Wither Canadian media?

Well, if there are any copy editors still working, the first thing they would do upon reading that lead is question whether we mean “whither Canadian media?” The answer is that we mean both.

First, the withering. Hard as it will be to witness, our so-called legacy media are in for even more turmoil in 2017. This could well be the year that Postmedia goes belly up, leaving more than 150 newspapers, including 44 of Canada’s remaining 100 dailies, to be bought for cheap by local interests. That would actually be a good outcome for journalism, the best chance we have that whichever local newspapers endure might truly serve their communities.

Of course, there are no guarantees that local ownership equates to better product (Halifax Chronicle-Herald anyone?) But the conglomerate ownership of Canada’s newspapers needs to end regardless and a lot of newspapers won’t survive, no matter who owns them. It won’t be pretty, but it’s long overdue.

As such, we can only hope that the federal government’s response to the challenges of the news media doesn’t buckle to the lobbying of legacy papers who say they need more favours from Ottawa to survive.

The government needs to look forward, not backward, and propose policies and funding to help create a self-sustaining and diverse media ecosystem, and incentivize innovation that favours local markets that are increasingly starved of decent journalism.

Whither Canadian media?

If experience abroad is any guide, digital will rule, and even those outlets that maintain a print product will only succeed with a smart digital strategy. In the event the federal government adopts some version of the Public Policy Forum’s recommendation to create a Future of Journalism & Democracy Fund, it should aim to spark the blooming of a thousand digital media startups. Well, okay, maybe 20 or so. Each should attempt to bring unique editorial viewpoints and funding models that help transition Canada’s moribund media market into a seedbed for the future of media worldwide.

The future of media worldwide? Why not? Canada is hardly beating the band when it comes to media technology per se. We already lag badly in adjusting to the digital age – a Dell survey last year placed Canada 13th out of 16 developed countries on its “digital transformation index.” But just because we’ve been slow to adjust to where and how people get their news and analysis doesn’t mean we can’t be innovators when it comes to modelling a new way of doing journalism itself.

The Internet’s disruption of legacy media notwithstanding, we sense a period of relative stability in the digital sphere. Unlike when the bottom fell out of the American media landscape in the late 2000s, we know that Facebook will triumph over MySpace, that Google will obliterate Yahoo’s search engine. As the tech decks clear, we see an opening for Canada to lead a media revolution in terms of journalism practice.

Why not be the leader the world so badly needs right now by creating new models of journalism that elevate democratic discourse instead of degrading it, and usher in a new world order of public-interest, solution-based, citizen-centric journalism? In a world of fake news and hacked elections, the restoration of high purpose to the pursuit of journalism could be as radical and uniquely Canadian a contribution to world affairs in this age as peacekeeping was more than half a century ago. Why couldn’t Canada become the jurisdiction that, journalistically, figures out what reconciliation with Indigenous people really looks like and champions pluralism, diversity, transparency, social innovation, good governance, and bold solutions to our most intractable social, economic and environmental problems and, by extension, the world’s?

It’s hard to know where the federal government stands on all of this just yet, but Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s 2017 budget might give us a hint. Will recommendations from the Public Policy Forum’s study, Mélanie Joly’s Canadian content review or the Commons Heritage committee actually create budget line items for media under the rubric of “innovation?” What does a “moonshot challenge” look like in a country whose media landscape already looks like a moonscape?

And where is civil society? Will the Liberals unfetter the tax code to allow foundations and charitable organizations to flow money to journalism, as has long been the case in the US and elsewhere?

While not specifically aimed at the issue of “philanthrojournalism” – an unfortunate moniker if ever there was one – the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) is in the process of “modernizing the rules” governing charities, including “clarifying the rules governing political activities.” One of the reasons there is no equivalent to the Knight Foundation or Nieman Foundation or Pew Research Centre in Canada is that journalism, and support for journalism, is considered to be political activity that is offside of CRA rules.

Again, we don’t imagine for a minute that easing restrictions on funding public-interest journalism will turn on a gusher of money in Canada. Our foundations come nowhere near close to matching the asset bases of America’s, and charitable contributions aren’t going to come even close to replacing the $700 million in annual classifieds revenue lost to Craigslist and Kijiji. Nonetheless, this is something the Liberals should get liberal about — a bit of juice to be squeezed from what should be low-hanging fruit when it comes to policy change.

It is urgent and necessary that the CRA’s consultation on charities’ political activities take the full measure of journalism’s contribution to the proper functioning of Canada’s democracy and the promotion of diversity plurality in a way that includes all voices in our country. Reforms to the Income Tax Act should encourage diversity of voices in a country whose dangerous concentration of media ownership has failed Canadian journalism and, by extension, the country as a whole.

Canadians need more, not fewer tools to make sense of their lives. Government can and should play a role, and intelligent and responsive reforms to our taxation system can play a very big part in seeding ecosystem growth in one of the most important industries in our country.

The bottom line is that, one way or another, if Canadians want good journalism, they have to be prepared to pay for it.

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

Photo:  Shutterstock.com

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