2 Feb 2016

MEDIA IN CRISIS - 1:
Why feds should step in to
help democracy's watchdogs


"I think newspaper readership is strongest 
among people who are soon going to be dead."
-- John Miller 
former senior editor at The Toronto Star 

A flourishing, capable news media is the oxygen of democracy. In Canada, our traditional oxygen-providers, the mainstream corporate-owned newspapers, are dying. We need to come up with something better to serve our communities.

Since the beginning of the year, we’ve seen papers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa bizarrely merged; a potentially disastrous strike in Halifax. The Guelph Mercury’s last print edition. The closure of The Toronto’ Star’s printing press, and gradual shaving back at every paper in the country.

Not all papers are losing money, but none is flourishing. And none still provides the scope or depth of balanced news essential to a citizenry that wants to be engaged.

How has this happened?


First, corporate news, as a product, has been debased beyond recognition. Newsrooms are so short-staffed that in many communities they don’t report even important civic events. There’s as much fluff as news. Pages are filled with slapdash opinion pieces that are cheap to produce. For most papers, good analysis and investigative journalism are things of the past.

Second, with good reason, people no longer trust what their papers say. I could find no recent independent survey that gauged Canadian opinions of the media. But I assume that our opinion of our papers is likely only slightly better than Americans’. A 2013 Gallup poll reported that fewer than 25 per cent of the Americans surveyed had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in their newspapers.

All the dailies – with the exception to some extent of The Toronto Star espouse  – corporate values that cater to the rich and powerful and help determine what is considered newsworthy. So right-wing policies detrimental to the general public are praised, unions and social change opposed. There’s much more, but you get the idea.

In the face of widening consumer disdain for a diminished product, corporate media owners would have investors believe they will somehow come up with a new formula that will magically make them profitable. It is nowhere in sight.

With corporate-controlled media highly unpopular and facing a life-threatening crisis, it’s the perfect time to come out in favour of public support for independent Canadian news and information on the Internet.

Canada has a small but enthusiastic number of news and opinion websites, but we need to think in terms of supplementing those with well-funded sites that can provide communities and cities with the news and information they will need in future years.

Unfortunately, while sites work hard at raising money, most of them do not bring in enough revenue to have the size of staff necessary to provide full coverage for their chosen market area.

If Justin Trudeau’s apparent concern for our democracy is sincere, he must know that Canadians are not getting the basic information about events and developments that we need to be able to exercise our role as citizens.

Sooner rather than later, the Liberals need to acknowledge the problem and find ways to step in and provide funding. Communities – especially those that will be launching new sites – need better sources of news.

However, the public would not look favourably upon the idea of government giving financial support to media corporations that gobbled up millions of dollars in executive salaries and shareholder dividends while reducing coverage and chopping jobs.

By contrast, Scandinavian countries regularly subsidize privately-owned daily newspapers. The media in those countries is viewed much differently than in Canada: readership is much higher than here, papers haven’t in the past raked in grossly high profits from tons of monopoly advertising, and executives are paid much less than in North America. As a result, Scandinavians actually like their papers, and governments have no trouble supporting them. 

Canada’s crisis is worst in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa, the cities where Paul Godfrey’s Postmedia has forced once competing papers into shotgun marriages.

Their situation may soon be even worse. If Postmedia cannot meet a $336- million debt payment by August 2017, the chain will likely go bankrupt. Beyond that is another payment of about $36-million by July 2018. At either point the papers may be put on the block.

At the same time, there is speculation that if the chain’s debt were paid off, it might be profitable – depending on how much journalism it invested in.

But would Canadians stomach a multi-million dollar bailout for Postmedia’s fleet of journalistic ghost ships after Godfrey, its CEO, walked off with a pay packet of $1.7-million and vast currents of cash have flowed to a hedge fund in New York?

Other corporate media owners that opposed government support for weaker competitors in the past, may also change their minds and seek tax breaks for those properties. Their pleas deserve the same scrutiny.

The Guelph Mercury, which closed last week, is part of the massive Torstar Corporation, owner of The Toronto Star and many other properties.  In view of its purchase last year of Vertical Scope, a digital media firm, for $200-million, what does the Canadian public—or the government—owe it to keep the Mercury alive?

Yes, governments need to ensure that communities get the news they need, and that doesn’t include helping for-profit media. Even if the government wanted to, it would cost many millions of dollars to subsidize the failing newspaper industry. 

However, to help cover the news gap left by the failing newspapers, the government could increase the funding of both CBC Radio and TV News and Current Affairs.

Part II - Click here

MEDIA IN CRISIS - 2:
Citizens, government need to plan now to have quality media in future

Canada’s mainstream media are in a state of incipient meltdown. They no longer deliver the volume or quality of news that Canadians need to be informed about important happenings in their communities, let alone to participate in a healthy democratic process.

The corporations that own traditional newspapers, seeing their revenues and readership dissolve, have opted to cut jobs and slash the content that used to provide their product’s value.

News on the Internet: Everyone will get in on the act! 

This is a serious problem for the way our democracy is supposed to work, and it is not going away.
It is time for governments—federal, provincial, and municipal—to step up and find a way to make sure that Canadian communities once again receive the news and information they need to function properly.

I explained in an earlier column why it would be the wrong choice for governments to support the same media that are failing under profit-driven corporate ownership.

Instead, the best solution to our growing news crisis is for governments to provide the financial support needed so that community-based Internet news sites will be sustainable.

Finding government money for public interest news shouldn’t be a problem. Governments already spend millions of dollars to support the diversity of Canadian magazines, privately owned TV stations, and, of course, the CBC.

We also all need to recognize that the transition to Internet-based delivery for disseminating news and information is only accelerating, will soon be virtually complete.

Instead of thinking about the way news dissemination is now, with newspapers hanging on, we need to envision what conditions will be like in, say 10 years, and begin working toward that time frame now.

How? Here’s what I’d like to see happen. 


First, we need to remind ourselves that our governments belong to us. If we are being poorly served, and there’s no other way to get the news we absolutely need, we have a perfect right to demand that government help solve the problem.

Without launching yet another multi-year Royal Commission on the media, the federal government should conduct a tightly focused investigation into the quickest, cleanest, and least-costly form of support for digital non-profit community news.

Scores of independent, digital non-profit news outlets already exist in Canada and the United States. But in neither country have they developed business models that can reliably support serious numbers of journalists and also break even.

In the U.S., the Pew Research Centre reported that 172 digital non-profit news outlets had been launched in the country between 1987 and 2013.

But while the sector showed promise of economic health, many sites “face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being.” Several had received substantial start-up money from foundations, but lacked business expertise to broaden their funding once the endowments ran out. [List of US non-profits:]

Canada has at least 20 independent Internet news sites, several providing broad, general information. But none serve a large community.

Highest ranked is The Tyee: it comes in at a distant number 2,911 in viewership among all sites in the country, as measured by the search engine Alexa . In second place is National Observer (at number 3,567). rabble.ca (at number 3,582), comes next, closely followed by the specialist paywall site iPolitics (3,651).

All the main corporate media, which mostly republish the same content as their affiliated newspapers, rank much higher.

In addition to providing support for existing sites, we need to look at supporting new sites to serve communities, cities and even provinces that are not well served.

Research is needed to find out how people who do not seek out news on the Internet can be lured to the new sites.

If citizens feel their area is not being covered by existing media, they need to form a community group to assess the situation.

Groups should attract members who have both business and journalism skills. They need to develop a plan, prepare a draft budget, and assess what funding they can generate on their own.

A well-connected community group should be able to tap into a number of funding sources: sustaining donors, memberships, ad sales, possibly foundations, on-line sales of compatible products such as books, fundraising events, special reports, or even develop relations to do contract for community groups and companies.

In Guelph, where TorStar closed The Guelph Mercury last week, it was unclear whether the paper’s website would continue to operate and whether another small Tor-Star free paper can serve the community.

Citizens in Guelph should assess after a period of time whether they are getting the news they need. If not, perhaps they will need to take action as a community.

There are dozens of non-profit sites in the U.S. that could serve as a model for Guelph and other communities if folks decide to have a site. For instance, the Dallas South News has been operating since 2009, using traditional and citizen journalists as well as bloggers to provide news and commentary to the community’s 500,000 residents.

In general, public support for non-profit community media should be awarded in a competitive process run by an arms-length, non-political body. Some might be awarded based on the number of people who visit a site, or by matching funds contributed by the community.

In addition, a non-profit group could apply to the federal government to obtain charitable tax status for the dissemination of educational material. This way donors would be able to receive a tax receipt.

Furthermore, Tax rules could encourage donations to non-profit and educational journalism.

Whatever vehicle is adopted, it will need to satisfy critics of any government involvement in the media, who will be watching like hawks. There will need to be more research.

What’s already clear is that yesterday’s profit-obsessed media market has failed. A new one needs some support so we all can receive the news and information we need.

CLICK HERE, to subscribe to my blog. Thanks Nick

20 Jan 2016

Don't weep for censoring, right-wing
Postmedia newspapers

Another 90 dedicated journalists in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa lost their jobs Tuesday as cutthroat Publisher Paul Godfrey slashed away again in an effort to turn Postmedia into a profit-making business. 

In a bizarre move, two competing papers will continue to be separate entities, but there will be one set of editors and most journalists will be shared.

Paul Godfrey - CEO Postmedia Corp
In Vancouver, the Sun and The Province will come under one roof. In Edmonton, the Journal and the Sun will come together; in Calgary, the Calgary Herald and the Sun; and in Ottawa, The Ottawa Citizen and the Sun.

This latest maneuver, in effect, reduces the four cities to print media monopolies. Even as weak as the original Postmedia and Sun papers were, they still competed with each other. Now the same editors will assign reporters from both papers.

10 Jan 2016

Struggling to manage your life?
Our destructive system is likely to blame.

I was dismayed by the comments of two women on CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning recently. The program deserves credit for planning throughout the week to deal with issues of stress and the fact that most people don’t have enough hours in the day to deal with important, often crucial, matters.

The two women were picked at random on the streets of downtown Toronto. They told the CBC horrendous stories about how difficult their lives are – from being unable to meet the needs of their children, to too much stress at work, not enough money for childcare, and having no time to themselves.

But, if like the two women, you’re under too much pressure in your life and you don’t have any free time, keep in mind it’s happening to just about everyone, and it’s not your fault. It has to do with the way the economic system we live under us putting the squeeze on most of us.

How serious is the problem? A poll conducted for the Heart and Stroke Foundation revealed that half those interviewed were unhealthy because of their lifestyle:

  • 44% of respondents said they had no time for regular physical activity.
  • 41% said healthy meals take too long to prepare. 
  • More than half (51%) said fast food outlets don't have enough healthy choices. 
  • And almost a third (31%) said the time they would like to spend being active they instead spend commuting.  

17 Dec 2015

Climate controls ‘slip slidin’ away’
following weak Paris agreement

 “World agrees to historic climate accord” 
The Toronto Star.
“Nearly 200 countries agree to historic pact in Paris
to reduce emissions and fight climate change”

The Vancouver Sun.
 “Climate deal: World praises France's diplomacy, showing it's still a master of the art”
The Winnipeg Free Press.

With these headlines appearing in newspapers across the country, Canadians must have been relieved that they don’t need to worry about climate change nearly as much now that everything has been worked out in Paris.

Unfortunately, this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

The politicians meeting in Paris, faced with the possibility of total failure, were extremely excited to reach any kind of an agreement. As politicians will do, they convinced themselves and the compliant mainstream media that the accord all 195 countries signed was an amazing break through document.

The agreement is jam-packed with lofty language and idealistic goals. However, it is totally lacking in legally binding mechanism that will hold governments to emission limits that will stop global warming from reaching devastatingly high levels.

May & Klein have strongly different opinions


Even so, there are strong differences of opinion among environmental leaders concerning the value of the pact.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May is not concerned that the temperature goals in the agreement are not binding.

“It’s an historic and potentially life-saving agreement,” May writes in her blog.  . . . . “it may save the lives of millions.  It may lead to the survival of many small nations close to sea level.  It may give our grandchildren a far more stable climate and thus a more prosperous and healthy society.”

Two of the world’s leading climate activists disagree strongly with May.

Responding to the cheering going on in the meeting room when the deal was signed, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org commented: “All the serious people in there in suits are playing fantasy games.”

Activist and author Naomi Klein said the agreed upon targets are far too weak. “They don’t lead us to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees. They lead us to warming of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, which is beyond catastrophic.”

26 Nov 2015

Fossil fuel lobby seen as main threat
to meaningful progress in Paris

In the early-1950s, when it became widely known that smoking caused cancer, giant tobacco companies formed the Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC). Its main goal was to deny the harmful effects of tobacco and confuse the public.

The tobacco lobby wormed its way into the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO), wreaking havoc and slowing the WHO’s efforts to reduce the growing number of cancer deaths. 

Realizing that the tobacco corporations were obstructing progress, the WHO finally built a firewall between public health officials and industry lobbyists. Only then was it possible to better control tobacco.

Flash forward to Paris and the 21st annual UN Climate Conference, November 30 to December 11   The 190 participating countries are charged with trying to hold carbon emissions to liveable limits between the years 2020 and 2030.

But – just like when the tobacco lobby was powerful – the fossil fuel lobby is strongly influencing decisions to be made in Paris.

Pointing to the struggling world economic situation, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) says climate change is important, but it should not jeopardize economic growth.

15 Sep 2015

Can Mulcair work a miracle
and gain unlikely victory?

From the very start, the main issue in the federal election race has been as obvious as the beard on Tom Mulcair’s face, but it’s been largely ignored by mainstream media.

The big time journalists are rushing from the leaders’ pre-planned news conferences day after day, but the majority of voters have said in opinion polls that by far the biggest issue for them is to have either the NDP or Liberals emerge as the party that can soundly defeat Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

During the fourth week of the campaign, it looked like the NDP might be the chosen party. They were at 33.9 per cent in the polls. The Conservatives were at 28.4 per cent, and the Liberals 27.9.

It looked like the NDP might jump to, say, 36 or 38 per cent in the polls and become the party to stop Harper. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the NDP fell back a little.

The NDP might be suffering because of Mulcair’s misguided promise to balance the budget. This is not playing well with Canadians who question how the NDP is going to both balance the budget and pay for all the promises they’ve made. Meanwhile, many progressives who believe the government should borrow to stimulate the economy – as Trudeau promised to do – are upset with the NDP for adopting an overly-cautious position.

If you believe Monday’s opinion polls, the NDP was at 31 per cent, and the Liberals and Conservatives tied at 30 per cent.


This week the NDP faces two big hurdles. On Wednesday, Mulcair will release figures showing how the party would pay for its election promises. And on Thursday he will join the other two leaders in a televised debate on the economy. If Mulcair survives the attacks he will face during Thursday’s debate, the NDP should still be in the race.

Harper hopes ‘dirty tricks’ let him win


Some analysts have written off Harper – largely because they thought the Conservatives took a big hit during the frantic Syrian refugee acrimony. But in Monday’s Nanos Research poll, the Conservatives were back to 30 per cent.

2 Sep 2015

Strong voter registration campaign
could mean the end for Harper

The primary objective of Stephen Harper’s absurdly-named Fair Elections Act  is to prevent hundreds-of-thousands of Canadians from voting for the NDP, Liberals, Greens, etc.

The Conservatives are, in effect, “cheating” the electoral process again, just as blatantly as in the past. They know that a large number of people – students, marginalized people and First Nations – will have a hard time voting because of the changes. And they know those people would not likely vote Conservative.

Even though the Conservatives are trailing in the polls, it’s much too soon to say they will lose the election. Harper’s gang of strategists and pollsters have masterminded their way to victory three times, overcoming tough odds each time.

But efforts to help people to register to vote are not as strong as they could be. There needs to be close co-operation among groups to make sure that as many people as possible – particularly people in some 70 ridings where the Conservatives are vulnerable – have the identification they need to vote.

Alexie Stephens is one of  Leadnow's staff members
 working to defeat the Conservatives. 

The Council of Canadians contends that some 770,000 people may have a difficult time voting because of the changes to the Act. Included are 400,000 people who used the voter ID card in 2011 and believe that’s all they need this time; 250,000 people who will move during the election period; and 120,000 who used vouching in 2011.

22 Jul 2015

Weak tactics, stupidity and lies cloud seriousness of climate change for Canadians

In addition to the staging of the PanAm Games, Toronto was the location of some unusually high profile activities in recent days that were supposed to increase the efforts to tackle climate change.

The events raised some important questions: How effective are efforts to slow the increase of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, do Canadians agree on the extent of damage to our environment, and what do scientists say in their most recent reports about the degree of the threat?

Celebrities lead ‘the big protest: First, Toronto had the spectacle of actor/activist Jane Fonda, environmentalist David Suzuki and author-activist Naomi Klein leading a march of some 12,000 protesters belonging to a new coalition through downtown streets. From all accounts, they were a cheerful bunch.

14 Jul 2015

Pan Am's over-spending $-billions,
but it's okay 'cause it's public money

If a group constructing a massive project for you set a budget of $1.4-billion, but later came back and said they were spending $2.5-billion, what would you do? Normally you would probably throw the whole team out the door, and perhaps sue them for the $1.1-billion overrun.

But in this case, the $1.1-billion overrun belongs to former Premier David Peterson’s Pan Am Games organizing committee, and even though two officers were fired, expenses continue to climb.
By the time they’re finished, I’ll bet it will cost $3-billion – well over double the amount we were told in the beginning we would be paying.

But considering that the Games are a big hit with influential folks in Toronto, there’s not nearly as much criticism of the atrocious waste of money as there would be if, say, Toronto Community Housing was found to have greatly overspent.

Hamilton Stadium: A Bargain at $6,041 per seat

Moreover, it seems that the proud folks of our “world class city” don’t want to blemish the image of the Games, which are running in Toronto and across Southwestern Ontario from July 7 to 26, followed by the ParaPan Am Games, August 7 to 15.