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. Their task was to address three questions:

  1. Is the decline of traditional news media a threat to democracy?
  2. If yes, are digital outlets picking up the slack?
  3. If no, what is the role for public policy here?

To cut to the chase, the first 80 pages of the report answer “yes” to the first question, and “no” to the second. Hence the final section, policy recommendations.

Some disclosure: I participated in two of the PPF’s roundtables, one in Ottawa back in the summer, and another more digitally-focused one in Vancouver in November. My contributions to the discussion at both were modest. I came away from the first convinced that the government should do absolutely nothing. I came away from the second convinced that there was a problem, that there was something we could do about it, but I was afraid that the problem would get somewhat mis-characterized and that some suggested solutions would miss the mark, or even risk making the problem worse.

There is already a lot of reaction to the report. From people I respect, the reaction has been quite negative. Ken Whyte, Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells, and Michael Geist all dumped on one aspect or another of the recommendations.

I took a big chunk of yesterday to read the report from cover to cover, and while I admire the dedication and commitment to the task of the principals, and sympathize with the difficult balancing at they are trying to pull off, I must respectfully disagree with most of the recommendations, in particular the big ones.

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The Star has a good summary of the twelve recommendations. They can be grouped into three main categories: Measures designed to help the revenue problem; measures designed to enhance civic journalism; and measures designed to help new funding models develop.

Revenue measures:

The big one here is an overhaul of the tax code. As J-Source reports it:

One of the big recommendations out of the report is an overhaul of section 19 and 19.1 of the Income Tax Act, which currently blocks tax deductions for ads directed at Canadians taken out in foreign-based media. The proposed overhaul would redefine the law, and hit media companies that don’t pay taxes in Canada and aren’t minimally engaged with journalism with a 10 percent levy. In short, it’s a change that would directly impact Google and Facebook, which currently get the lion’s share of all internet advertising revenue in Canada.

The money from this levy — which is expected to be around $300 to $400 million a year — will be used to fund a “Future of Journalism & Democracy Fund”, which would give money for “digital innovation” and directed at operators producing civic-function journalism. It will be an arms-length institution, designed to have a structure keeping it as free as possible from government interference.

Civic-journalism measures:

The money from the fund would be used to pay for a handful of initiatives designed to strengthen civic journalism. Two are probably useful — a sort of legal-aid clinic for journalism startups; a programme for indigenous journalism.

Two others are simply bizarre. One is to use $10 million from the fund to create a non-profit arm of the Canadian Press, called CP-local, which would hire 60-80 local reporters across the country, with the work published under a creative commons license. The other is to fund or endow, at about $2 million a year, an “Institute for the Study of News and Democracy,” on the grounds that Canada has no such institute.

New funding model measures:

The main one here recommends changes to Canada’s charity and non-profit laws, that would allow civic-news producing non-profits to receive philanthropic support and to allow charities to engage in non-partisan civic journalism.

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If you want one good reason to dismiss this report, you might begin — and maybe even end — by observing that Paul Godfrey approves of it.

But if that’s not enough for you, let’s move on to more specific objections:

1.The Journalism and Democracy Fund. 

I have to confess that I’m not actually opposed to the general idea of skimming money from FB and Google to fund content. There are long-standing and successful models out there for taking revenues from broadcasters/publishers who use content for “free”, and funneling it back to content producers. The whole ASCAP/performance royalty system for music works pretty well, and I’ve long though — based largely on the argument of the book Promises to Keep, by Harvard professor William Fisher  — that something similar could work for digital content.

But the only way an ASCAP model works is by being completely neutral with respect to the quality or nature of the content. That’s why Katy Perry collects more ASCAP royalties than probably the entire jazz music sector. Imagine if it were otherwise, what that would do to the culture?

So the problem is not the skimming of funds. It’s the idea that the money will be used to fund “civic journalism”, as defined by the funding body. That is hugely problematic, and anyone who believes in a free press and the mission of journalism will recoil at the idea that an official body, however “independent” of government, will be in charge of distributing money to groups that do “approved” types of journalism. The very idea is outrageous, utterly dangerous, and the government needs to shoot it down immediately.

(UPDATED EDIT: I’d like to dial that last sentence back a touch. It is probably better just to say that I find the idea of a body determining what counts as civic journalism, and dishing out funds accordingly, to be a bad idea).

 

2. CP-local

Why do we need CP-local? We already have a massive, national, publicly-funded journalism operation in this country, it’s called the CBC. And it’s been in full retreat from local news production for ages. Tune in to the CBC any weekend, and see what they use to counter-program NFL football. Last Sunday, it was Finding Nemo.

So now we’re supposed to take $10 million to give to CP to do local reporting? I’d rather see the CBC get completely overhauled, maybe get out of television altogether. At the very least, let’s get that sorted out before we start funding new organisations to take over niches that the CBC has abandoned.

3. Non-profits and charities

Think about the absolute worst person in Canadian journalism, or the most offensive outlet. The one you think is most harmful to the civic order. And then imagine that they now have charitable status and any donation to that outlet is a tax writeoff.

There’s obviously more to it than this and the non-profit side of things does have potential. I get into a bit in a forthcoming piece for Policy Options.

4. The “Institute for the Study of News and Democracy”

In recommending this institute, the PPF report laments that “Canada has no research institute truly devoted to the myriad issues involving the implications for democracy that are emerging from the profound changes sweeping through news media…” And a few paragraphs later it says that “Little is known” about any of this, from the effects of closing local newspapers to the role of platforms to the rise of fake news.

That’s right, Canada has no such research institutes. Unless you count, for example, the journalism schools at Carleton, Ryerson, Western, and King’s College, all of which offer graduate degrees in journalism and are, by that very fact, research institutes in journalism.

If “little is known” about the effects of the massive changes in the news media, that is because these institutions have utterly failed to do their job.

You’re going to get a bit of a rant from me here:

During the four and a half years I spent as ME then Editor of the Ottawa Citizen, we spent virtually the entire time undergoing one or more of the following: Newsroom downsizing, newsroom reorganization, and corporate strategic review, design, development, implementation, and execution. It was a constant convulsion, the most significant of which was the two-year development of Postmedia’s “Product 2.0” four platform strategy, for which the Citizen was the beta site.

During that time, we saw literally dozens of Carleton journalism students come through on work-study courses or as year long or summer interns. All of them were steeped in whatever changes we were going through.

Yet the number of journalism professors who called or emailed to ask about these changes in a professional capacity was precisely zero. Not a single academic thought there might be a good research opportunity in following a local newsroom through a year of transformation. Not one thought to ask if they could do a case study report on our digital business strategy. No one. Zero.

When we finally launched Product 2.0, that very day there was a very senior Carleton professor talking, in full, embarrassing ignorance, about the new products on TV and the radio. He dismissed the changes as “nothing new” and went on to talk about what was going on in our newsroom — a newsroom he had not set foot in the entire time I was worked there.

I did receive two emails from Carleton journalism teaching staff after we launched, one a faculty member, the other an instructor. Both wrote to cancel their subscriptions because they didn’t like the new paper.

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1. Is the decline of news media a threat to democracy?

Yes.

2. Are digital initiatives filling in the gaps?

No, not sufficiently.

3. Is there a minimally invasive policy role for the state?

Yes. But not the big recommendations in this report.

I have my own ideas on what can be done, forthcoming in Policy Options next week.

 

 


Comments

How not to help the news media — 2 Comments

  1. I understand your objections about the J&D Fund, they’re very stereotypical amongst journalists. But I think at some point we’ll have to get over it.

    Imagine if, before the first media was ever invented, there had been such a thing as the Internet and this blog to comment about the idea of a business model funded by advertisers. I’m pretty sure you would have written something like, to paraphrase:

    “That is hugely problematic, and anyone who believes in a free press and the mission of journalism will recoil at the idea that some big companies will be in charge of distributing money to groups that do “approved” types of journalism. The very idea is outrageous, utterly dangerous, and (somebody) needs to shoot it down immediately.”

    The point is there is no perfect business model for journalism, from an ethical perspective. Sure, the idea of a government or government-associated body having some kind of financial authority sucks, but it’s probably the least bad idea there is right now, and I think it can be managed decently enough.

  2. A few posts back, you had promised a post on fake news. I’m very interested in the subject and would love to see what you have to say about it, particularly because it’s part and parcel of what you’re discussing here.

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