Photo: Mike/flickr

There are appropriate ways for governments to deal with epochal disruptive technological change, such as that wrought by the digital revolution, but they probably don’t involve big tax-supported subsidies to obsolete and badly run industries.

A good example of such a poor use of tax revenues would be the brainstorm thought up by a coalition of newspaper publishers in Quebec who want the government of that province to establish a subsidy program “to help them shift to digital.”

Excuse me? Nobody had more warning of the extent and nature of the coming digital revolution than the Canadian newspaper industry, and it has turned the wrong direction at every step along the way to its current disastrous destination.

I speak, as many readers of this blog know, as a veteran of 30 years or so in the activity known as print journalism. I can’t think of a worse use for our tax dollars than subsidizing an industry that has proven time and again it doesn’t have a clue in a carload about how to deal with the challenges it faces.

And what about those of us, on our own or as part of co-ops or corporations, who have managed the shift to digital quite nicely, thank you very much? The newspaper industry now wants our taxes to help them compete with us?

I’m just guessing here, but I’d be willing to bet they’re also not all that interested in giving up the appalling human resources practices that drove many of us into unemployment, and then creative new careers, in the first place. The industry seems to conduct itself in much the same way in 2016 as it did in 1999, at any rate.

Indeed, since digitization has been an excuse in many industries — transportation, for example — to disempower workers and bust their unions, I imagine the newspaper industry sees the same excuses as a side benefit of the late-in-the-game digitization strategies they want us to pay for.

Regardless, you can be very sure that if newspaper publishers in Quebec are demanding this sort of measure to give them a temporary respite from the consequences of their own incompetence, and incompetence it is, the same people here in Alberta are bound to ask both the provincial and federal governments for the same thing.

Indeed, the Trudeau government has already made moves to do just that. Operating on the questionable assumption newspapers still play a role in a healthy democracy, Ottawa has paid a think tank run by a former Globe and Mail journalist $130,000 to come up with ideas to keep newspapers from closing and, as the Toronto Star put it, deal with the “looming debt bomb” facing Postmedia Canada Network Corp., Canada’s largest owner of newspapers.

The reason for that Postmedia debt bomb? Nothing more complicated than years of mismanagement and imprudent business decisions. Oh, and huge bonuses for the top executives who are responsible for this slow-motion train wreck. 

Don’t forget that not all newspaper owners were incapable of reading the handwriting on the wall. Starting in the mid-1990s, the late Canadian newspaper magnate Ken Thomson began selling off all of Thomson Corp.’s newspapers, which at one point had combined worldwide circulation of more than one million. In 2000, he dumped all but one of the last 54 dailies he owned — and that was the politically influential Globe and Mail. All of the corporation’s 75 remaining community papers went on the block at the same time. As the New York Times observed, “Thomson was able to move past other players who were more cautious about digital conversion.” No kidding! The brainiacs who want your tax money now were the clowns who went into debt to pay top dollar for those papers.

Then there is the matter of the drivel published by Canada’s monochromatic and universally far-right newspaper industry. These are papers that, here in Alberta, are on a holy crusade to get the Wildrose Party, preferably led by Jason Kenney, elected as the government of Alberta. If there’s a difference any more between the Postmedia Alberta Frankenpaper and, say, Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media, it’s barely visible to the naked eye.

I suppose newspaper owners will promise to deliver just a little bit more than their current formula of crime, crime, more crime and anti-NDP propaganda provided free by the shills at the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and their multitudinous market-fundamentalist imitators, but don’t count on it ever actually happening.

As Shannon Rupp of The Tyee astutely summed up ideas like this one:

“I don’t believe there’s anything worth “saving’ in for-profit publications that run bloggers-cum-floggers, plagiarists or shills for advertisers. Or the ones that do things like un-publishing journalism that offends advertisers. Or who run free articles by self-promoters. Or that promote health-threatening products — homeopathy, for example — because an advertiser buys editorial.”

She stated: “If the public wants to read this sort of thing, let them buy a subscription.”

The Quebec coalition is demanding five years of “temporary” subsidies from Quebec’s taxpayers, plus the abolition of sales taxes on newspapers. If they got their way, the subsidies would take the form of a refundable tax credit covering 40 per cent of their production costs plus 50 per cent of their investments in digital platforms.

As for those who have already successfully invested in digital platforms — especially small independents — I very much doubt newspaper owners will be in favour of a sweet deal like this being extended to them as well.

You can also count on it that if newspaper owners anywhere get a deal like this, nothing much will change about the incompetent way they do business, except that at the end of five years they’ll ask for another “temporary” extension.

That temporary measures sometimes become permanent, of course, is not a bad thing in itself. Alert readers will recall that Canada’s income tax was introduced as a temporary wartime measure in 1917, and it has in fact worked out quite well for Canada and Canadians.

But while an income tax makes sense, a straight-up subsidy for an industry that can’t manage its own long-expected decline is not.

By the way, the Quebec publishers pointed to similar tax breaks in Scandinavia and Finland, but seem to have forgotten to mention those places have newspaper sectors representing a wide variety of points of view, not just one.

The right often criticizes government investments in industry as “picking winners and losers.” What’s being proposed in Quebec, and apparently in Ottawa too, is nothing more than picking a loser. Period.

Edmonton ride-sharing service the first to unionize, likely in the world

Speaking of the right way and the wrong ways to respond to digitization, an interesting development in Alberta suggests digital technology need not be used to weaken and impoverish working people.

Leastways, the city of Edmonton yesterday saw a little bit of history made with the first unionized ride-sharing service in North America, and quite possibly the world.

TappCar, an Edmonton ride-sharing service loosely modeled on Uber, has signed a collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 987. The contract provides TappCar drivers and other employees/contractors health care coverage and a pension, boasted Teamsters Local 987 Secretary Treasurer David Froelich.

We’ll need to take a close look at this agreement to see how good a deal it is for TappCar’s drivers, most of whom like Uber drivers own the cars they use. Still, this suggests at least that in a modern economy digitization doesn’t have to mean a continuation of the Right’s War on Workers.

The same union local represents drivers employed by three Edmonton taxi companies.

It’s interesting to note that TappCar’s two principal founders — lawyer and former MLA Shayne Saskiw and lawyer Jonathan Westcott, both principals in the lobbying firm Alberta Counsel — have a long association with the right-wing Wildrose Party. TappCar invited the Teamsters to represent its employees.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

Photo: Mike/flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...