Propping Up Canadian Newspapers

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On Tuesday the Trudeau Liberals will unveil their third budget. The Toronto Star has reported that they intend to spend $50-million over the next five years "to support local journalism"—Ottawa's answer, presumably, to the hue and cry raised by last year's The Shattered Mirror, an alarmist report on declining national newspaper revenues. Torstar chair John Honderich has himself been an outspoken advocate of government support, so he must believe that his Star qualifies as "local." But does it? Despite its declining revenues, the Star remains Canada's largest-circulation newspaper, more or less tied with the "national" Globe and Mail. When newspaper publishers appeal to Ottawa to underwrite a new "Canadian Journalism Fund" to "support local journalism in underserved communities," do they mean to include Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg alongside Brighton, Antigonish and St. Jerome? And if the definition of a locally produced news outlet in a underserved Canadian community is sufficiently elastic to include the Toronto Star, would it not also include Your Ward News?

What about the common-sense idea that we need only tweak the existing $75-million Canadian Periodical Fund (CPF) to give our dying news media new life? When Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox calls for a trebling of CPF funding so that it can be "opened up to daily newspapers," does he mean merely to level the playing field between the Free Press and, say, Maclean's? It would seem so—at least in those heated moments when he is trying to prevail upon Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly. "It just infuriates me when I hear her say that they won’t support business models that are no longer viable because every single media business model is not viable, with the exception of Google and Facebook," Cox has said. "The magazine industry wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t propped up by the federal government."

Yet Cox also seems to believe that Winnipegers are starved for news. "The simple fact is that most community journalism is being done by newspapers," he asserts. "They are the base of the news ecosystem in most cities and towns. Sometimes they are the only player." Assuming for the moment that even in media-rich 2018 this is not an intentionally exaggerated claim, the fact remains that the original raison d'être of the Canadian Periodical Fund was to support "national" magazines in our vast and thinly populated land—to subsidize the postage costs of Maclean's, in other words, so Canadians had a home-grown alternative to Time and Newsweek. Fox's proposal to re-purpose the CPF inverts this logic, subsidizing "local" media whose production and distribution economies-of-scale ought to be not merely competitive but advantageous. Newspaper publishers talk about the need for government subsidies to buy themselves some time—to update business models and restore profitability, etc. But Canadians might ask—in light of our experience with film, music, theatre and even book publishing—whether we could ever close the door on newspaper subsidies once we've opened it. Once the Canadian Journalism Fund exists, how many news outlets could we expect to remain outside the fold?

As Andrew Coyne and others have had good cause to worry, in short, we are but two days from discovering whether the era of independent journalism in Canada is over.