How to help the news media

The centerpiece proposal from the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, is to change the tax code to charge companies who want to advertise in Google and Facebook a ten percent levy, and then funnel that money into a fund that will be used to pay for digital journalism, as dispensed by an arms-length federal body.

This is one of those ideas that is high-minded, well-intentioned, and looks worse and worse the more I think about it.

There are fairness issues: why target, and punish, Canadian companies who do international digital business, and need to advertise on Google or Facebook to reach those audiences? How is the failure of the news media their problem to solve?

There are accountability issues: It is one thing to use taxpayer dollars to fund arms length institutions like NSERC or the CBC. There is at least in these cases a chain of accountability from the taxpayer to a minister to whom the institution is responsible, and who is in turn responsible to parliament.… Continue reading

How not to help the news media

The Public Policy Forum released its long-awaited (well, by news nerds and journalists, anyway) report on the news media, its challenges, and possible solutions. It’s called The Shattered Mirror, and you can download it here. 

The report is a thorough account of the current state of the industry, how and why it got to where it is, and the problems and challenges it faces. It’s also really long, but it’s well-written, has a nice tabloidy-design and it’s a pretty good read by the standards of these sorts of reports. The first three sections – diagnosing the problem and reporting on the feedback they received — should be mandatory reading for all journalism students wondering what they are getting in to, and for all working journalists wondering why management is cutting newsroom staff yet again.

But the PPF’s mandate (the report was commissioned by the federal government) was not simply to describe the problem.… Continue reading

Three thoughts on Kevin O’Leary

The newspapers today are loaded with stories suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is now the front-runner for the Conservative party leadership. For all the reasons outlined by Andrew Coyne, I don’t think it will happen. Not because Canada is necessarily morally exceptional (something we’ll be debating here at MISC next month) but because the systemic barriers are bigger here. It’s just harder to take over the Conservatives than it was for Trump to take over the GOP.

But since you never know what might happen, I think it’s worth making a few points about his candidacy.

1. Bilingualism

Whether it was craftiness or cowardice , O’Leary’s decision to enter the race the morning after the french-language debate was clearly deliberately timed. And didn’t we all spend yesterday talking about him? Combined with Justin Trudeau’s brain cramp in Sherbrooke, it raised once again the question of official bilingualism and whether one “has” to be bilingual to lead a major political party in this country.… Continue reading

The Dion in Winter

Stephane Dion has left the federal cabinet and quit politics. It obviously wasn’t a voluntary departure, but he managed to give a gracious enough statement. He obviously still wants to be a public servant, and in public life. Where that will be remains to be seen — word is that he was offered some sort of ambassadorship, but is taking time to stew think it over.

His departure was inevitable. As Paul Wells reminds us, the antagonism between Dion and Trudeau goes back aways. He wasn’t a very good foreign affairs minister, and his attempt to formulate some sort of Weberian doctrine to justify the shit-eating that goes along with the job was pathetic.

And before that, Dion was the Liberal leader who led the party to its worst showing since 1867, until whatshisname who replaced him did even worse.

But before that, he was Stephane Dion, the scourge of Quebec sovereigntists, the architect of the Clarity Act, the federalist Sun Tzu who showed Ottawa how to take the fight to the separatists.… Continue reading

Deinstitutionalisation: The new crisis for journalism Part I

1.

As far as the mainstream media is concerned, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the the print media ran out of runway, as the transition-to-digital bluff was called. There is no serious digital business model to speak of for online publishing – the recent round of mass layoffs at Medium only underscoring that even the digital-only ad-supported initiatives are a fool’s errand.

What should be done? For a while now, my view has been the same as Ken Whyte’s — we should do nothing. And that is pretty much the view I expressed at two of the seminars run by the Public Policy Forum as part of their initiative to determine if the decline of the news media is a problem, and if so, what should be done about it. My answers have been: Yes it’s a problem, and there’s not much to be done until the convulsions have ended.… Continue reading

The age of anti-consumerism has passed

It took the butt-ugly advertising wrap around my morning newspaper to remind me that tomorrow is Black Friday, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year. You know, the day when Americans stampede one another to get into Walmart and pull guns on one another in the flat screen TV aisle of Best Buy.

It wasn’t so long ago that Black Friday, and the anti-consumerist hysteria that surrounded it, was one of the biggest days on the culture jammer’s calendar. Because that was also the day that Adbusters magazine sponsored Buy Nothing Day. That is the day when anti-consumerism activists try to “jam” the shoppers by cutting up credit cards, engaging in sit-ins, riding their bikes, participating in zombie walks or critical mass rides, and so on. The point is to not buy anything, while drawing attention to the grossness of those who are.

We had a lot of fun with BND in The Rebel Sell.… Continue reading

Newsonomics: The steep hill of scale

A couple of years ago, after trying and failing at a free ad-supported business model and flirting with pay walls that brought in negligible revenue, a number of news publishers started to come around to the idea of scale. When it comes to monetizing an audience, it’s go big or go home.

And there is certainly a lot to be said for scale, since it appears to be the only way of making any real money selling journalism online. Big players like BuzzFeed, HuffPost, an Business Insider, even medium sized ones like Gawker, all make money by funneling colossal amounts of traffic into a hopper. Out the other end squeezes a non-colossal amount of revenue, which is used to pay for a handful of journalists.

It’s not a great business model, but it is pretty much the only one on offer right now. Which is why Postmedia — as it prepares to downsize yet again — appears to be moving into the digital-scale business.… Continue reading

(UPDATED) Why there is no ad-supported digital business model for journalism

The CJR has an ominous  piece about the “darkening” employment outlook for journalists at digital only publishers like Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, and so on. It’s a disheartening corrective to the widely held, but pretty much entirely wrong view, that print is failing because it is run by dinosaurs who don’t know how to properly transition from a print to digital world. While print continues to melt (Rogers is preparing to massively shift its magazines to largely or exclusively digital publishing), there’s little indication digital is much in the way of a stable icefloe.

In fact, just the opposite. Mashable basically gave up on news this year, as Gigaom did the year before. Vice has laid off reporters. Buzzfeed recently shuttered its Ottawa bureau after a year or so.

What’s remarkable about the supposed digital behemoths, like BuzzFeed, is how tiny their revenues are. According to the CJR piece, BuzzFeed was expecting revenues of $240 million in 2015, and came in with $170 million.… Continue reading

The news is not about information (or, why everyone hates the media)

When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 (then Editor in 2013) I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things stuck out:

The first was that, by and large, what readers cared about were things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.

The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet.… Continue reading

America needs a Parliament

Joe thinks America needs electoral reform. I’ve long thought that there was nothing wrong with American politics that a quick switch to a Westminster-style form of government couldn’t fix. Forget about the usual complaints about campaign finance or gerrymandering. I’m talking the big-picture stuff. For example:

1.The dynastic trend that has given us (or will have given us) a Clinton or a Bush for most of the past thirty years is, to a large extent, an artifact of the term limits on presidents. A move to a confidence-based system would allow popular presidents to burn themselves and their supporters out with a tired third term, while reducing the incentive for former presidents to build an independent power base and install an heir (or spouse) in his or her place.

2. The Supreme Court problem. Scalia died four months ago, and the GOP is straightforwardly refusing to to confirm Mark Garland.… Continue reading