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Canadian Journalism Is In Crisis. CBC News Can Save It

CBC News Network should be a central element of Canadian journalism; not just another stop in the news section of your cable listings.

06/28/2017 15:09 EDT | Updated 06/28/2017 15:12 EDT

Another month, another report on the crisis of Canadian news media. In January, it was Public Policy Forum's The Shattered Mirror; last week the Standing Committee of Canadian Heritage Released Disruption: Change and Churning in Canada's Media Landscape; also last week, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced a further study will be arriving from her department in the fall.

Good. Bring them on. The collapse of the business model for journalism is complex and the stakes are enormously high. The centrality of news to democracy cannot be overstated. New funding models, public vouchers, newspaper subsidies -- it is all on the table right now.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Heritage Minister Melanie Joly.

But Canada already has a solid national news system ready to go. One of the oldest, most established cable news sources in the world. CBC News Network should be a central element of Canadian journalism; not just another stop in the news section of your cable listings. To accomplish this, it needs to be far more accessible than its current position behind subscription fees and paywalls. It needs some serious tweaking, but the CBC NN could do so much more than we currently ask of it.

CBC NN (and the sister French channel Ici RDI) is a strange broadcasting beast, neither fully private nor public. The current financial support for CBC NN comes from advertising and subscriber fees (a piece of monthly cable bills) -- both of which are on a downhill slide that no one seems to know how to curtail. Under the current licensing arrangement, the cost of CBC NN cannot be underwritten by the CBC's public funding.

CBC NN should be an accessible information source for all Canadians, not just a slowly shrinking pool of cable viewers.

Except, of course it is. Any casual viewing of the CBC NN demonstrates shared resources with the main CBC network from hosts, to shows, to writers, to studios. At the CBC's most recent licence renewal in 2013, the CRTC noted, "the newsrooms of RDI and CBC News Network are fully integrated with those of other CBC television and radio services."

Since they are already joined at the hip, why not make news, so essential and currently precarious in this country, much more prominent for the national public broadcaster? CBC News Network has over 11 million subscribers and makes a healthy annual profit of 8.9 per cent. But it could be more relevant in the changing media landscape. Revenues dropped 2.0 per cent last year because it is hitched to a broken system. If it were a true branch of public broadcasting, it wouldn't be about chasing ad dollars and cable subscriber fees. CBC NN should be an accessible information source for all Canadians, not just a slowly shrinking pool of cable viewers. To accomplish this, there are a few avenues to consider.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

The CBC corporate plan makes clear the digital mobile world is the future of content delivery and apparently the natural habitat of the coveted under-35 demographic. The current cost of streaming the CBC NN service is $7 a month. That price just is not going to fly in the age of $9 Netflix, especially for something already at least partially subsidized via CBC funding. Make CBC NN freely accessible online to all Canadians. This would guarantee a certain base of news using existing programming. The BBC has used its popular iplayer streaming system for a range of content for years. Why can't we do the same?

No one knows for certain but roughly 10 per cent of Canadians still watch TV with an antenna. The image is crystal clear and there are no cable bills. Digital TV channels are capable of carrying more than one signal. In the urban centres where the main CBC channel still transmits over-the-air (OTA), make the News Network a secondary channel. Millennials have shown a strong appetite for media they don't have to pay for.

Let's get maximum value from the resources we already have.

These two relatively simple changes: freely accessible online streaming and OTA transmission in urban centres on the frequencies already granted to the CBC would do a great deal to ensure all Canadians have access to a base level of quality television journalism.

Of course, these changes will cost money. CBC NN had revenues of $88 million in 2015, or roughly three dollars annually per Canadian. We will need to broaden the parliamentary funding for public broadcasting to include CBC NN.

The news crisis will not be solved by any singular approach. Bring on the studies and creative ideas. But first, let's get maximum value from the resources we already have.

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