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Government subsidies for reporters are a really bad idea

Journalist. Image: Pixabay

Once upon a time, any possibility of the government intruding in the affairs of Canada's newspapers elicited great caterwauls of protest from righteous publishers. That's no longer true. Things are so bad they want government to bail them out.

Last week, following a year of hearings, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage tabled a report recommending more than 20 ways the federal government should consider supporting the news media. It said, "Given the media's importance as a reflection of Canada's diversity and a pillar of our democracy, the Government of Canada must implement the necessary measures to support the existence of a free and independent media and local news reporting."

There are several reasons why this is a bad idea.

For one, calling today's stripped-down newsrooms "a reflection of Canada's diversity" is laughable. Newspapers employ more journalists than any other media, and for years they have been resisting making their staffs representative of the racial and gender diversity of the population they are supposed to serve. It's so bad they no longer keep count.

And calling the news media "pillars of our democracy?" Many newspapers and television networks have abandoned covering vital local institutions like the courts, police and city hall, particularly in smaller communities where they may be the only sources of local news.

The CTVs and Toronto Stars and Winnipeg Free Presses of this country are still important gatherers of local news, but they have dug their own graves, choosing to cling to broken business models that have cost them readers, viewers and advertisers. There are simply better ways to find out what's going on.

What's more, they have lost the ability to convince us that they are important enough to save.

A fascinating new poll by Abacus Data Inc. shows that 86 per cent of Canadians believe they would still be able to get the news they need if their daily newspaper went out of business. Only 14 per cent felt they would not.

A majority disagreed that "the federal government has a responsibility to do something to make sure there are strong local media serving communities across Canada." Fifty-six per cent of the 1,518 Canadians aged 18 and over polled online said "this is not an area where government should get involved." Only 44 per cent agreed the government has a responsibility to do something. Those with only one newspaper were just as likely to oppose government intervention as those served by more than one newspaper.

Why this resistance? According to the polling firm's Bruce Anderson, the public simply may be misinformed. "Because people consume information using a variety of digital platforms, they may not be as aware as used to be the case of the sources of their news, and the important role of local newspapers in newsgathering. It's also possible that they believe that different media outlets will fill in the gaps that would occur with newspaper failures, using different business models."

Or maybe people just turn a blind eye when once-profitable, unaccountable and failing businesses stick their hands out rather than try to change the way they operate.

Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, is chairman of News Media Canada, an organization that he says represents "virtually every general interest, mass circulation newspaper in Canada -- big and small, French and English, dailies and weeklies, from Victoria to St. John's."

Praising the proposals the MPs put forward, he wrote: "This is not a public bailout of poorly run, big newspaper companies. Money would not go to pay executive bonuses or dividends to owners and shareholders."

Oh yeah?

News Media Canada is asking Ottawa to subsidize 35 per cent of the total of all journalists' salaries, with a cap on the maximum subsidy per journalist of about $30,000.

So the reporters and editors responsible for analyzing the performance of government and other democratic institutions would have more than one-third of their salaries paid by the people they are supposed to cover. That doesn't sound like journalism to me.

While a government subsidy to keep feet on the ground might stop the gutting of newsrooms, no one is offering to scale back the huge salaries earned by the top media executives who are responsible for the decline of the news industry.

Take Postmedia as an example. Canada's top newspaper employer has eliminated 800 jobs in the past year and recently extended the contract of its chief executive Paul Godfrey, a man who recently boasted "Are our papers as good as they used to be? No, but they haven't become unacceptable."

Godfrey earns a base salary of $950,000 a year, but incentive plans and other compensation top it up to as much as $1.7 million.

This is not a man who deserves a handout.

Some other recommendations of the heritage committee are perhaps more worthy of debate, but the government going into the business of paying reporters does not fit any definition of independent journalism that I'm aware of.

For instance, the government is being urged to expand an existing fund, which currently helps mostly magazines and some paid-subscription community newspapers, so it can support all general interest newspapers -- dailies and free papers, in print and digital form.

Doing that would not be cheap. Its cost would go to about $350 million a year from $75 million today.

But that's not going to happen until taxpayers understand the value of propping up our news media. And our established media have done a dreadful job of explaining themselves to their customers.

As I wrote in my book Yesterday's News nearly 20 years ago: "Newspapers behave as if they're serving themselves, not us. When the motives and agendas of newspapers are hidden from us, when they arrogantly refuse to explain their behaviour or listen to another side, when their sense of independence seems to isolate them from their communities, when they are owned and edited by people without local roots, then we don't have to be malicious to conclude that they are in business to make money and not to serve the public."

Image: Pixabay

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