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FYI

Canada's Struggling Media Industry Can't Be Left To Market Forces (Guest Column)

Government incentives, not hedge funds, are needed to find long-range solutions to keep journalism alive today in Canada. It will take the collective will of society as a whole.

This is the third of a three-part series ofguest columns seeking answers to the financial issues that have plagued Canadian news organizations

How to fix the news media’s business model? That is the million (billion?) dollar question. I think some radically different models need to be considered.


Here's one: a cooperative. I don't know much about the Quebec experience, but a new cooperative model called Les Coops de appears to have staved off bankruptcy for a group of influential papers. I think they still struggle with all the same problems every outlet does, but it no longer relies on a Bell or Corus or a Postmedia-style hedge fund to decide if it is worth keeping afloat.

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I think the key to a long-range solution has to be government. Think for a moment about what the government currently supports: High school and university education. Hospitals. Roads. Libraries. Infrastructure. Governments support museums, art galleries, theatre companies, opera houses, ballet and Canadian culture broadly, through the Canada Council for the Arts and other mechanisms.

Broadly defined, these are essential services. Is journalism not an essential service?

Without government support there would have been no Canadian music industry. The Canadian Periodical Fund keeps magazines afloat. The reality is that English Canada is perched on the American cultural doorstep and is overwhelmed by it. On its own, Canadian TV is hard-pressed to compete with American offerings, which Canadians generally find better produced and more watchable, because more money has gone into their production.

Manitoba offers film producers a huge tax credit to employ local technicians, writers, etc. Guess what? Lots of American film companies come to Manitoba to shoot movies because they can get the credit (and pay employees in Canadian dollars). The net result is we have a feature film industry here, and a base to start producing our own films.

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All of which to say: governments need to radically invest in journalism, in a way that doesn't compromise journalistic integrity. How about large subsidies to qualified journalism organizations to hire journalists? Matching funds (or more) for every dollar startup journalism groups raise. Significant tax breaks and incentives for anyone employing reporters. Significant tax breaks for anyone donating to a qualified journalism organization (you get one for donating to a political party, so why not to a journalism organization?) Definitions already exist for what constitutes a qualified journalism group. Governments also need to aggressively tax the likes of Facebook and other social media giants and redirect that money to journalism.

I worked at CBC for 30+ years, many of them in a senior management role, and I never felt pressure to slant stories in a way favourable to the government in power. Never. Our investigative work often resulted in embarrassment and headaches for the party in power. CBC needs to do more to maintain a strictly independent posture. Its president and board should not be appointed by the sitting government. A completely independent commission needs to be created to govern it, and funding needs to be removed from the mechanism of yearly budget determinations, something like the British TV licensing model but with built-in guarantees of independence and autonomy.

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There's hope, but not if the industry is left to the whims of market forces. We see what happens when that's the case.

I think you'll find a whole bunch of younger people subscribe to The Narwhal, The National Observer, The Tyee, The Maple and other startups that try to speak their language more often. But this is why we have to incentivize people to subscribe. People who think Facebook is "free" are deluding themselves. Facebook should be forced to compensate everyone whose information they routinely sell to advertisers to produce profits for them.

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How do we get people to stop using gas-guzzling cars and move to electric? It hasn't happened yet in Canada, because incentives are paltry and electric vehicles are too expensive. Consider what Norway, a huge gas producer, has done. Massive tax incentives, so that in 2021 two-thirds of all new vehicle sales were electric.

Things can change, but it often takes the collective action of society as a whole to move in that direction. If left to GM and Ford and Toyota, we'd be driving gas engines for another 100 years.

Cecil Rosner is an investigative journalist whose career as a reporter, television producer and news manager spans four decades. He was with the CBC for 31 years, and his last position was as executive producer of The Fifth Estate, CBC's flagship investigative journalism program. His most recent book is entitled Manipulating the Message: How Powerful Forces Shape the News(Dundurn Press).

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