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Canadians need to plan now to fund and develop dependable media for the future

| February 4, 2016
Image: Pixelbay.com

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Canada's mainstream media are in a state of incipient meltdown. They no longer deliver the volume or quality of news that Canadians need to be informed about important happenings in their communities, let alone to participate in a healthy democratic process.

The corporations that own traditional newspapers, seeing their revenues and readership dissolve, have opted to cut jobs and slash the content that used to provide their product's value.

This is a serious problem for the way our democracy is supposed to work, and it is not going away.

It is time for governments -- federal, provincial, and municipal -- to step up and find a way to make sure that Canadian communities once again receive the news and information they need to function properly.

I explained in an earlier column why it would be the wrong choice for governments to support the same media that are failing under profit-driven corporate ownership.

Instead, the best solution to our growing news crisis is for governments to provide the financial support needed so that community-based online news sites will be sustainable.

Finding government money for public interest news shouldn't be a problem. Governments already spend millions of dollars to support the diversity of Canadian magazines, privately owned TV stations, and, of course, the CBC.

We also all need to recognize that the transition to Internet-based delivery for disseminating news and information is only accelerating, will soon be virtually complete.

Instead of thinking about the way news dissemination is now, with newspapers hanging on, we need to envision what conditions will be like in, say 10 years, and begin working toward that timeframe now.

How? Here's what I'd like to see happen.

First, we need to remind ourselves that our governments belong to us. If we are being poorly served, and there's no other way to get the news we absolutely need, we have a perfect right to demand that government help solve the problem.

Without launching yet another multi-year Royal Commission on the media, the federal government should conduct a tightly focused investigation into the quickest, cleanest, and least-costly form of support for digital non-profit community news.

Scores of independent, digital non-profit news outlets already exist in Canada and the United States. But in neither country have they developed business models that can reliably support serious numbers of journalists and also break even. 

In the U.S., the Pew Research Centre reported that 172 digital non-profit news outlets had been launched in the country between 1987 and 2013. 

But while the sector showed promise of economic health, many sites "face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being." Several had received substantial start-up money from foundations, but lacked business expertise to broaden their funding once the endowments ran out. 

Canada has at least 20 independent Internet news sites, several providing broad, general information. But none serve a large community. B.C.'s The Tyee, the National Observer and rabble.ca are three more prevalent publications, with the specialist paywall site iPolitics also very popular.

All the main corporate media, which mostly republish the same content as their affiliated newspapers, remain far in the lead with regard to readership size.

In addition to providing support for existing sites, we need to look at supporting new sites to serve communities, cities and even provinces that are not well served.

Research is needed to find out how people who do not seek out news on the Internet can be lured to the new sites.

If citizens feel their area is not being covered by existing media, they need to form a community group to assess the situation.  

Groups should attract members who have both business and journalism skills. They need to develop a plan, prepare a draft budget, and assess what funding they can generate on their own.

A well-connected community group should be able to tap into a number of funding sources: sustaining donors, memberships, ad sales, possibly foundations, on-line sales of compatible products such as books, fundraising events, special reports, or even develop relations to do contract for community groups and companies. 

In Guelph, where TorStar closed The Guelph Mercury last week, it was unclear whether the paper's website would continue to operate and whether another small TorStar free paper can serve the community.

Citizens in Guelph should assess after a period of time whether they are getting the news they need. If not, perhaps they will need to take action as a community.

There are dozens of non-profit sites in the U.S. that could serve as a model for Guelph and other communities if folks decide to have a site. For instance, the Dallas South News has been operating since 2009, using traditional and citizen journalists as well as bloggers to provide news and commentary to the community's 500,000 residents.

In general, public support for non-profit community media should be awarded in a competitive process run by an arms-length, non-political body. Some might be awarded based on the number of people who visit a site or by matching funds contributed by the community.

In addition, a non-profit group could apply to the federal government to obtain charitable tax status for the dissemination of educational material. This way donors would be able to receive a tax receipt.

Furthermore, tax rules could encourage donations to non-profit and educational journalism.

Whatever vehicle is adopted, it will need to satisfy critics of any government involvement in legacy media, who will be watching like hawks. There will need to be more research.

What's already clear is that yesterday's profit-obsessed media market has failed. A new one needs some support so we all can receive the news and information we need.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and social activist whose involvement in independent media traces back 40 years ago with the publication of the The 4th Estate newspaper in Nova Scotia. He was a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

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