2 Feb 2016

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


  1. Nick, I have read your piece and posted to Twitter. I found it interesting and we here in Azerbaijan feel the same. Newspapers are living very hard times...

    1. Hi Azer. Nice to hear from you. I hope all is well. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Likewise, I'd like to post it on the National Press Club Facebook pake.

  3. Shovel public money into papers like the Globe and Mail who exhorted us to re-elect Stephen Harper because such support would result in him blossoming into the humanitarian Canada needs to be led by? Not on your everlovin' life. Such idjit publishers, especially Godfrey, do not deserve to survive.

    1. I never suggested that for-profit papers be given government money. IN fact, I said exactly the opposite.


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  5. What we need today in 2016 is the type of journalism and news as reported by investigative journalists.

    Media in canada is a controlled business. For decades, since the invention of the television, it's use has been manipulated by corruption, secrecy and of course privatization.

    It is a tool to mind control the public.

    All this for a politician trained by his father, personally and professionally to complete the trade agreements pierre started in the late 70's with nafta and total oligarchy politics in canada.

    Trudeau is the reason we stopped borrowing money from the bank of canada and have now, since that time period in history have paid over one trillion dollars in debt interest alone.

    So, aside from that let's look at the trend in privatization of public corporations in the last 40 years.

    This private family owned business is now the largest print Centre in canada be ause they inherit
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    Now that's not the media you speak of maybe. ..but really it's all connected. The victor always write the history books and therefore have to control the printing presses. The bible today is a compilation of several authors over a 1500 year time period but today controls the whole of Christianity. That is the power of the written word and journalism. Not just news

    Cbc was a crown corporation...our national broadcasting station.....radio, television...all news for the nation.now gagged by politics and corporate greed.

    In the case of the privatized federal queens printer, that corporation also owns magazines like toronto life andwedding bells in Montreal. ...all controlled by a nice Italian family in Toronto who's patriarch also founded salt and light television and radio Maria.

    Upon research on the internet, on the privatization and the politics surrounding it, I discovered that back in the 90's when it was done, it was the first time in canadian history that public assists were sold or given away as part of that privatization deal. However, nowhere was that stated as to exactly what assets were disposed of.

    But after working for 18 months for this company (I was fired first time in my life) I left with a better understanding of how the system and this corporation works...

    The organization chart for this company was a mess of various numbered companies, named companies and of course involved the change of legal names from canada communications group. Not to be confused with the public communications canada, which I believe now holds the CRTC. Under a numbered Alberta corporation was a surprise.

    Longer story short, what I saw was what companies were owned by the now privatized federal corporation.

    And lordy lordy....I see 50% Ownership of cbc. Could this possibly be the public assets given away in privatization?

    Our journalists in society use to be investigative reporters for that type of stuff but they too are now being told what to report for the best public sensationalism, and sales, without the publics best interests at heart.

    But for any journalist in any media source today...that type of news is never front page....instead, easter news in Toronto and front page is about a woman pissed with air canada because she missed her flight. Picked up from a facebook, post i had participated in.

    So I guess what I am saying is, wake up. Open your eyes to the truth of the matter. If you'd like to start a website, a newspaper, or any other truthful media, I'd love to assist at this point of my now retired life.

    Because canadians need the truth. Democracy as we believe it to be is not that anymore.

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