2 Feb 2016

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


  1. Agreed that community-based non-profits would be fine and potentially successful vehicles for news and opinion going forward, with sufficient resources.

    Careful though on using the charitable model - without significant change in how CRA interprets charitable law, news organizations would have an uphill battle getting charitable registration, and then would be terribly constrained in their activities.

    Here's CRA's view on magazines (there are a few registered charity magazines - This Magazine and Walrus come to mind) "There must be a legitimate, targeted attempt to educate others (simply providing an opportunity for people to educate themselves, such as by making available materials with which this might be accomplished but need not be, is not enough".

    A news and opinion vehicle would be hard pressed to fit into that.

    1. Hi Brian - I was thinking of another way of doing it. When I was with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression we set up an entirely separate charity that had a tax number. We were - and still are -- able to issue tax receipts. It published educational articles through the Journalists group, and the Journalists group was also in a position to have its' newsletter funded and some other expenses, if I recall correctly.

  2. Nick,
    These are good pieces. Well done.
    I didn't see much mention of the public role in all of this. The CBC has experience a marked decline in quality and quantity of original news reporting, mostly because of the appointments of CPC supporters and also because of the outsourcing of news service to private organizations like Canadian Newswire. This whole topic is worth exploring, particularly in context of (a) firing the previous CPC supporters and (b) converting the CBC into a Canadian DIGITAL Broadcaster of sorts, focusing on channeling content created by the people of Canada on their site, TV and radio. Similar organizations across the country (eg. TVO) should also follow the same format.

    Also, don't forget that subsidies and support for 'traditional' companies take many formats, especially advertising. The Harper government spent billions in public funds on what was little more than propaganda campaigns, all the while propping up junk like PostMedia (which returned the favour by skirting election laws, printing ballots on their broadsheets the day before the election). These ad campaigns must come to a grinding halt and these 'for profit' companies should be cut loose from the public teat once and for all.

    Another massive indirect subsidy program comes in the form of grants and special loans to large corporations for the creation of 'Canadian content' or 'split run' publications. All of our private TV, movie, live radio and magazine producers collect billions every year as part of this ongoing ruse designed to bilk Canadians out of their money. Organizations like 'Magazines Canada' should be terminated.

    The savings from all of these measures should be put into a fund, much like an investment fund, that is supervised by an array of professionals and public members who can help allocate the funds according to community needs and public services.

    For example, I live in London, ON and when the Free Press and its various minions fade away, there will be very little daily news. We'll need something from the ground up that isn't structured by board rooms in Toronto or New York.

    1. Excellent points. Thanks. Yes, I should do a piece on how so-called for profit media is funded by the public. I've always questioned why business should be able to write off advertising expenses - thus providing big media with a free ride. I figured out the amount a few years ago and it ran into the billions. In this regard, what drives me crazy are very expensive and elaborate private industry TV ads shot in say the Caribbean. Perhaps you know, but I assume 100 per cent these are included as a business expense.

    2. Business writes off advertising expenses as per corporate income tax rules....ct23 revenue canada...

      All media in canada is privately owned. All for profit corporations. Some on the stock market including the cbc. Therefore a corporation allowed to recoup advertising to market their product....


      The government of canada itself is on the American stock exchange... a corporation governed by
      Corporate law.

    3. Although; it doesn’t apply to Canada, as Canada is a corporation and not a country/nation, and this is what the old Ottawa politicians do not wish to be expose. Therefore Quebec is a country/nation, and not a corporation. Likewise are our Indigenous people are a nation as defined in the dictionary. As in the definition 6. the public at large as represented by a jury. Fiction persons by “CORPORATE CANADA” is represented by appointed judges that must follow the chain of command from the Prime Minister acting as Captain, down to the lowest mate.


  3. These are interesting posts. I wonder what you think of the organisational model of Le Devoir. In Québec, the vast majority (all?) local dailies align with one corporate empire or the other (Québécor is the biggest player), but Le Devoir is an exception - often at the price of having relatively little genuine "news" content (as Jacques Parizeau used to say - he read the Globe and Mail to see what was happening and Le Devoir to see what people thought about it). It makes for a space for public debate, at a relatively high level of analysis, but it typically means depending on AFP, Reuters and the rest for much of the news themselves... Anyway, I just wonder how it would fit in your general assessment of the industry.

    1. In my opinion, corporate media empires are terrible things, but a community losing its print media is even worse. I certainly hope Le Devoir survives, but it will be difficult. Top people there and ad sales people probably are paid less than at LaPresse, but even the amounts at LeDevoir will be very hard to cover of it becomes mostly an internet paper. I know Le Devoir doesn't get a lot of ads to begin with, but it requires overhead and staff to get them and those ads are bringing in money only one day a week. I am not worried about any corporate influence at Le Devoir, but I dfetest the influence of big business at large media.

  4. If you want a real free press, it has to be subsidized. Traditional "journalism" should be discouraged, we do not need dorks who think they are in charge of The Truth. But we need investigators and they require resources to work with.

    And the key is, community based, not ideologically based. In other words, news, not propaganda. Most so called journalists have an awful lot of trouble understanding the difference.

    1. English Canadians, including journalists, are not at all well informed when it comes to political education. They have a very limited view and understanding of things. Our education system is a disaster from beginning to end. They're not skeptical in any way.

    2. I agree tim Rourke. ..nick the reason the education system is a disaster and journalists have very little knowledge of political affairs is twofold. One it's government funded and two politics never tells the truth because government runs the media and the country.

      Journalists also need to know that the citizens are just as ignorant of the truth because television and newspapers report hair styles in election campaigns instead of saying , in trudeau case, he's going to finish dad's work on nafta with this new agreement that now violates so many public interests and gives more power to large corporations.

      a real current national public affairs newspaper, that's the information I as a member of the public need in my sleepy little town so that new and old generations of voters can actually run an election on what's important and truthful. Not another government and private company controlled media outlet.

      And in today's political environment it should be a duty to the profession of journalism to investigate the nitty gritty of canadas dirty politics.

      Not as a job, but a right to truth in knowledge for future generations.

      Therefore to beat the system one needs independent funding from private sources to create a publication that lobbyists and the advertising dollar or market can't control...

      A true journalistic investigation would see. 1972 pierre trudeau signs nafta....2012...his prodigal son with the nice hair is about to sign a deal with canada and other countries that will change democracy and canada in years to come....

  5. Thank you very much for your articles, Nick. In my view, crisis doesn't even begin to describe the situation. News coverage in Ottawa has sunk to new lows (a recent Sun front page headline was all about politicians' tattoos, for Pete's sake!). I will do my best to pass along your article, and I appreciate all the previous comments. Here's another suggestion: has any thought been given to having the recently laid-off journalists set up a worker-owned media co-operative? They know how to do their work, and if some people with business smarts guided them through the process, perhaps that could serve as a base for local, national and even international coverage. Not being in journalistic circles, I do not know if such an idea had been floated yet. Just a suggestion. Thanks once again for the article, and please keep fighting the good fight.


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