Opinion

There is reason to be hopeful about the future of news. Yes, really

Demand for good journalism isn't dead. Just the failed advertising business model that long funded it. And consumer demand will drive the change.

Demand for good journalism isn't dead. Just the failed advertising business model that long funded it

There is no reason to think that the market for digital news subscriptions won't mature here in the same way they have in other countries. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press )

Here's a perspective you don't hear often: I am more hopeful about the future of journalism today, on World News Day 2018, than I have been at any other point in my 15 years as a journalist.

Yes, we are in a tough and ugly place in many ways. We've lost 10,000 journalism jobs across Canada over the course of five years. Nearly 250 news outlets in 180 communities have closed in a decade.

That matters. Research from the Knight Foundation shows that civic engagement is closely tied to local news. People who don't regularly consume local news are less likely to volunteer or vote. And what keeps me up at night is that people who live in communities without local news are less likely to trust their neighbours.

In other words: journalism is an important part of the social fabric that unites our communities.

Meantime, while newspapers shuttered across the country, we allowed technology innovation to advance unfettered (in fact, we subsidized it). That seemed like good policy — it created a lot of jobs and wealth. But from our vantage point today, on the heels of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, it seems clear that technology advanced faster than our culture's ability to keep up.

So where's the hope part?

Instead of chasing eyeballs to sell to advertisers, news organizations will succeed by earning the trust of audiences. (David Donnelly/CBC)
   

Well, what the doom and gloom headlines about journalist layoffs and fake news disguise is that there is a large and growing demand for trustworthy journalism that reflects the true diversity of our country. Eight in ten Canadians actively follow the news. And 75 per cent say that journalism is necessary to "keep the powerful honest." Trust in journalism is generally higher here than in other countries.

Demand for good journalism isn't dead. Just the failed advertising business model that long funded it.

This moment holds the right conditions for transforming the news industry for community impact. Because where there is genuine demand, there is opportunity.

One positive effect of President Donald Trump's election in the U.S. is that it led to broad public recognition that journalism matters. And if we want to have news we can trust, we are going to have to pay for it.

Paying for online services

At the same time, our consumption habits online have changed. For a while it seemed like we would forever expect everything we consume online to be free, but services like Spotify and Netflix that disrupted the music and television industries have changed that. We are now increasingly willing to pay for content that we value.

These factors have led to record-breaking growth in news subscriptions. The New York Times now generates 60 per cent of its revenue from its audience, a significant turnaround from advertising reliance just a few short years ago.

Industry observers such as the Public Policy Forum, which authored a report on the state of public interest news for the Heritage Committee last year, have raised questions about why Canadians appear to pay less for news than do people in other countries. They point to data, now a couple of years old, that show that Canadians who do pay for digital news services pay less than half of what Americans pay, and only a third of what the British spend annually. So is there something uniquely Canadian about not paying for news?

Delaying the digital disruption 

Other observers, including my colleagues at The Discourse, who are watching the start-up media space carefully see something different. The digital disruption of the news industry is delayed here in Canada, in part because of the extreme consolidation of the ownership of newspapers in Canada, which enabled giants Torstar and Postmedia to take actions like centralizing costs and swapping and closing local newspapers in an apparent effort to delay the inevitable.

Meantime, the federal government continues to subsidize the news industry in small, and also more significant ways to give Canadian content producers an edge over American competitors for the domestic market. But with 70 per cent of advertising revenue now going to Facebook and Google alone, the disruption is fully here.

There is no reason to think that the market for digital news subscriptions won't mature here in the same way they have in other countries where both new and old outlets have succeeded by focusing on serving audiences. 

That's already starting to happen. The Globe and Mail is seeing strong growth in digital subscriptions by doubling down on a product that its core audience values enough to pay for. The most hyped digital media startup in the U.S. is The Athletic, which just raised significant capital because of its fast-growing business selling premium sports coverage to people who can no longer find it in their newspaper. They are also growing aggressively in Canada. The New York Times is likewise investing in Canada, with 27 per cent of its international subscribers being Canadian.

This is good news for news consumers. Because it means that there are opportunities for new and old media outlets to fill the gap. And instead of chasing eyeballs to sell to advertisers, they will succeed by earning the trust of audiences.

We don't need to wait for someone else to save journalism for us. Canadian audiences will drive the future of Canadian media, so that journalism can reassume its critical role contributing to the social fabric that unites us.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Millar is the founder and CEO of The Discourse, an international award-winning digital news company that provides investigative and data journalism about issues that matter to Canadians.

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