving way for BuzzFeed, Vice, Huffington Post, and other new-media companies who are doing just fine in the digital economy. And those same media conglomerates continue to make questionable decisions—such as Examiner owner Postmedia, which awarded $2.3 million in bonuses to its executives in 2016, the same year it cut jobs and closed newsrooms across the country.
We are indeed facing a time of crisis, and crises call for bold action. Canadian media has stagnated for a long time, and the internet has served as a swift kick in the ribs. Where we’ll sit when the dust settles remains to be seen, but it’s essential that we will hold on to a strong and responsive news media, and one that still has room for the little guy.
Photo by Francesco Spatola, via Wikimedia Commons.