National Column: PM salutes media, but hasn’t acted

by John Honderich

This being National Newspaper Week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to send out a tweet extolling the value of newspapers to our democracy.

“In an ever-changing world with an ever-changing media landscape, our local newspapers play a vital role in protecting our democracy,” he wrote. “We salute the papers – big and small – working to keep us informed.”

It is reassuring to know the role of Canadian newspapers is appreciated. For many, myself included, the feeling is deeply inbred that our democracy is only as strong as the strength and vitality of our newspapers.

Yet in the past decade, at least 137 community and local newspapers have folded or ceased publication.

This, in turn, has led to the creation of “news deserts,” where some communities are left with no news outlet at all. Many others are struggling desperately to stay afloat.

To deal with this, the Trudeau government in its February budget committed to spend $50 million to support local journalism.

It also promised new charitable models to aid “professional, non-profit journalism.” And third, it promised to re-examine its advertising budget, which is almost exclusively digital, virtually excluding all print newspapers.

One should not forget Ottawa had commissioned two studies on the plight of the industry, both of which came out with a long list of recommendations. The vast majority of these were rejected.

So what has happened since?

A little talk, but absolutely no definitive action.

Take the $50 million to be spent over five years. The plan was for the funds to go to “independent, non-governmental organizations” to support journalism in under-served communities.

But it seems the government can’t decide who that would be. One or two exploratory talks have been held, but there has yet to be even a request for proposals. Maybe next year, we are told.

On the new philanthropic models, a committee was struck to study the issue. When might something be forthcoming? Probably next year.

The advertising issue is the most frustrating. Last year Ottawa spent about $36 million on advertising, virtually all of it dedicated to digital advertising.

Since about three-quarters of all digital advertising is owned by either Google or Facebook, that means millions of Canadian taxpayer dollars are going straight to the two American tech giants.

Whatís worse, a House of Commons committee studying the issue last year concluded that Ottawa’s strategy had resulted in a “misalignment” of the reality that many Canadians still rely on traditional media. It urged more spending be directed to “TV, radio and print media.”

Again, there’s been talk.

But last month’s federal cannabis campaign had absolutely no print media.

We are now told this issue has been placed on the mandate letter of the new heritage minister.

Put together, there has been a lot of talk and no action.

You can also throw in the copyright issue where newspapers have long argued they should receive a licensing fee when articles are posted or distributed by aggregators (read Facebook and Google).

The European Community passed a law doing precisely this last week. And Australia and the United Kingdom are considering the same.

In Canada, it is not even on any agenda.

Meanwhile, media companies, including Torstar, continue with new strategies to compete in this new digital environment. Many are moving to paywalls, which could well benefit from special tax treatment from Ottawa.

So, prime minister, we appreciate your kind sentiments.

But, on balance, I think weíd prefer some real action on these files.

And in case you missed it, Iíve listed below all those papers that have disappeared.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services