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Newspapers don't deserve support -- money should go to independent news sites.

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 The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente and the National Post's Christie Blatchford. 
  • 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 am 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 exist in Canada.

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

How corporate media censors the news

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

But, having followed the patterns of papers for a number of years, it's obvious to me that Canadian corporate media systematically manages and censors the news.

Four examples:

  • Mainstream media seldom, if ever, examine whether capitalism, neoliberalism, austerity, and trickle-down economics are good for society overall. Media companies first and foremost follow corporate and capitalist practices.
  • Labour is demonized or ignored in mainstream media. When unions are mentioned, it's usually to blame them for strikes. There is 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."  
  • Newspapers criminally accept the destruction of the planet by not covering the threat adequately and seldom editorializing against climate change. The concerns of environmentalists are usually played down and buried somewhere inside papers.
  • From what I have seen, most papers in the country no longer have progressive and left-leaning journalists and commentators. As a result, newspaper readers have no access to alternative views in their papers that are necessary in the discussion about politics and other issues.

With this kind of manipulation an everyday occurrence, we should begin 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 would assess whether journalism is fair and balanced and whether false news is being disseminated.

Newspapers could be extinct by 2025

Heritage Canada is expected to announce the creation of some sort of media support program in September. Hopefully, the government will not fall for the publishers' proposal to prop up their antiquated institutions.

Longtime 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 that percentage will continue to fall. 

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)

Canadian Heritage must pump millions of dollars annually into internet-based media sites -- but not into newspapers.

With the serious decline of news institutions supported by advertising and readers, we have an opportunity to start funding independent news. 

Because independent information is so important for the development of democracy, I believe the production of independent news is as important as education, social services and other government services.

So we need to develop a way of having government money -- our public money -- fund some of the costs of news services. This must be done in ways that prevent government from having influence over the news outlets. The Europeans do this. We should be able to do so as well.

No support for daily newspapers

The newspapers that are profitable should continue to publish. But they should not receive government funding that aids their print publishing activities. 

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.

Independent 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 newspapers or 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 private donors with no strings attached.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who specializes in covering media. He is a frequent contributor to rabble.ca and blogs at nickfillmore.blogspot.com

A version of this article was first published on Ricochet and can be found here.

Image: Flickr/bcgovphotos

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