The independent digital public interest journalism sector is essential to the industry’s future.

“Ailing,” “beleaguered” and “being murdered” — according to its own headlines, 2016 was a rough year for journalism in Canada.

Entering 2017, it shows no signs of recovery. Legacy media are still struggling with the digital transition. Advertising dollars are all but gone, sucked up by American web platforms and social media juggernauts. Subscription dollars so far do not appear promising enough to fill the gap.

Our country’s large-scale news organizations face huge challenges that are not going away. As one Toronto newspaper honcho recently acknowledged, the loss of traditional advertising dollars that once sustained his publication has been so severe that “indeed, the very business model is at risk.”

The result is that the survival of a well-funded, democratic media that holds the powerful accountable and facilitates deep and nuanced discussion about public issues is seriously threatened. We have relied in large part on traditional corporate models to provide such forums in the past. Yet in that media sector, there’s no reason to believe we won’t see more layoffs and further diminished capacity.

And while the CBC performs a vital role in this regard and deserves ample funding, one monolithic public institution cannot alone fill the void being left by faltering corporate models.

As editors past and present of one of the country’s longest-running independent digital news media experiments, the Tyee, we believe it’s time for Canada to get serious about strengthening the enterprises that are trying to do things differently — the publications that inhabit the space we’re calling the “independent digital public interest journalism sector.” There are many flourishing examples in the United States, as that media-ecosystem undergoes its own transformation. They include ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, Grist, and many dozens more.

The Tyee helped pioneer this sector here in Canada. Other members today include Canadaland, iPolitics, OpenCanada, Discourse Media and more. Yet Canada’s independent digital public interest journalism sector remains vastly underdeveloped compared with that in the US.

The questions Canada’s government should be contemplating at the moment, therefore, are: Which current policies and priorities suppress the development of this sector? and, Which new ones could help this sector grow and help supplant fading models for producing and delivering public interest journalism?

Let’s begin by suggesting criteria for who belongs in Canada’s independent digital public interest journalism sector. We would not include individual bloggers, advocacy sites, or click-bait operations that are built on buzz over substance. To be counted in this group, a media member

  • is digital first
  • pays its staff and contributors
  • has one or more identifiable revenue streams
  • can make a clear case for community support, a niche served
  • is transparent in its ownership, standards and mission
  • produces and/or curates public interest journalism with original reporting and fact-based analysis, as a primary focus,
  • aims for a sustainable, long-term existence

By such definitions, not only is this sector distinct but it is vital to the ongoing ecosystem of Canada’s news media. This sector has zero lobbyists and smaller audiences than the legacy media, but it would be a mistake to see its members as fringe or dispensable.

Rather, publications within this sector offer diversity of perspective; innovate in journalism, business models and technology; and develop the next generation of journalists.

As a point of reference, CBC/Radio Canada has received a $150-million increase in annual funding, bringing its yearly public funding to $675 million. Now it wants $100 million more from the government annually to “face consumer and technology disruption,” and another $318 million more a year if it drops all advertising, $25 million of which currently is earned on its websites.

By comparison with the CBC’s billion-dollar-plus target, the annual budgets for the Tyee and similar-sized digital organizations are around or under $1 million, and under the current policy regime they receive very little or no public funding. This is a sector that delivers highly efficiently a lot of public interest journalism for the dollar.

With that in mind, here are 10 policy ideas to build and fortify Canada’s independent digital public interest journalism sector:

  • Encourage, through tax and regulatory advantages, the creation of local nonprofit trusts designed specifically to house news sources for Canadian communities by Canadian communities (These may become receptacles as the big chains offload their local newspapers. Or they may serve as ideal incubators for local experiments that can help offset the collapse of legacy media.)
  • Create tax and other incentives for investing in public interest journalism digital sites, either for or not for profit.
  • Lift or substantially lighten restrictions on charitable philanthropies funding journalism.
  • Make it possible for a charitable nonprofit philanthropic organization to have, as their main function, the production of public interest journalism.
  • Stop waiting for some rich “angel” to underwrite an organization like ProPublica, and just publically fund most or all of it. ProPublica is a US national nonprofit organization that develops and shares highest quality public interest journalism with other media outlets. Other US models are the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
  • Provide public business infrastructure funding for the independent digital sector. Rather than paying for content, this funding would be to promote collaboration, innovation, lobbying, and legal support — wherever sharing best practices and achieving economies of scale can happen.
  • Provide publicly funded, two-year transition bursaries for journalists coming out of university or being laid off from news media, to subsidize their pay to work in a media outlet of their choice, including independent digital news media. (This would keep alive the craft and allow talent to select and find its most appropriate homes.)
  • Create a $500 annual tax deduction for young or all citizens for money they spend on new media. (This would create a revenue source and help acclimate the public to the new reality that their direct consumer choices, not third-party advertising, is paying for news media going forward.)
  • Tie increased CBC funding to changes in how it operates. The CBC should collaborate far more with independent digital public interest media, acting as a platform for sharing journalism. The CBC’s news feed should be available to be republished for free or at very low rates by other news media.
  • Reverse perverse tax advantages favouring Facebook, Google and other multinational platforms. As it stands now, those who buy ads on the global digital giants get a tax break. And it’s not clear how much tax Facebook and Google pay in Canada, if any. Collect those taxes and flow the revenues back into strengthening public interest journalism.

The independent digital public interest journalism sector in Canada is barely acknowledged in current conversations about saving journalism in this country. It’s time policy-makers see and define this sector as distinct, homegrown and essential — a bridge to the future.

This article is part of the special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.

Photo: Shutterstock.com


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