We all act out of some degree of self-interest, but the arguments put forward recently by CBC executives are something to behold.

First, CBC President Hubert Lacroix put forward a position paper proposing the public broadcaster move to an ad-free model, with $400 million in additional funding from the federal government. Then Jennifer McGuire and Michel Cormier, the heads of the English and French news services, argued that moving away from advertising on all platforms would help other Canadian media transition to the digital environment. How? The CBC would replace its current ad revenues with guaranteed money from the federal government, and private media would scramble to get some of those dollars from advertisers.

McGuire and Cormier’s comments are part of the ongoing public discussion over what can be done as traditional news media are weakened in their ability to do public interest journalism. The answer, according to CBC executives, is: Let’s have more CBC! But the solution to the disrupted news media scene in Canada is not for taxpayers to shell out more to a public provider of news, no matter how high-quality or how high-minded.

The CBC has rapidly become the 800-pound gorilla in news media in many communities across Canada, not just because of its own increased resources but also because of reduced revenues at private media outlets. The result is a distortion of the marketplace that undermines the ability of private firms to transition and to continue to report the very same news and information that CBC executives say it should be publicly funded to provide.

The Shattered Mirror, the Public Policy Forum report on the news industry released last month, shows how the CBC’s overall revenues from federal funding and advertising have held relatively steady over the past decade, compared with a precipitous decline in the ad and circulation revenues of daily newspapers.

CBC Radio runs endless promotional ads noting it is the No. 1 radio station in Winnipeg, by market share. It advertises its local news app as the only one you need.

Emboldened, the CBC now aggressively markets itself as the only source of information that Canadians require. In the Winnipeg market, for example, CBC Radio runs endless promotional ads noting it is the No. 1 radio station in Winnipeg, by market share. It advertises its local news app as the only one you need.

It appears no one at the CBC has thought to ask: “How is it that a public broadcaster dominates a local market and why are we saying that it should be the public’s only source for local news?”

Canadians should be asking the same questions. The last time the Winnipeg Free Press made such a brazen grab for market share — as part of a deal that closed the rival Winnipeg Tribune in 1980 — it spurred the Kent Commission on newspaper ownership, which concluded that the quality of Canadian journalism and the health of our democracy were being compromised because of the concentration of media outlets in fewer and fewer hands.

There is clearly an important role for the CBC in providing Canadians with news and many other sorts of Canadian content. But few would argue the CBC should simply replace private news media. Even CBC executives say they share the concerns about the changing media landscape and the closure of news organizations, which lead to less diversity of voice and opinion, especially in local markets. If that’s the case, then why are the broadcaster’s news outlets contributing to this reduction?

Over the past year, the Winnipeg Free Press has found itself in bidding wars with the local CBC station trying to hire away reporters and editors from the newspaper. The journalists were hired not to do innovative work that was not being done by private media, but rather to report on areas like city hall, the very beats that they covered for the newspaper.

These weren’t journalists shed by indiscriminate layoffs. They were the most valuable resources the paper had in its continued comprehensive coverage of Winnipeg, and the paper had spent considerable money over the years developing their knowledge and skills. In most cases, the CBC won, offering greater security backed by taxpayer funding.

So, on the one hand, the CBC argues for more federal money for a public service mission and, on the other hand, it acts as any commercial operator would, competing with its elbows up.

The CBC also fights aggressively for audience on a national and local basis, providing “for free” what private firms have to find a way of paying for, through advertising or charges to cable and satellite subscribers. This intense competition should not be the role of a public provider of news and information, and it hampers private media’s attempts to find new business models to support public interest journalism.

Whatever the policy response, it needs to be rooted in support for the vast array of private news media organizations.

There are many potential public policy responses to the challenges outlined in The Shattered Mirror. The report itself makes a number of recommendations and there has been plenty of discussion and disagreement over these. That’s a good thing because an issue that has been largely invisible — the shrinking capacity of newsrooms — is now on the public agenda.

Whatever the policy response, it needs to be rooted in support for the vast array of private news media organizations — from newspapers older than Canada itself to start-up digital efforts reporting community news.

The response needs to create a level playing field that doesn’t have one sector operating under different rules from another, that recognizes the value of content produced by individual organizations, and that encourages transition in the constantly changing media world we now live in.

Does the CBC have a role? Certainly. But it is not the answer, and we need to determine how the public broadcaster may be hampering the search for an answer.

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

Photo: Shutterstock.com

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Bob Cox
Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, also responsible for the Brandon Sun and eight community newspapers in Manitoba. He is currently chair of News Media Canada, the association representing daily and community newspapers across the country.

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