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Nora Loreto's blog

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Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. She writes regularly for blogs and magazines, and wrote a chapter in Canada After Harper, released by Lorimer Publishers in August 2015.

Capitalism is a terrible boss: Saving journalism from its industry

| January 28, 2016
Striking printers at the Vancouver Province newspaper, 1946

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Canadian media companies are sawing off their arms and legs in a desperate attempt to please shareholders.

Hundreds of media workers have been laid off in 2016 alone. Halifax Chronicle Herald workers are on strike. The Guelph Mercury has ceased printing.

Clearly, the capitalist model of news as a business isn't quite working. The tendency of capital to centralize through mergers has born itself out in Edmonton, Ottawa and Calgary newsrooms. After having acquired the Sun Media chain, Postmedia downsized, making the reasonable argument that two newsrooms owned by the same group in the same city doesn't make much business sense.

This is where business sense and the best interest of journalism are in direct conflict with one another. The loss of entire newsrooms in these cities is going to impact the quality of journalism, without question.

It isn't true that current models of media are unsustainable or unprofitable. It's just that it isn't as profitable as the shareholders demand. When shareholders drive your decisionmaking, and journalists become toys in a game of Monopoly, it doesn't matter how good they are, the stories they've broken or even that a story they wrote saved lives. In this context, journalists are mere workers, as disposable as someone on an oil rig in Northern Alberta or one of the 17,000 former Target workers.

Journalists don't like thinking of themselves as being this dispensable. But as a class of workers, they've been unable to successfully fight off these job losses or put forward alternatives that could replace the old order.

They've barely even been able to demonstrate just how much bullshit these arguments are based on. For example, Rogers Communications Inc. had a 40 per cent jump in Q3 profits in 2015, and raked in $1.97 billion by October 2015. They are, by normal person standards, rolling in it. Despite the piles of money their executives are no-doubt rubbing all over their bellies, they announced this week that they would shed four per cent of their workforce, all in the company's media properties.

That's 200 jobs. There has been very little coverage that emphasizes this connection.

If a corporation can't sustain journalism even when the books are in the black, it seems naïve to expect them to sustain journalism at all.

There are certain elements that go into making good journalism in addition to principles of fairness and rigour: steady work, well-enough paying jobs, journalists who can dedicate time to a particular beat or area, and enough stability for some medium-to-long-term planning. The outlet has to be as free as possible from the political interference of the publisher or publishers and has to have a clear editorial line so that its biases can be aired clearly and fairly.

All of this requires stable funding, and there are ways to do this that don't rely on pirate capitalism.

One option is state funding. The CBC is the most obvious example of this and it's impossible to deny the importance of having CBC/Radio-Canada reach Canadians, especially in regions that no investor would consider touching. CBC's journalism is invaluable and anyone who states otherwise is likely filled by the spirit of old man crank.

There is also the option of expanding provincial media. TVO's The Agenda is one of the best public affairs programs in Ontario and expanding journalism at the provincial broadcaster would both fit their mandate and would not be too difficult or expensive.

But there are other ways that the government could fund journalism that wouldn't be the same form as another state broadcaster.

The state subsidizes many industries to bring them stability, in the name of protecting jobs. Fourteen billion dollars of government subsidies were given to GM during the financial crisis of 2008. Governments also give massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, aerospace industry and have recently promised billions to the dairy industry. The state subsidizes some aspects of the telecommunications industry already. Getting creative with state subsidies is an option that should be seriously considered.

What has been lost in this conversation is the entire world of labour communications. The depth and breadth of union magazines and newspapers is an important aspect of the media landscape and might offer some possible ways forward for the industry.

Most large unions publish a newsletter and some produce magazines of a quality that rivals any mainstream magazine. They cover issues that are of interest to their membership, which means that their pages are filled with high-quality features and stories. The problem is that these publications have limited audiences. In some cases, that suits the publication well. In others, it's a loss to the broader media landscape.

And it's not just unions: many organizations produce quality journalism as well.

The benefit of union funding is that it can be stable and long-term. The downside is that, like in any media, political interference can sink the quality of the articles produced.

Union leaders who value a fair and free media industry should think about their organizations' roles in saving the industry: which unions have the capacity to invest in new kinds of journalism? Which unions have the leadership that is bold and humble enough to not worry about the possibility that a non-favourable article might be written about them?

The reality is that the principles of journalism considered sacrosanct are often jettisoned when the bosses come calling. In I Stand For Canada, Diane Francis writes about giving a draft of an article about Paul Desmarais to him when he asked to see it, and then demanded it be pulled (which it was). This was when she was the Editor of the Financial Post. Publisher control isn't a left-right issue, but the mainstream has successfully demonized progressive media as being unreliable or skewed, despite how widespread political interference or control actually is.

Progressive organizations have to do better than how the status quo operates in the mainstream. We can build institutions that foster and protect journalism without the pitfalls that accompany corporate media models.

In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear that we must. If we expect Rogers, Postmedia or even Vice to save journalism, we might as well say goodbye to the Fourth Estate.

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Image: Vancouver Archives



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