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We Owe Dying Newspapers Nothing, Let Alone Tax Dollars

On the other hand, if a publisher decides to close down a paper and have a news site on the internet, they should be eligible for support.

07/13/2017 14:08 EDT | Updated 07/14/2017 11:09 EDT
Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Daily newspaper boxes line the sidewalk in downtown Ottawa, April 4, 2005.

News Media Canada -- formerly the Canadian Association of Newspapers -- has submitted a proposal to Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly for a whopping $350-million a year to prop up the journalism of the country's struggling 105 dailies.

The publishers are asking for:

  • $175 million of our tax dollars per year to subsidize the first 35 per cent of the salaries of hundreds of journalists who are paid $85,000 or less, including luminaries such as Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail and Christie Blatchford of National Post.
  • And $90,000 a year to help each of these newspapers improve their presence on the internet -- a request that comes 18 years after Kijiji and others began grabbing their classified ads. This reveals their ineptitude to successfully get on the internet themselves.

I'm against this proposal for a number of reasons, including the fact that the self-important papers want to be the only ones getting government support. They apparently never thought of approaching the dozen or so small digital media groups that have worked hard over the past few years to establish themselves.

But I have a more fundamental problem with the newspaper industry.

First, I want to acknowledge that some newspapers, particularly the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, produce some excellent journalism, including important investigative stories.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
Exterior of the Globe and Mail newspaper building.

How corporate media censors the news

I've been a journalist and a sometimes media critic for more than 40 years, and I have seen how corporate-owned media has changed in this time. Up until the 1990s, I think mainstream media -- with the exception of its pro-corporate favouritism -- was fairly balanced.

But in more recent years, all Canadian corporate media has systematically managed and censored the news. This behaviour was likely the result of the increase in corporate power in society and the right-wing policies of Stephen Harper's government.

Four examples:

  1. Mainstream media seldom, if ever, examine whether capitalism, neo-liberalism, austerity and trickle-down economics are good for society overall. Media companies first and foremost follow corporate and capitalist practices. While a paper might assign reporters to aggressively investigate a welfare story, I don't see them attacking things like neo-liberalism and austerity -- both of which harm the general public.
  2. Labour is demonized or ignored by daily papers. When unions are mentioned, it's usually to blame them for strikes. There's seldom any background information in stories on the conditions facing workers, and labour leaders don't get the puffed-up profile stories given to the "captains" of industry. In the 1980s, some papers employed journalists who covered labour in a sympathetic way. This kind of coverage no longer exists.
  3. Newspapers criminally accept the destruction of the planet by not campaigning against climate change. You would think that by now the main dailies in the country would have special sections, like The Guardian in the U.K., explaining the realities of climate change. But the concerns of environmentalists are usually played down and buried somewhere inside papers. The papers cater to the views of much of the corporate world, which knows that fighting climate change would be costly for business.
  4. From what I have seen, every newspaper in the country, except the Toronto Star, has fired their progressive and left-leaning journalists and commentators. Instead, a number of papers now have right-wing columnists. As a result, newspaper readers have no access to alternative views that are necessary in the discussion about politics and other important issues.

With this kind of manipulation an everyday occurrence, it is time that we began tracking the quality of news being produced in the country. I would like to see the creation of a media evaluation project that would report annually on the performance of all Canadian news media.

This would be an excellent activity for a journalism school.

A media evaluation project could assess whether the journalism of media outlets is fair and balanced, and whether false news is being disseminated. It could address one of my long-time concerns -- identifying stories coming out of Washington and appearing in Canadian media that falsely report on U.S. foreign activities, particularly military activities.

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Newspapers may be extinct by 2025

Canadian Heritage must not fall for the publishers' proposal to prop up their antiquated institutions, because the newspaper industry is doomed.

Long-time media analyst Ken Goldstein predicts that if current trends in the newspaper sector continue, it is likely that there will be few, if any, printed daily newspapers in Canada in 2025.

Goldstein, former Associate Deputy Minister of Communications for the Province of Manitoba, bases his dire prediction on the near-total disappearance of highly profitable newspaper classified advertising and the decline of paid subscriptions. Only 20 per cent of households subscribed to a daily paper in 2014, and he believes the percentage will continue to fall, decimating the industry.

So far, two daily newspapers -- the Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News -- have stopped publishing because they are not viable. However, the Guelph paper is online.

Because Canadians are not getting the news they need, I agree that Canadian Heritage must pump millions of dollars annually -- not into the newspaper sector -- but into internet-based media sites.

The government should look to the future and reach out to communities across the country poorly served by internet news sites.

No support for daily newspapers

If some newspapers are still profitable, they should continue to publish. But they should not receive any government funding that aids their publishing activities. We owe them nothing.

On the other hand, if a publisher decides to close down a paper and have a news site on the internet, they should be eligible for support. In Montreal, the influential La Presse now publishes only online through the week, but still has a weekend print publication. The online tablet edition is very successful.

Any government-funded support program should pay particular attention to assisting existing news sites that have had the courage to launch out on their own -- sites such as iPolitics, National Observer, Ricochet, Rabble.ca and others.

These sites require funding to increase their journalistic capacity, stabilize their business model, buy technical equipment and market their product.

On another level, the government should look to the future and reach out to communities across the country poorly served by internet news sites. Small grants should be made available to help communities establish viable sites. The local groups would be required to create a business plan, a news strategy, sell a certain number of subscriptions in advance, and perhaps obtain some funding from foundations or "sugar daddies."

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist. He is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists and, toiled relentlessly for the CBC for more than 25 years. Visit Nick's blog to read his views on many important issues. nickfillmore.blogspot.com

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