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FYI

Canadian Media Can't Lose Touch With Its Communities (Guest Column)

There used to be a belief, supported by government regulation, that media companies had obligations to their communities, not just their shareholders. Those days are gone, but they don't have to be.

Michael Hollett

Michael Hollett

This is the first of a series of feature pieces that seek to find answers to the broken financial model for news organizations. Opening the series is longstanding journalist and print publisher Michael Hollett.

Like many media folk I was saddened by Bell Media’s latest round of massive layoffs and cutbacks in programming, especially local news – but I wasn’t surprised.


There used to be a belief, supported by government regulation, that media companies, especially broadcasters who used “publicly owned airwaves,” had obligations to their communities, not just their shareholders. Spending the money to provide local news was just part of the deal, something you had to do to earn a chance at making all those lovely profits from a community.

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There was also a foundational belief that diversity of ownership was essential to, among other things, helping assure diversity of ideas and corporate agendas. There used to be limits on how many outlets could be owned by one company in a market. This affected print ownership and helped foster independent media.

Those days are long gone. The erosion of these controls began in the deregulation-crazed ‘80s and has continued like some kind of corporate gold rush through to today, with last week’s decisions the inevitable result.

But Bell didn’t make the cuts because the company wasn’t profitable – they still made hundreds of millions – just not as profitable as they used to be. That's what happens when a media company is beholden only to their shareholders and not to the community. And that's what happens with faceless, absentee ownership.

But the big beast has exposed its underbelly inadvertently, providing an opportunity for independent media. There’s a sell-off! Bell is offering to sell stations rather than just close them, providing a chance for local ownership to swoop in and deliver what is historically a profitable and community-building approach: hyper-local coverage.

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Literally millions of outlets are battling to share the latest news about Taylor Swift. Trying to win that war is a struggle. But who is telling the local tale? No one, and that’s the opportunity.

I was appalled last year when Torstar decided to fold its Metroland community newspaper division, shuttering all of the local newspapers in the chain. They should have at least taken the time to conduct a sell-off like Bell, allowing locals a chance to keep these vital publications going.

I was a small-town newspaper editor before starting NOW Magazine and experienced how vital those newspapers are to the communities. Same thing for local radio stations. And they still are, but Torstar’s absentee ownership of their papers allowed them to wither and die from neglect, cutbacks and blanding down the editorial by sharing columnists throughout the chain. Independently owned local weeklies still thrive, their communities not turning to their cellphones for pictures of the local hockey team winning the big game or to find out what’s on sale at the local hardware store. They turn to that paper that reliably appears each week – many independently-owned ones packed with ads.

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My successes in media have all been about local and hyper-local coverage, telling the stories no one else is. It served me – and hopefully my community -- with NOW Magazine, and it is serving me with NEXT Magazine, which has expanded focus completely on Toronto and local events.

The future is local. That's something that is simply not on the radar of mega-corps who like to lead from afar with one-size-fits-all solutions. I encourage laid-off folks to pool their severance buyouts and buy a station. In addition to being profoundly satisfying and of huge value to the community, these are emerging profit centres. As big media abandons what was once the cornerstone of the successes in the business, doing a great job serving a local community will support you both – with an audience and with revenue.

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Michael Hollett is the founder and publisher of NEXT Magazine, the president/managing director of North by Northeast (NXNE) Festival, and the former co-founder of Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine.

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Kid Cudi performs onstage during Weekend 2 - Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 21, 2024 in Indio, Calif.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella

Kid Cudi performs onstage during Weekend 2 - Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 21, 2024 in Indio, Calif.

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